Normally, journalists can’t get enough of public-opinion polls. During election campaigns, small shifts in opinion can dominate the news cycle for days. Journalists reach for polls to support an anecdotal lede or to win over a skeptical editor on a feature idea. But opinion surveys on the news media’s performance and credibility—that touch on the practice of journalism itself—are a different matter entirely.
Most journalists suspect that the public doesn’t have much of a clue about what they do, so they don’t put a lot of stock in polls on the press. When surveys reveal that Americans have a poor view of the news media—a routine occurrence these days—reporters tend to chalk it up as a shoot-the-messenger reaction. And when public attitudes were shown in polling to take an unusually positive turn immediately after September 11th, journalists didn’t know what to think. Not to worry, opinions of the news media quickly returned to their normal low levels a few months later.
It’s true that most of public-opinion polls about journalism bear little relationship to how the average reporter or editor does their job. But surveys on media credibility should matter to journalists—a lot. Lose the trust of your viewers and readers, and you might soon be losing them, if you haven’t already. Even if news outlets maintain their audience, out of habit or inertia, their impact and effectiveness will be lessened.
Rising Mistrust of the Press
Surveys of public attitudes towards press credibility present a depressing picture. The General Social Survey, a massive national poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, has been measuring public confidence in institutions for more than three decades. From the 1970’s through the mid- 1980’s, confidence in the press was as high as it was for other major institutions— the military, Congress, religion and education, to name a few. But in the late 1980’s, ratings for the press began to slip, and by the 1990’s the slip had become a slide. In 1990, 74 percent of Americans said they had a great deal or some confidence in the press. A decade later, that number had fallen to 58 percent. During the same period, confidence in other institutions remained stable.
Credibility ratings for individual news sources also have declined since the mid-1980’s, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center. In 1985, just 16 percent of the public gave low credibility ratings to their daily newspaper; by last year that number had nearly tripled to 45 percent. Public trust in the three broadcast networks, leading news magazines (Time and Newsweek), and CNN also fell. The percentage saying they could trust little of what they saw on ABC News rose from 13 percent to 36 percent, CNN from 15 percent to 28 percent, and so on.
So what’s behind rising mistrust of the news media, in general, and leading news outlets in particular? It would be tempting to lay this problem at the feet of Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley, and some of the other high-profile news plagiarists and fabricators of recent years. But Blair and Kelley, and other media miscreants, barely registered with the public. Nor did Americans find the reports about Blair’s creative writing particularly shocking: They merely confirmed their suspicions. When the Pew Research Center asked in 2003 how often news organizations make up news stories, a la Blair, 58 percent said it occurred at least occasionally.
The seeds of public distrust were sown long before the recent round of scandals. In 1985, Times Mirror asked Gallup to conduct a survey on issues that even then were being characterized as indicating a credibility crisis in the news media. But the headline finding to emerge from that study was that—surprise— there was no crisis. The Times Mirror report on the survey, released in early 1986, was unequivocal on this point: “If credibility is defined as believability, then credibility is, in fact, one of the media’s strongest suits.”
Yet that two-decade-old survey also revealed clear warning signs of public dissatisfaction with the press, its performance and, more ominously, its independence. A slim majority said the press was often influenced “by powerful people and organizations.” Even higher percentages believed the news media was often influenced by the federal government (73 percent); business corporations (70 percent); advertisers (65 percent), and labor unions (62 percent). Many Americans also doubted the news media’s fairness and journalists’ willingness to admit mistakes.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that this survey was conducted long before the media mega-mergers of the 1990’s, the sharp cutbacks in news budgets, O.J. and Monica, and the rise of the nightly cable shout fest. By the end of the 1990’s, surveys were finding that public attitudes of the press had turned much more negative; not only were Americans found to be cynical of the media’s standards and performance, many questioned its values.
In 1985, Americans overwhelmingly viewed the press as “moral” rather than “immoral” (by 54 percent – 13 percent). By 2003, the percentage who called the press immoral had nearly tripled (to 32 percent), though a plurality (45 percent) still viewed it as moral. Not surprisingly, credibility ratings declined sharply during the same period.
In recent years, another powerful factor has dragged down public evaluations of press believability—partisanship. Public perceptions of bias in the media are not new, and Republicans have long been more likely than Democrats to view the press as biased. But since 2000, Republicans also have become decidedly less trusting of most individual news organizations—the three major networks, CNN and local newspapers, and TV. In Pew’s most recent press credibility survey, in 2004, the partisan gap in believability was striking—Republicans even expressed much less trust in C-SPAN than did Democrats.
What Journalists Think
Journalists are painfully aware of the credibility crisis. Through the years, the Pew Research Center has conducted many surveys of national and local journalists, and credibility is consistently mentioned among the leading problems that they face. Our 1999 survey found that the journalists believe that the loss of public trust is a leading cause of declining news audiences. In our most recent journalists’ survey, conducted last year, lack of credibility was viewed as less of a problem—but only because business and commercial pressures have become so onerous. Still, national print reporters and editors cite credibility as the main problem; more than twice as many pointed to declining public trust, as opposed to shrinking news audiences, as the biggest problem facing journalism.
The growing public mistrust of news outlets is not the only—or even the biggest—factor behind the erosion of news audiences in recent years. The exploding number of news sources, changing demographics and work schedules, and young people’s growing disenchantment with traditional news outlets has fractured news audiences. In fact, a more important consequence of the credibility crisis might be best seen in how this has affected public attitudes toward the press’s watchdog role.
One of the few bright spots in recent Pew surveys on the press has been increased public acceptance of the news media’s watchdog role, but only when it comes to reporting on politicians. In 2003, 54 percent felt that press criticism of political leaders “keeps political leaders from doing things that should not be done;” 29 percent think that such criticism impedes political leaders from doing their jobs. That represents an improvement from the late 1990’s, when the public expressed its anger about coverage of President Clinton’s impeachment. In early 1998, 39 percent believed the press was preventing politicians from doing their jobs.
But since 9/11 and the Iraq War, Americans have become considerably less supportive of the press’s watchdog function in security matters. The public is split over whether press criticism of the military keeps the United States prepared or weakens the nation’s defenses: 45 percent contend that it keeps the nation prepared, while 43 percent disagree. On six previous occasions, dating back to 1985, majorities or pluralities said press criticism kept the United States militarily prepared.
This is a disturbing shift, particularly coming at a time when many journalists believe they are increasingly hamstrung by tighter government restrictions on press freedom and access due to constraints imposed as part of the war on terror. Such restrictions become more politically palatable—and easier to impose and maintain—when the public is, at best, ambivalent about the news media’s watchdog role. However, given what we have learned through the years about public opinion of the press, it shouldn’t be surprising that Americans are now reluctant to trust the news media in this regard. After all, more and more citizens each year don’t think they can trust the press at all.
Carroll Doherty is associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the author of “Media: More Voices, Less Credibility,” a chapter that appears in a book entitled, “Trends 2005,” produced by the Pew Research Center. The chapter from which this article was adapted is at http://people-press.org/commentary/ pdf/105.pdf.