June 26, 2005

Public More Critical of Press, But Goodwill Persists

Commentary: The Public’s Complicated Views of Press Point to Solutions

Tom Rosenstiel, Director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism
Bill Kovach, Chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists

After another mean season for the press ­ with scandals involving inaccuracies and plagiarism ­ what should we make of the latest survey data about the news media?

By many measures, the public’s view of the news media is as low as it has ever been.

Yet we think it would be a mistake to dismiss the data as proof of just a deepening of the news media’s so-called “credibility crisis.”

The public’s view of journalism is more complex than simple disapproval ­ and in many ways more rational.

Perhaps more significant, we think the data point to ways journalism can restore its bond with the citizenry it purports to serve.

As Americans continue to acquire news in new ways, there remains continued, even stubborn, support for the values of an independent press, a watchdog press, the press as agenda-setter, and even in the traditional journalism brands.

The public is not rejecting the principles underlying traditional journalism. Rather, it suspects journalists are not living up to those principles.

The public’s nuanced view suggests the news media should renew, not abandon, its traditional values, but it must also more aggressive about experimentation and innovation. It should respect the voice of the public, but not surrender its role of trying to put the news in some order of importance. And the news media should continue with the fledgling movement we see in journalism toward greater transparency.

These hints are buried under a blanket of public disapproval. In many ways, the general view of journalism has not been so dour since before Sept. 11, and at the peak of the Clinton impeachment.

The percentage of people who have a favorable view of the press is at new lows for local newspapers, for major national newspapers, for local TV news, and for cable news.

The percentage who thinks the press deals fairly with all sides is also at a new low, as is the similar metric that the press is independent. More people than ever believe the press plays favorites and is influenced by the power establishment.

Those who believe the press helps democracy is down to levels not seen since before 9/11, while the percentage saying it hurts democracy is up. The number who see the press as highly professional, as standing up for America, as caring about the job they do, also are all down again.

More people than ever also think press criticism of the military weakens the country’s defenses.

These are powerful signs of disappointment, and the general downward trend, interrupted somewhat shortly after the terrorist attacks of 2001, seems to be gaining again.

What explains these declines?

In part, of course, they might be a response to the widespread reports of inaccuracies and plagiarism in the press of late, from Newsweek and CBS News, to a host of smaller cases involving a nationally known sports columnist, a Pentagon correspondent at USA Today, and several other cases elsewhere. But the percentage of people who think the press is inaccurate has not changed in light of these revelations. Either Americans think these scandals only reinforce what they already suspected, or perhaps they are struck by how aggressively the press has exposed the problems.

There is evidence instead that the new declines in confidence reflect a sense that the press is not aggressive enough in its coverage of major issues. There may be disappointment among some Americans over the failure of the press to probe Bush administration claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, to explore major issues such as rising health care costs, or get to the bottom of issues like Social Security. Indeed, the data show a growing number of Americans now feel that press is insufficiently skeptical of the administration and powerful institutions generally.

The data also suggest another factor could be the increasingly partisan nature of the arguments over the press. The criticism from conservatives that the press is biased seems to be cutting two ways. While more conservatives see a liberal bias, the percentage of Americans who reject that critique and believe the press reflects an establishment viewpoint or is conservative is growing as well.

In addition, it would be hard to dismiss the idea that some resent the level of coverage of tabloid stories such as Michael Jackson’s child molestation trial, or the dating habits of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, or the Scott Peterson murder trial.

Even the criticisms need to be kept in context, however. More than seven-in-ten Americans still have generally favorable view of most sectors of the news media. And the more people know about a particular news outlet, the more they tend to approve of it.

So, what should journalists do?

One hint may lie in some new questions asked here. The survey data crystallize a “disconnect” between how journalists see what they do and how the public sees it. Do journalists pick stories to inform people or to grab an audience? Three-quarters of Americans think they do so to grab an audience. People suspect journalists make the choices they do to sensationalize and make money. And internet users are especially cynical about press motives.

If, as most journalists would argue, the public is wrong in these assessments, greater transparency about their decision-making could make a difference. If, for example, journalists routinely included explanations of why they thought a story was important, that could begin to help educate the public about these decisions and disabuse them of doubts about journalists’ motives. If the explanation is not persuasive, that would be a sign to journalists they should reconsider their decisions about how to play the story.

If the public is correct, and news decisions are motivated by economic need rather than public interest, there is a lesson for journalists there as well. Sensationalizing the news, the data suggest, is a short-sighted strategy that will erode brand, especially online.

News companies should also look at other lessons here about shifting consumer behavior online. As we live in an on-demand culture, the next generation of consumers wants news in a way that fits their lifestyle. The number of people who get news online everyday is up markedly from even a year ago and is now at a new high. Some are people who earlier got news online at least once a week, but some are people who even a year ago rarely went online for news. A record number of Americans, and a solid majority of web users, now report getting news online at least once a week. And all of this is true of younger audiences, and increasingly, older audiences as well.

In other words, the internet is not merely a place to post yesterday’s newspaper or TV stories. It is more than a means to hook people into going to the “primary” or older medium.

The web, it is increasingly clear, is becoming journalism’s future, with its own strengths and capabilities. The journalism of the 21st century should not be TV stories or newspaper stories posted online, but online multi-media content designed to exploit the unique potential of a new medium. Stories need to be written differently. The depth, interactivity, and the ability to search the web need to be explored.

Perhaps stories should be written for the web first, with its more varied potential, and then adapted to the more limited capability of older media.

In time, we may need to see TV and print as a way to attract audiences to the new core business ­ the internet. Those companies that fail to do this will lose out.

There is a similarly complicated message in the numbers about blogs, those personal web logs that advocates see as the core of a new citizen-based media and that doubters decry as the rise of yet a new form of the shout culture. A majority of online news consumers now report that they visit blogs or online news columns. Yet nearly half of all Americans still have a scant notion of what blogs are, and less than a third recognize them as mostly a place for opinion and ideas.

Since consumer expectations about blogs are still being shaped, in other words, the blogosphere is nowhere near fully formed. This is an arena where traditional media still have a significant opportunity to distinguish themselves. And commerce, or the demand of making a profit online, is likely to change the nature of blogs in time more than its proponents expect. Consider that in the late 1920s, radio was still predicted to be largely a medium for education and public safety.

We think the key to sorting through the public’s view of the press is the residual support for some of the key elements and principles that underlie what traditional journalism is all about.

Even though people like the on-demand nature of the web, the vast majority still responds to the agenda-setting influence of editors and reporters signaling to them what are the most important stories of the day. It is evident in the high percentage of people who say they learn things “accidentally” on the web ­ going online for one reason and then discovering news there they weren’t looking for.

Americans’ complicated view of confidential sourcing is similarly significant. A slight majority worry that anonymous sourcing invites the risk of sources being unaccountable, but an even larger majority believes the press should sometimes rely on such sources if there is no other way to get the information. In other words, the public would prefer that the press not use anonymity, but accepts the practice under special circumstances.

Support for the watchdog role of the press is similarly implied in the numbers about press skepticism. There has been a sizable jump in the percentage who would like to see the press scrutinizing the administration more closely, and a steady rise in the number who feels the press is manipulated by powerful interests.

Perhaps more important, the public still wants an independent rather than a partisan press model. Once again, two-thirds of Americans would prefer a “neutral” press over one that is “pro-American.” Don’t be misled by the inflated notion that the ratings of Fox News Channel suggest something to the contrary.

The ratings data about where people are going online reinforce this. The traditional news brands with their traditional news values dominate. Blogs and alternative forms of information and debate are growing. But they are not replacing traditional news. They are growing up alongside the old journalism of verification, with its emphasis on substantiating facts, on independence, on scrutiny of those in power. People increasingly want both. And the evidence suggests the audience is not splintering over this. The same consumer who visits blogs also visits traditional news sites, but for different reasons.

To us, then, the public is not two-faced or split in its view of the press, or suffering from what social scientists would call “cognitive dissonance.”

The numbers point in a clearer direction. The news industry, in the public’s view, should renew its conviction in the core principles of American journalism ­ in independence, skepticism, shoe leather, and substantiation. But the public also is saying, take me with you. The growing movement toward making journalism more transparent, toward bringing the news audiences in as partners in the process rather than treating them as passive onlookers, is the path to the future.

By more experimentation in new delivery systems, new delivery styles, new voices, even in blogging and becoming a forum for citizen voices, traditional news organizations can make journalism a more open dialogue.