Internet News Audience Highly Critical of News Organizations

Internet News Audience Highly Critical of News Organization

Views of Press Values and Performance: 1985-2007

Released: August 9, 2007

Summary of Findings

Figure

The
American public continues to fault news organizations for a number of
perceived failures, with solid majorities criticizing them for
political bias, inaccuracy and failing to acknowledge mistakes. But
some of the harshest indictments of the press now come from the growing
segment that relies on the internet as its main source for national and
international news.

The internet news audience – roughly a quarter of all Americans –
tends to be younger and better educated than the public as a whole.
People who rely on the internet as their main news source express
relatively unfavorable opinions of mainstream news sources and are
among the most critical of press performance. As many as 38% of those
who rely mostly on the internet for news say they have an unfavorable
opinion of cable news networks such as CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC,
compared with 25% of the public overall, and just 17% of television
news viewers.

The internet news audience is particularly likely to criticize news
organizations for their lack of empathy, their failure to "stand up for
America," and political bias. Roughly two-thirds (68%) of those who get
most of their news from the internet say that news organizations do not
care about the people they report on, and 53% believe that news
organizations are too critical of America. By comparison, smaller
percentages of the general public fault the press for not caring about
people they report on (53%), and being too critical of America (43%).

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the
People & the Press, conducted July 25-29 among 1,503 adults, finds
a continuing pattern of deep partisan differences in public views of
news organizations and their performance. Far more than twice as many
Republicans as Democrats say news organizations are too critical of
America (63% vs. 23%), and there is virtually no measure of press
values or performance on which there is not a substantial gap in the
views of partisans.

More broadly, the new survey underscores the fundamental change in
basic attitudes about the news media that has occurred since the
mid-1980s. In the initial Times Mirror polling on the press in 1985,
the public faulted news organizations for many of its practices: most
people said that news organizations "try to cover up their mistakes,"
while pluralities said they "don’t care about the people they report
on," and were politically biased.

Figure

But
in the past decade, these criticisms have come to encompass broader
indictments of the accuracy of news reporting, news organizations’
impact on democracy and, to some degree, their morality. In 1985, most
Americans (55%) said news organizations get the facts straight. Since
the late 1990s, consistent majorities – including 53% in the current
survey – have expressed the belief that news stories are often
inaccurate. As a consequence, the believability ratings for individual
news organizations are lower today than they were in the 1980s and
1990s. (See "Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership," July
30, 2006.)

Yet for all of the public’s gripes about the press, people also say
they like various news sources – local TV news, network news, cable TV
news and the daily newspapers they are most familiar with. Though the
numbers have declined in recent years, Americans continue to have more
positive than negative impressions of these news organizations, and
rate them far higher than most political institutions, including
Congress, the Supreme Court and the political parties.

One factor behind this may be the public’s broad and continuing
support for the news media’s role as political watchdog. Currently, 58%
say that by criticizing political leaders, news organizations keep
political leaders from doing things that should not be done, while just
27% say such scrutiny keeps political leaders from doing their jobs.

In addition, the public gives news organizations high marks for
professionalism and caring about how good a job they do. Two-thirds
(66%) view news organizations as highly professional – rather than not
professional – up from 59% two years ago and a low of 49% in 2002.

Falling Favorability

Figure

The
overall image of the cable news networks as a group has fallen
significantly since the beginning of the decade. In the summer of 2001,
favorable ratings for cable news networks outnumbered unfavorable by
88% to 12%, based on those who could rate them. Currently, 75% express
a favorable opinion of cable news networks, such as CNN, Fox and MSNBC.

The ratings for Fox and CNN, individually, are comparable to those
for cable news networks collectively; 75% of those able to rate Fox
have a favorable impression of the network, while 72% say the same
about CNN. Positive views of CNN have fallen substantially over the
past two decades. In 1987, fully 91% of those able to rate CNN offered
a favorable assessment and positive ratings were about as high in 1992
(95%). Today, just 72% of those who rate CNN individually say the same.

Ratings of large nationally influential newspapers such as the New
York Times and the Washington Post also have dropped in recent years.
Just six-in-ten Americans who offer a view of major national newspapers
give a favorable assessment. This is virtually unchanged from 2005, and
down 14 points from 2001. Local news outlets – local TV and papers that
respondents are most familiar with – retain the highest favorability
ratings among those who can rate them.

Meanwhile, ratings of other political institutions have been
falling at a comparable rate. The share giving a favorable rating to
the Supreme Court stands at 66% today, down from 78% in 2001, while
fewer than half (45%) give a favorable rating to Congress, down from
65% in 2001. As a result, news organizations continue to be seen more
favorably by the American public than most governmental institutions,
despite their declining ratings.

Growing Partisan Divides

Across every major news source, Democrats offer more favorable
assessments than do independents or Republicans. The partisan divide is
smallest when it comes to local TV news, which 83% of Democrats rate
favorably along with 76% of Republicans. The differences are greatest
for major national newspapers, such as the New York Times and
Washington Post. Fully 79% of Democrats rate these newspapers favorably
compared with just 41% of Republicans, based on those able to rate
them.

Figure

While
Republicans have long been more skeptical than Democrats about major
media sources, the magnitude of the difference is a relatively recent
phenomenon. In Pew’s first measure of media favorability in 1985, there
were modest differences of opinion across party lines.

Both Democrats and Republicans held overwhelmingly favorable views
of network TV news (92% of Democrats who gave a rating, 88% of
Republicans), the daily newspaper people read most often (89% of both
Democrats and Republicans rated favorably), and large national
newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post (85% of
Democrats, 79% of Republicans).

In the current survey, however, fewer than half of Republicans
(41%) express a favorable opinion of major national newspapers, a
38-point decline when compared with 1985. Independents also regard
major newspapers far less favorably. Currently, 60% of independents
able to rate these newspapers have a positive impression of them; in
1985, 80% of independents viewed them favorably. By contrast, Democrats
view major national papers nearly as favorably now as in 1985 (79% now,
85% then).

A similar pattern is evident in opinions of network TV news
outlets. Just 56% of Republicans express favorable opinions of network
television news, more than 30 points lower when compared with the 1985
survey (88%). Independents also express less positive opinions of the
three major broadcast news operations (70% today, 88% in 1985). But
opinions among Democrats of these outlets remain overwhelmingly
positive. Currently 84% of Democrats able to rate the network news
outlets express favorable opinions of them, compared with 92% in 1985.

Women, Blacks offer more Favorable Assessments

Figure

In
the current survey, women offer a more favorable assessment of every
type of news organization than do men. The widest gender gap is seen in
evaluations of cable news networks, which 83% of women rate favorable
compared with 67% of men. African Americans also rate most news
organizations substantially higher than do whites, while college
graduates tend to offer more critical views than do people with less
education.

And though younger Americans devote considerably less time to
newspapers and television news, it apparently is not due to any greater
dissatisfaction with the media themselves. Americans ages 18-29 rate
newspapers at least as favorably as do their elders, and people in all
age groups offer about the same assessments of network, local and cable
television news. When it comes to large national newspapers, younger
Americans who offer an opinion are among the most likely to give a
favorable assessment, while Americans age 65 and older are among the
most negative.

Figure

Fox Viewers More Critical

Generally, the press receives its most positive ratings for its
performance from people who rely on television as their main source of
news, with those who rely on newspapers – and especially the internet –
expressing more critical opinions.

However, those who cite the Fox News Channel as their primary
source of news stand out among the TV news audience for their negative
evaluations of news organizations’ practices. Fully 63% of Americans
who count Fox as their main news source say news stories are often
inaccurate – a view held by fewer than half of those who cite CNN (46%)
or network news (41%) as their main source.

Similarly, Fox viewers are far more likely to say the press is too
critical of America (52% vs. 36% of CNN viewers and 29% of network news
viewers). And the Fox News Channel audience gives starkly lower ratings
to network news programs and national newspapers such as the New York
Times and Washington Post.

Politics plays a large part in these assessments – Republicans
outnumber Democrats by two-to-one (43% to 21%) among the core Fox News
Channel audience, while there are far more Democrats than Republicans
among CNN’s viewers (43% Democrat, 22% Republican) and network news
viewers (41% Democrat, 24% Republican).

Figure

Not
surprisingly, the Fox News Channel audience is far more likely to say
that news organizations have been unfair in their coverage of George W.
Bush (49%) than those who cite CNN (19%) or network news (22%) as their
main news source.

Further analysis of the data shows that being a Republican and a
Fox viewer are related to negative opinions of the mainstream media.
The overlapping impact of these two factors can most clearly be seen in
the favorability ratings of network TV news, major national newspapers,
and the daily newspapers that respondents are most familiar with. For
all three, Republicans who count Fox as their main news source are
considerably more critical than Republicans who rely on other sources.
For example, fully 71% of Fox News Republicans hold an unfavorable
opinion of major national newspapers, compared with 52% of Republicans
who use other sources, and 33% of those who are not Republicans.

CNN and Fox: Assessing the Alternatives

More than nine-in-ten people who count on CNN for most of their
news rate that network favorably (91%), and the same is true among
those who rely on Fox (93% rate the Fox News Channel favorably). But
when it comes to evaluations of leading cable alternatives (views of
Fox among CNN viewers, and CNN among Fox viewers), there is a stark
imbalance.

Figure

CNN
viewers feel much more favorably toward the Fox News Channel than Fox
News viewers feel about CNN. Fully 79% of CNN viewers rate Fox
favorably, while just 55% of Fox viewers say the same about CNN – 45%
express an unfavorable view of Fox’s major competitor.

Dislike of both major cable news networks runs notably high among
Americans who count newspapers and the internet as their main sources
of national and international news. One-third of people who count on
the internet for most of their news express an unfavorable view of Fox,
and roughly the same number (31%) feel negatively toward CNN.

For a large share of Americans, however, there are really no
substantial differences between the cable news networks. Of the people
who offer an opinion of both CNN and Fox, 56% feel favorably toward
both, and 10% feel unfavorably toward both. Only a minority likes Fox
but not CNN (19%), or likes CNN but not Fox (15%). Not surprisingly,
these polarized views are most prevalent at the ideological extremes –
conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.

Press Values and Performance: 1985-2007

Figure

Two
decades ago, public attitudes about how news organizations do their job
were less negative, and far less partisan. Most people believed that
news organizations stood up for America, rather than were too critical
of America, and that they helped rather than hurt democracy. In terms
of how the press covered stories, a majority believed that news
organizations get the facts straight.

As with overall impressions of the news organizations themselves,
there were only modest partisan differences in opinions regarding press
values and performance. Republicans were only somewhat more likely than
Democrats to say that the press was too critical of America or that
news organizations hurt democracy rather than helped it. This also was
the case for evaluations of the accuracy of news reporting and opinions
of whether news organizations were politically biased.

By the late 1990s, negative opinions of the press had increased
markedly across the political spectrum. In 1999, solid majorities of
Republicans (59%), Democrats (57%) and independents (57%) said that
news stories were often inaccurate. In 1985, fewer than four-in-ten in
each group expressed this view.

Since then, however, the partisan differences in opinions about the
accuracy of news stories, as well as in other evaluations of the press,
have grown. The percentage of Democrats who say that news stories are
often inaccurate has declined markedly since 1999 (from 57% to 43%),
while this belief has increased slightly among Republicans (from 59%
then to 63% currently). The partisan gap on this measure, just two
points in 1999, has ballooned to 20 points in the current survey. Over
the same period, views of independents have remained more consistent –
56% say stories are often inaccurate, largely unchanged since 1999
(57%).

The pattern is somewhat different in opinions about whether the
press is politically biased. In 1985, less than half of Republicans
(49%), independents (44%) and Democrats (43%) said the press is
politically biased. By 1999, however, the partisan gap in perceptions
of news media bias had grown to 18 points with 69% of Republicans
saying the press is biased. And the divide in opinion has grown even
wider since. Currently, 70% of Republicans and 61% of independents say
news organizations are politically biased, compared with just 39% of
Democrats. The percentage of Democrats who see political bias in the
news media has fallen 14 points since 2005.

Most Support Watchdog Press

While Americans often are critical of the way news organizations do
their jobs, public support for the news media’s role as a political
watchdog has endured. In every Pew survey conducted since 1985, a
majority has said that press criticism of political leaders does more
good than harm. Currently, 58% say press criticism of political leaders
is worth it because keeps leaders from doing things that should not be
done, while 27% believe criticism keeps political leaders from doing
their jobs.

Figure

As
with other attitudes, partisanship plays a role in peoples’
evaluations, but the direction of the partisan divide depends on who
holds the White House. Under the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and
George H.W. Bush, Democrats were more firmly supportive than
Republicans of the role of a watchdog press. But when Clinton came into
office, it was Republicans, more than Democrats, who were of the view
that press criticism of political leaders was a good thing.

Over the past seven years of George W. Bush’s presidency,
Democrats, again, have expressed more support for press criticism than
have Republicans. But the magnitude of the partisan divide has grown to
record levels as Bush’s time in office has progressed. The share of
Democrats who believe that press criticism of political leaders keeps
them from doing wrong has increased since Bush’s first term, and is now
as high as it was in the 1980s. Meanwhile, less than half of
Republicans see press criticism serving a valuable role. Currently,
just 44% of Republicans believe press criticism of leaders does more
good than harm – far lower than the share of Republicans holding this
view under the Reagan (65%) and Bush Sr. (63%) presidencies.

More Trust the Military on Iraq

The deep political divisions in opinions about the press are
reflected in views of coverage of the Iraq war. Overall, about
four-in-ten Americans (42%) express a great deal or a fair amount of
confidence that the press is giving the public an accurate picture of
how the Iraq war is going. By comparison, more people (52%) say they
are confident that the U.S. military is presenting an accurate picture
of the war.

Figure

As
might be expected, Republicans express little confidence in the
accuracy of war coverage. Only about a third of Republicans (34%) say
they have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence the press is
giving an accurate picture of the war. More than twice as many
Republicans (76%) have confidence that the U.S. military is accurately
portraying the war in Iraq.

By contrast, a solid majority of Democrats (56%) have confidence in
the press to give an accurate picture of Iraq, while just 36% express
comparable trust in the U.S. military. Nearly a quarter of Democrats
(23%) say they have "no confidence at all" in the military to give an
accurate account of progress in the war; about the same percentage of
Republicans expresses no confidence in the press (26%).

Half of independents say they have a great deal or a fair amount of
confidence in the military to give an accurate picture of how the war
is going, while nearly as many independents (46%) express little or no
confidence in the military. Yet independents have significantly less
trust in the press when it comes to war coverage; just 38% are
confident the press is giving an accurate picture of war developments,
while 60% have little or no confidence in war coverage.

Public confidence in how well the military and the press are doing
in informing the public about the war has changed little since the
spring. In Pew’s weekly News Interest Index survey conducted March
30-April 2, 46% said they had a great deal or a fair amount of
confidence in the military to give an accurate picture of the war,
while 38% said the same about the press. Confidence in both
institutions is down substantially since the early phase of the war; in
March 2003, 85% expressed confidence in the military to give an
accurate picture or war progress while nearly as many (81%) voiced
confidence in the press.

About this Survey

Results for this survey are based on telephone interviews conducted
under the direction of Schulman, Ronca & Bucuvalas, Inc. among a
nationwide sample of 1,503 adults, 18 years of age or older, from July
25-29, 2007. For results based on the total sample, one can say with
95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus
3 percentage points. For results based on Form 1 (N=753) or Form 2
(N=750), one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to
sampling is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that
question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can
introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.

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