September 13, 2009

Press Accuracy Rating Hits Two Decade Low

Public Evaluations of the News Media: 1985-2009

Overview

The public’s assessment of the accuracy of news stories is now at its lowest level in more than two decades of Pew Research surveys, and Americans’ views of media bias and independence now match previous lows.

Just 29% of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight, while 63% say that news stories are often inaccurate. In the initial survey in this series about the news media’s performance in 1985, 55% said news stories were accurate while 34% said they were inaccurate. That percentage had fallen sharply by the late 1990s and has remained low over the last decade.

Similarly, only about a quarter (26%) now say that news organizations are careful that their reporting is not politically biased, compared with 60% who say news organizations are politically biased. And the percentages saying that news organizations are independent of powerful people and organizations (20%) or are willing to admit their mistakes (21%) now also match all-time lows.

Republicans continue to be highly critical of the news media in nearly all respects. However, much of the growth in negative attitudes toward the news media over the last two years is driven by increasingly unfavorable evaluations by Democrats. On several measures, Democratic criticism of the news media has grown by double-digits since 2007. Today, most Democrats (59%) say that the reports of news organizations are often inaccurate; just 43% said this two years ago. Democrats are also now more likely than they were in 2007 to identify favoritism in the media: Two-thirds (67%) say the press tends to favor one side rather than to treat all sides fairly, up from 54%. And while just a third of Democrats (33%) say news organizations are “too critical of America,” that reflects a 10-point increase since 2007.

The partisan gaps in several of these opinions, which had widened considerably over the past decade, have narrowed. There are some notable exceptions to these trends, however, as Republicans increasingly see news organizations as influenced by powerful people and organizations and not professional, while Democrats’ views have changed little.

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press’ biennial media attitudes survey, conducted July 22-26 among 1,506 adults reached on landlines and cell phones, finds that even as the party gaps in several criticisms of the press have lessened over the past few years, views of many individual media sources are deeply divided along party lines.

Democrats hold considerably more positive views than Republicans of CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times and the news operations of the broadcast networks, and their views of National Public Radio are somewhat more favorable than those of Republicans. By contrast, views of Fox News — and to a lesser extent The Wall Street Journal — are more positive among Republicans than Democrats.

Partisan differences in views of Fox News have increased substantially since 2007. Today, a large majority of Republicans view Fox News positively (72%), compared with just 43% of Democrats. In 2007, 73% of Republicans and 61% of Democrats viewed Fox News favorably. Three-quarters (75%) of Democrats assess CNN favorably, while just 44% of Republicans do so, which is little changed from two years ago. MSNBC also rates substantially higher among Democrats (60%) than among Republicans (34%).

But the starkest partisan division is seen in assessments of The New York Times. Although most Americans are not familiar enough with the Times to express an opinion, Republicans view The New York Times negatively by a margin of nearly two-to-one (31% to 16%), while Democrats view it positively by an almost five-to-one margin (39% to 8%). More independents rate the Times favorably (29%) than unfavorably (18%).

More favorable Republican ratings are reserved for The Wall Street Journal. Within the GOP, the balance of favorable to unfavorable assessments of the Journal is second only to that for Fox News. Democratic and independent assessments of The Wall Street Journal are also, on balance, positive. And the balance of opinion regarding National Public Radio is favorable across the board; however, Democratic opinions of NPR are somewhat more positive than those of Republicans (50% favorable vs. 39%).

The poll finds that television remains the dominant news source for the public, with 71% saying they get most of their national and international news from television. More than four-in-ten (42%) say they get most of their news on these subjects from the internet, compared with 33% who cite newspapers. Last December, for the first time in a Pew Research Center survey, more people said they got most of their national and international news from the internet than said newspapers were their main source.

However, online news lags behind newspapers as a source for news about local issues. As with national and international news, most people (64%) cite television as their main source for local news. Yet despite declines in newspaper readership over the last several years, about four-in-ten people (41%) turn to newspapers for news about issues and events in their local area, more than twice the number that turn to the internet for local news (17%).

The public’s impressions of which news organizations do the most to uncover local news stories largely mirror the top sources for local news. More than four-in-ten (44%) say that local television stations do the most to uncover and report on important local issues, while a quarter (25%) identify local newspapers as the primary sources of local news reporting. Far fewer people identify local independent online organizations (11%) or radio stations (10%) as responsible for uncovering most local news stories. Even among those who get most of their local news from newspapers, about as many say most original local reporting is done by television stations (41%) as by newspapers (38%).

Long-Term Views of Press Performance

The public has long been critical of the press in several areas: in 1985, majorities said that news organizations tried to cover up mistakes, tended to favor one side on political and social issues and were influenced by the powerful.

However, in that initial survey on press performance, conducted by the Times-Mirror Center, most people (55%) said that news organizations “get the facts straight,” while 34% said stories were often inaccurate.

Opinions about the accuracy of news stories fluctuated over the next decade, but by the late 1990s majorities said that news stories are often inaccurate. That has been the case for the past decade as well, with the exception of a brief period in fall 2001, when coverage of 9/11 and terrorism boosted the press’s positive ratings. In the current survey, 63% say news stories are often inaccurate.

Similarly, the proportion saying news organizations “try to cover up their mistakes” has reached a high of 70%, up from 63% two years ago. In 1985, a smaller majority (55%) said news organizations tried to cover up their mistakes. And while most Americans (59%) see news organizations as “highly professional,” the proportion expressing this view also has slipped since 2007 (66%). In 1985, 72% said news organizations were highly professional.

The pattern is the sa
me regarding public attitudes about whether the press is biased, deals with all sides fairly, and is independent.

In 1985, fewer than half (45%) said news organizations were politically biased, while 36% said they were careful to avoid bias. Today, by greater than two-to-one (60% to 26%), more say the press is biased.

Nearly three-quarters (74%) say news organizations tend to favor one side in dealing with political and social issues, while just 18% say they deal fairly with all sides. The proportion saying the press favors one side has risen eight points since 2007 (from 66%). In 1985, a much smaller majority (53%) said the press favored one side.

There has been a comparable shift in views of the press’s independence. Nearly three-quarters (74%) now say news organizations are influenced by powerful people and organizations compared with 20% who say they are pretty independent. In 1985, by a far smaller margin, more said that news organizations were influenced by the powerful than said they were pretty independent (53% to 37%).

Notably, the balance of opinion about whether news organizations are liberal or conservative has changed little since 1985. At that time, about twice as many said the press was liberal than conservative (40% vs. 19%). That continues to be the case today (50% vs. 22%), although somewhat more people offer an opinion about this issue than did so then.

Partisan Press Evaluations

In 1985, there were at most modest differences between Republicans and Democrats in views of press bias, fairness, the accuracy of news stories and whether powerful people and institutions exert too much influence over news organizations.

By the late 1990s, more Republicans than Democrats said the press was politically biased and tended to favor one side in dealing with political and social issues. Yet on basic issues relating to press professionalism and the accuracy of news stories, there continued to be no significant partisan differences.

During George W. Bush’s presidency, the partisan gap over most views of press performance increased markedly. In 2005, the proportion of Republicans saying news stories are often inaccurate reached a high of 68%: just 47% of Democrats agreed. Roughly a third of Republicans (34%) said news organizations were “not professional,” compared with 20% of Democrats.

But the most striking change during the Bush years came in opinions about whether news organizations “stand up for America” or are “too critical of America.” The proportion of Republicans saying the press is too critical of America jumped from 47% in 2003 to 67% in 2005; at the same time, the partisan gap in views on this issue nearly tripled – from 15 points to 43 points.

In the current survey, opinions about whether the press is too critical of America – as well as whether its stories are inaccurate and whether it tends to favor one side on political issues – have become less partisan as Democratic criticisms of news organizations have increased.

At the same time, however, the partisan gap has widened since 2007 in opinions about whether news organizations are not professional (from eight to 21 points) and are often influenced by powerful people and organizations (from 10 points to 17 points). In both cases, Republicans express more negative views of news organizations than at any point in the 24-year history of the survey; 39% say news organizations are not professional while 83% say they are often influenced by the powerful.

Fox Viewers More Critical

Attitudes about the press also differ by where people get their news. The Fox News audience, which includes a larger share of Republicans than do the audiences for other news outlets, is far more critical of the press’s performance.

Where Fox News viewers particularly stand out is in their low regard for the patriotism and morals of news organizations. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) of those who say they get most national and international news from Fox News say news organizations are too critical of America. By contrast, smaller percentages of those who rely on the internet (44%), newspapers (41%), CNN (39%) or the broadcast networks (36%) express this view. In addition, Fox News viewers are the only audience in which a majority (51%) says news organizations are immoral rather than moral.

Yet those who go online for national and international news also give the press relatively low ratings. Notably, 80% of the online news audience says that news stories are often inaccurate, which is only slightly less than the percentage of Fox News viewers (86%) and greater than the proportions of other news audiences expressing this view. In addition, 39% of those who say their main source of news is the internet say news organizations are declining in influence; that compares with roughly a third of Fox News and CNN viewers and smaller proportions of those who rely on network news and newspapers.

Views of Obama Coverage

About six-in-ten Americans (62%) say that news organizations are being fair to the Obama administration, while 23% say media coverage has been unfair. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans (73%) say coverage of the administration has been fair, compared with 54% of Democrats and 67% of independents.

Historically, members of the party controlling the White House have been less likely to see coverage of the administration as fair. In November 2005, for example, 50% of the public said that coverage of George W. Bush’s administration was fair. While about two-thirds of Democrats (68%) viewed the coverage as fair, just a quarter of Republicans (25%) agreed.

In February 1998, shortly after the initial allegations that President Clinton had had a sexual relationship with a White House intern, the public was divided in its views of coverage of Bill Clinton’s administration; 49% said it was fair, while 44% said it was unfair. Only about a third of Democrats (34%) thought coverage of the administration had been fair, compared with 66% of Republicans and 54% of independents.

At this point, public perceptions of coverage of the new Obama administration are similar to views in August of Bill Clinton’s first term. At that time, 66% said coverage of the new administration had been fair, while 21% said they saw it as unfair. Among partisans, 77% of Republicans said coverage was fair, compared with 61% of Democrats and 66% of independents.

But the public does see the media growing increasingly critical of the Obama administration, according to a separate measure in the Pew Research Center’s News Interest Index survey. In mid-August, a plurality of Americans (43%) said press coverage of Obama had been fair, but that figure had declined by 10 points since early June, and was down from 64% in January as Obama took office. The proportion saying that coverage of Obama had become too critical increased since early June – from 16% to 23%; the proportion of Democrats who said coverage of Obama was too critical nearly doubled during this period (from 22% in June to 40% in August). There was virtually no change in the percentage who said coverage of Obama had not been critical enough.

Most Support Watchdog Press

There is a similar pattern of partisanship in opinions about whether criticism of political leaders by news organizations keeps leaders from doing things that should not be done, or whether it keeps leaders from doing their job. For more than two decades, majorities have expressed the view that a critical press keeps leaders from doing things that should not be done – but the views of Republicans and Democrats shift depending on which party controls the White House.

Currently, 62% say that criticism of political leaders is worthwhile because it keeps those leaders from doing things that should not be done, while 22% say such criticism keeps leaders from doing their jobs. Two years ago, 58% said that press criticism did more good than harm.

In the new survey, 65% of Republicans believe that criticism does more good than harm, compared with 55% of Democrats and 66% of independents. That stands in stark contrast to the way that Republicans viewed the press’s watchdog role when George W. Bush was in the White House. Two years ago, for example, just 44% of Republicans said that press criticism of political leaders did more good than harm; that compared with 60% of independents and 71% of Democrats.

The same pattern has played out since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. At that point – and during the presidency of George H.W. Bush – Democrats were more supportive than Republicans of the role of a watchdog press. But when Bill Clinton came into office, partisan opinions shifted. The balance shifted back again after George W. Bush took office and have now returned to a balance similar to that seen during the Clinton presidency.

Favorability of Traditional News Sources

While the public has become much more critical of the way news organizations do their jobs, most Americans continue to give favorable ratings to traditional news sources – local TV news, daily newspapers and network television news.

Favorable opinions of all three have declined since 1985; nonetheless, majorities continue to express favorable opinions of local TV news (73%), the daily newspaper they are most familiar with (65%), and network TV news (64%).

Views of local TV news continue to be less partisan than opinions of other leading news sources. As was the case in 1985, there is very little difference between the views of Republicans (79% favorable) and Democrats (77%); somewhat fewer independents (67%) rate local TV news favorably.

Currently, 65% say they have a favorable impression of the daily newspaper they are most familiar with. Positive opinions of daily papers have decreased by 16 points since 1985, with nearly all the decline (14 points) coming in the past decade. However, unfavorable opinions of newspapers have risen only slightly since 1999 – from 17% to 20%. Since then, the proportion saying they are unable to rate daily newspapers has increased from 4% to 15%.

Over the past two decades, partisanship has become a much greater factor in favorable ratings of network TV news than for local TV news or daily newspapers. In 1985, 87% of Democrats, 85% of Republicans and 81% of independents said they had a favorable impression of network TV news. Since then, favorable opinions among Republicans have fallen by 30 points (to 55%); the decline has been nearly as large among independents (27 points). But nearly as many Democrats currently express positive views of network TV news (81%) as did so in 1985 (87%).

Main Sources of National, Local News

The vast majority of Americans (71%) continue to cite television as their source for most national and international news. This is little changed from recent years; in December 2008, 70% said they got most news from television.

More than four-in-ten (42%) say they get most national and international news from the internet, which also is about the same as in December 2008 (40%) but much higher than in September 2007 (24%). As was the case last December, somewhat fewer (33%) get most of their news from newspapers than from the internet.

When it comes to local news, television also is where most of the public turns: 64% say they get most of their news about issues and events in their area from television, compared with 41% who say they get most local news from newspapers. And while 42% of Americans rely on the internet for national and international news, fewer than half as many (17%) say the internet is their main source of local news. Americans are about equally likely to say radio is their main source for national and international news (21%) and local news (18%).

While 70% of those younger than 30 say they get most of their national and international news from television, nearly as many (64%) point to the internet. Among those ages 30 to 49 a similar pattern is evident; 62% get most national and international news from television, while 54% cite the internet.

For Americans 50 and older, television is the dominant news source. Yet after television, the internet rivals newspapers for those ages 50 to 64 (37% newspapers vs. 29% internet). Those 65 and older are the only age group in which substantially more people cite newspapers (55%) than the internet (10%).

Television is the main local news source for all age groups; but in contrast to national and international news, newspapers are mentioned more frequently than the internet. Even among those younger than 30, substantially more say they get most local news from newspapers (39%) than from the internet (21%). In addition for all age groups except those 65 and older, roughly equal proportions cite radio and the internet as a main source for local news.

Partisanship and Cable Sources

Four-in-ten (40%) Americans cite a major cable news outlet (CNN, Fox News and MSNBC) as their main source for news about national and international affairs. As in the past, comparable percentages say they rely on CNN (22%) and Fox News (19%) while fewer (6%) say they get most of their news from MSNBC.

There has been a gradual widening in the partisan differences in the viewership of both Fox News and CNN in recent years. More than three times as many Republicans (34%) as Democrats (10%) say they get most of their national and international news from Fox. By comparison, Democrats are more than twice as likely than Republicans to cite CNN (29% vs. 13%). A similar pattern is evident for MSNBC, with more Democrats (9%) than Republicans (3%) citing it as a main news source.

Shutdown of News Outlets Seen as Important Loss

Though the public is increasingly critical of news media organizations, most people think it would be an important loss if major news sources shut down.

More than eight-in-ten Americans (82%) say that if all local television news programs went off the air – and shut down their web sites– it would be an important loss. About three-quarters say the same about the network evening news (on ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS), cable news networks (like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC) and local newspapers in their area. Somewhat fewer people (68%) say that it would be a major loss if large national newspapers (like USA Today, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal) were to stop publishing and go offline.

Although fewer young people cite television and newspapers as their main news source than do those 60 and older, young people are actually more likely to say it would be an important loss if national news sources such as network TV evening news (83% 18-29 year olds vs. 74% 60 and older), cable news (82
% vs. 70%) and large national newspapers (78% vs. 60%) shut down. And while more Republicans than Democrats express critical views of the performance of news organizations, Republicans are about as likely as Democrats to say the loss of major news outlets would be important. The only exception is network evening news; even in this case, 69% of Republicans say the shutdown of network evening news would be an important loss, compared with 85% of Democrats.

Cite this publication: “Press Accuracy Rating Hits Two Decade Low.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (September 13, 2009) http://www.people-press.org/2009/09/13/press-accuracy-rating-hits-two-decade-low/, accessed on July 22, 2014.