Americans' View of the Press

The conventional wisdom these days -- as heard on radio talk shows in Virginia, in town meetings in New Mexico, or from taxi drivers in Boston -- is that Americans just don't like the press. What do they think?

  • Would you be surprised to learn that reporters are held in the same low regard as undertakers and insurance salesmen.... and only slightly higher than politicians?

  • Did you know that two-thirds of the public believe reporters are no more ethical than the politicians they report on?

  • Would it perplex you to learn that the press itself has precisely the opposite view.... two thirds of them maintain they are more ethical than the public officeholders they cover?

    To find out more, explore the following summary from The People, the Press and Their Leaders, a poll conducted by the Times Mirror Center for The People and the Press (recently renamed The Pew Center) in 1995. The study found that "American journalists have a quite different view of the way they do their job than does the public they serve. The outside world strongly faults the news media for its negativism. Journalists at all levels are equally adamant in rejecting this charge."

    The purpose of the study was to explore comparative views about the news media among the public, the press and national and local leadership groups and included 515 members of the media, 1,819 citizens, and 278 public leaders in both government and business.


    NEWS MEDIA DIFFERS WITH PUBLIC AND LEADERS ON WATCHDOG ISSUES

    American journalists have a different view of the way they do their job than does the public they serve and the leaders they cover. The outside world strongly faults the news media for its negativism. Journalists at all levels are equally adamant in rejecting this charge. They are no more adversarial than they should be, newspeople insist, and no more focused on wrongdoing and the personal failures of public figures than is required to play a watchdog role.

    Top business executives, members of Congress, and local leaders from all around the country also think the press is more critical of them than it has been in the past. The public goes so far as to say that the press gets in the way of society solving its problems, an opinion that is even shared by many leaders.

    Print and broadcast journalists concede that they may grow cynical on the job and that there is more opinion in news stories than there should be. They admit that they do not cover complex stories well, and that they do not adequately cover good news. However, the news media has a generally positive view of itself in the watchdog role, ranging from the way it feels it has covered Bill Clinton, to the way it sees its own ethics.

    These are among the findings of a major Times Mirror Center survey which explored comparative views of the news media and press issues among samples of the public, the press and national and local leadership groups. The major objective of the survey was to get different perspectives on the burgeoning public discontent with the news media that has been reflected in recent Times Mirror surveys and other public opinion polls.

    One of the most dramatic findings to emerge from the survey underscores the tension between the press and its audiences over the question of negativity. The polling found that average citizens are considerably more cynical and mistrustful than journalists.

    Even though mistrust of politicians is one of the biggest charges leveled against the press, newspeople more often than average citizens think that politicians are honest and ethical. And it is not just officeholders that people distrust. The public is more distrusting of business executives, the military and even religious leaders than are newspeople.

    Ordinary Americans also have a more jaundiced view of the world than do members of Congress, business executives, and community leaders from around the country. Talk show hosts are the only group of influentials to match the cynicism expressed by the American public in this survey. Analysis of the survey revealed that middle-aged people - the Vietnam-Watergate generation - were more cynical than younger people and older people. This generational pattern was apparent in both the public survey and in the survey of the press as well.

    The public's profound distrust of influential groups, greater than the press and national and local leaders, raises deep new questions about the causes and consequences of public cynicism. Have elite groups and the public increasingly different world views? Is the press to blame? Can the press continue to play an effective watchdog role if the public is so skeptical of it and all other elites? The fuller findings of this survey suggest that the press, the public and its leaders all might have different answers to these questions.

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