August 8, 2006

Public Holds Conflicting Views of Press Reports about Government Monitoring Bank Records

Summary of Findings

The public is of two minds about news reports that the government has been secretly examining the bank records of American citizens who may have ties to terrorist groups. By a margin of 50%-34%, Americans think that news organizations have hurt rather than helped the interests of the American people with these reports. However, an even larger 65%-28% majority believes that these news accounts told citizens something that they should know about.

Partisanship is strongly related to how people think about these questions. Democrats are almost unanimous (82%) in believing that the public needed to know about the government’s bank monitoring program. Republicans are evenly divided on this question — 45% say it was something the public should know about, 47% say the public did not need to know.

By the same token, while nearly seven in ten Republicans (69%) believe the press reports have hurt the interests of the American people, relatively few Democrats agree (38%). Instead, a 46% plurality of Democrats regards the press reporting as beneficial to the public’s interest.

The findings are from a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press conducted July 6-19 among 2,003 adults nationwide. In the survey, half of respondents were asked if the reporting had helped or hurt the interests of the American people, while the other half were asked if this was something people should know about or didn’t need to know about.

In addition, all respondents were asked how much they had heard about reports on the government program to examine bank records. About one-in-four (24%) have heard a lot, a similar number (29%) have heard nothing at all, with the rest saying they have heard “some” about it. Among Democrats and independents, hearing more about the story did not change their views about whether or not coverage of the story was appropriate. But the more Republicans have heard about news coverage of the government program, the more likely they are to say the reporting was damaging and unnecessary. Fully 82% of Republicans who heard a lot about the story say the interests of the American people were hurt by the reporting, and 57% say it was something the people didn’t need to know about.

Overall, however, the public’s reaction to this most recent case of conflict between press freedom and government secrecy is not unusual. Wide majorities have consistently supported a critical and independent press in previous Pew Research Center surveys — saying that press criticism of political leaders does more to prevent problems from arising than impede government performance. But at the same time, Americans also recognize the need for government secrecy, particularly when it relates to national security.

At no time was this more apparent than in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. A November, 2001 Pew Research Center survey found a 53% to 39% majority favoring the government’s right to censor news it believes might threaten national security over the media’s right to report what it sees as stories of national interest. But by a similar margin (52% to 40%) these same respondents felt that journalists should always dig hard to get all the information they can for their reports rather than trust government and military officials if they refuse to release information.

Americans age 65 and older are the most concerned about the potential harm caused by press revelations of the government’s program. By nearly three-to-one (58% to 20%) older Americans believe the reporting hurt, not helped, America’s interests. They are also the most likely to say that this was information that the American people did not need to know about.