Network TV News Credibility Slips

In a separate survey by the Center, the public perception of the believability of two network news anchors eroded significantly, as did the believability of two news networks, compared to three years ago. Tom Brokaw, NBC News, and CBS News were the exceptions, experiencing only statistically insignificant decreases in this respect. Cable News Network (CNN), although its rating dropped, again scored highest in believability among the networks. The print media’s believability ratings were flat, with no significant increases or decreases either among national or local daily newspapers.

Respondents were asked to rate various individuals and organizations on a four-point scale, with “4,” the highest ranking, meaning that “all or most” of what that person or organization says was considered believable. Dan Rather and Peter Jennings both slipped seven percentage points in this highest ranking compared to February 1993 — to 29% for CBS’s Rather and to 27% for ABC’s Jennings. Brokaw’s rating was 29%. CBS News’ rating was statistically unchanged at 30%, while that of ABC News fell four percentage points to 30%. NBC News was rated at 28%. CNN’s believability rating dropped from 41% to 34% over the same period.


                                         Cannot    Never

                    Believe              Believe   Heard  Can't

                       4     3     2     1         of     Rate

CNN                    34    37    14    4         1      10=100

 February, 1993        41    35    10    4         2       8=100

 August, 1989          33    31    11    2         8      16=100

 June, 1985            20    24    7     1         10     38=100

ABC News               30    44    17    5         *       4=100

 February, 1993        34    42    17    4         *       3=100

 August, 1989          30    46    14    3         1       7=100

 June, 1985            32    51    11    1         *       5=100

CBS News               30    42    17    6         *       5=100

 February, 1993        31    44    16    5         *       4=100

 August, 1989          29    45    16    4         1       5=100

 June, 1985            33    51    11    1         *       4=100

NBC News               28    46    18    5         *       3=100

 February, 1993        31    42    18    6         *       3=100

 August, 1989          32    47    14    2         *       5=100

 June, 1985            31    51    12    1         *       5=100

Dan Rather             29    39    18    8         1       5=100

 February,  1993       36    40    14    6         1       3=100

 August, 1989          36    40    13    6         1       4=100

 June, 1985            40    41    8     2         4       5=100

Tom Brokaw             29    37    18    7         2       7=100

 February, 1993        32    41    16    5         2       4=100

 August, 1989          32    42    14    3         3       6=100

 June, 1989            29    40    8     1         10     12=100

Peter Jennings         27    37    18    8         2       8=100

 February, 1993        34    40    15    4         2       5=100

 August, 1989          35    39    11    3         5       7=100

 June, 1985            33    41    8     1         8       9=100

Bernard Shaw           9     22    16    10        18     25=100


The Wall Street Journal received the highest credibility evaluation of any of the print media outlets tested. Print ratings continue to lag behind those achieved by the TV networks, for the most part.


                                         Cannot    Never

                    Believe              Believe   Heard  Can't

                       4     3     2     1         of     Rate

Wall Street Jn'l       28    29    13    7         3      20=100

 February, 1993        30    32    14    6         2      16=100

 August, 1989          30    26    9     3         6      26=100

 June, 1985            25    23    6     2         1      43=100

Your daily paper       24    37    26    8         *       5=100

 February, 1993        22    41    25    8         *       4=100

 August, 1989          26    41    24    7         *       2=100

 June, 1985            28    52    13    2         *       5=100

USA Today              20    34    20    9         3      14=100

 February, 1993        20    36    21    7         1      15=100

 August, 1989          21    32    18    5         6      18=100

 June, 1985            13    26    13    2         4      42=100

Associated Press       14    40    22    9         3      12=100

 February, 1993        16    39    23    7         3      12=100

 August, 1989          21    43    18    4         6       9=100

 June, 1985            21    40    11    2         2      24=100

Influential papers

NYT, WP & LAT          14    36    18    10        3      19=100

 June, 1985            16    34    11    3         1      35=100

On balance, C-SPAN received more positive believability ratings (43% “4 or 3”) than negative ratings (21% “1 or 2”). The Christian Broadcasting Network’s ratio was mixed (38% to 34%). Among talk show personalities, TV’s Larry King received more negative than positive ratings (30% to 49%) and radio’s Rush Limbaugh’s ratings were very negative (23% to 67%).


                                         Cannot    Never

                    Believe              Believe   Heard  Can't

                       4     3     2     1         of     Rate

Christian Broadcasting 

Network                20    18    21    13        6      22=100

C-SPAN                 19    24    12    9         10     26=100

Larry King             9     21    28    21        4      17=100

Rush Limbaugh          8     15    25    42        3       7=100


Politicians are viewed as far less credible than most news media outlets or personalities, although the comparison is somewhat unfair, since by definition professional politicians have significant built-in doubters among supporters of opposition parties. Over the three-year period, President Bill Clinton’s believability rating slipped four percentage points, to 14%; GOP contender Bob Dole stands at 7%; and potential candidate Ross Perot plummeted from 16% to 7%. Only non-candidate Colin Powell rose in these ratings, from 24% to 28%, at which position he rivals the network anchors in believability.


                                         Cannot    Never

                    Believe              Believe   Heard  Can't

                       4     3     2     1         of     Rate

Bill Clinton           14    31    25    28        *       2=100

 February, 1993        18    35    25    19        *       3=100

Colin Powell           28    36    19    9         2       6=100

 February, 1993        24    31    18    6         13      8=100

Robert Dole            7     25    35    26        2       5=100

Ross Perot             7     22    34    34        *       3=100

 February, 1993        16    32    30    20        *       2=100

Newt Gingrich          4     16    30    41        2       7=100

Demographically, the decrease in believability of television and its anchors has occurred primarily among older Americans, both in the 30 to 49 year old group and the 50 and older group. This is in considerable contrast to the Center’s finding, reported above, that the decrease in television viewing has occurred primarily among younger adults, 18 to 29 years old.

News Media Better Liked Than Congress, Business and Political Parties

The public has not changed its view, by and large, on how much they like the media compared to other social institutions and organizations. While they may believe in the news media less these days, network television news, local television news, and daily newspapers all received very or mostly favorable ratings of 79% or better. Local television news stood the highest in this respect, at 84%. Also noteworthy is that the abrupt rise in unfavorable ratings of network TV news in 1995 and 1994 has disappeared.

In contrast, Congress gets a favorability rating of only 45% (mostly and very favorable combined), down 9 percentage points since February 1995. Most continue to regard Bill Clinton favorably (at 57%). Hillary Clinton’s ratings (at 49%) have revived somewhat while Dole’s have slipped somewhat (to 48%) since this past February.

Among organizations, labor unions are looked upon less favorably than in the recent past — 47% very and mostly favorable, down from 57% two years ago and similar to the 1985 ratings. By way of comparison, recent favorability ratings of other organizations include: business corporations, 59%; the military, 82%; the United Nations, 65%; the Republican Party, 52%; the Democratic Party, 49%; and the American court system, 35%.

Who Reads, Watches, Listens

News consumption habits show some clear demographic patterns, the Center’s survey found. Network TV news and local TV news are watched regularly more by older viewers, for example. Older persons also read newspapers regularly to a greater extent, although high newspaper readership is correlated with high education, as well as age. At the entertainment end of the spectrum, regular viewers of TV tabloid programs [TV tabloid programs refer to “shows such as A Current Affair, Hard Copy or Inside Edition.”], “Tell-all” daytime TV shows [“Tell-all” daytime TV shows refer to “the daytime talk shows Ricky Lake, Jerry Springer, or Jenny Jones.”], Court TV, and MTV are disproportionately black rather than white, and less well educated. Religious radio shows also attract proportionately more blacks and the less educated as regular listeners compared to the regular audiences of NPR, Rush Limbaugh and other talk radio programs.

Finally, working mothers are less likely to be regular watchers of network news programs (33%) than average but are at the national norm in their viewership of local news and CNN and in their readership of news magazines. Single parents are more likely to regularly view MTV than the average American and are less likely to watch the nightly network news. They are also heavy viewers of Tell-all talk and tabloid TV shows.

Other demographics in audience profile:

  • Nightly network news shows are viewed regularly by 64% of people 65 years old or older compared to only 22% among under 30’s. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to tune in (47% vs. 39%), as are non-computer users more than users (50% vs.35%).
  • Local TV news programs are also viewed regularly more by older persons, but the disproportion is significantly less than for network news. Women watch local TV news more than men, Democrats more than Republicans, and non-users of computers more than users (71% vs. 60%).
  • CNN is watched regularly more by men than women, as well as older persons and better educated persons.C-SPAN is seen regularly by twice as many men as women. Less well-educated persons and those who do not use computers most often say they never watch the channel.
  • TV news magazines are seen regularly by significantly more women than men and much more by older than younger viewers (50% of 50 year olds and older vs. 19% of 29 year olds and younger).
  • Tabloid TV shows are regularly viewed more by women than men (22% vs. 16%) and blacks twice as often as whites (34% vs. 17%).
  • Tell-all TV shows are viewed by younger persons, women more often than men, and blacks four times more often than whites (32% vs. 7%).
  • Daily newspapers were read “yesterday” far more often by older Americans (70% 65 years old and older vs. 29% under 30), whites more than blacks (52% vs. 37%), and the better educated (64% of college graduates vs. 35% of those with less than a high school degree).
  • NPR is listened to more often by college graduates (22%) and online users (20%) than average (13%).
  • Religious radio is heard more often by older Americans (17%), blacks (25%) and Southerners (17%) than average (11%).

The Politics of News Media Audiences

In this survey of news interest and usage, the Center also sought to construct a political and social profile of respondents based on their attitudes toward government and its role in society, their political preferences and political knowledge, and their social tolerance.

The broad conclusion is that not much political difference exists among audiences of the mainstream media — daily newspapers, network and local television news, and CNN. However, CNN and C-SPAN viewers were considerably more knowledgeable about political affairs than average Americans (by 13 percentage points and 18 percentage points, respectively), as were readers of news magazines (by 9 percentage points). Viewers of television news magazines were distinguished only by the high approval rating they give President Clinton.

Significant differences did appear in the values of different television, radio and print audiences. National Public Radio listeners, for example, have distinctly liberal values, and business magazine readers have more conservative values. But they are relatively middle-of-the-road when compared to consumers of speciality media.

Other features of speciality TV audiences:

  • MTV viewers are least critical of the federal government.
  • Tell-all TV talk show audiences are most accepting of homosexuality.
  • Clinton gets his highest approval rating from viewers of TV magazine shows and readers of tabloid newspapers.
  • Rush Limbaugh has many more Republicans and nearly twice as many conservatives in his audience than business magazines.
  • Tabloid television (like Current Affair) and Tell-all TV audiences contain considerably more Democrats than Republicans or Independents.
  • Tabloid newspaper (like National Enquirer) readers and tabloid TV viewers are more pro-social welfare than average and are among the least politically informed of all audiences.
  • Tell-all TV viewers are by far the least informed on strictly political questions (19% knew Rep. Newt Gingrich is Speaker of the House vs. 50% of the public), but were just as informed as the general public about the current minimum wage.

Little Partisan Bias

A majority of the public (53%) see no partisan bias in the way the press is covering the presidential election campaign. Of those who perceive bias, about as many think the press is biased in favor of the Republicans (14%) as believe it tilts toward the Democrats (22%). A Times Mirror survey in August 1988 found 58% seeing no news media bias, while 22% saw a Democratic bias and 7% a Republican one.

In the current poll, there were more Republicans who saw a Democratic bias (40%) in the media, than Democrats who observed a Republican bias (20%).

Campaign News

Americans continue to rely overwhelmingly on television for news about presidential election campaigns. Asked how they get “most” of such news (with two answers permitted), 81% said television, 48% said newspapers, and 21% radio. Four years ago, in May 1992, the responses were quite similar: 86% television, 51% newspapers, 17% radio. While specialized on-line sources geared toward political news have burgeoned in recent months, only 2% said they are getting most of their campaign news from on-line sources.

Women are more likely than men to get news about the campaign from television, as are Democrats more than Republicans and Independents, and lower income more than higher income respondents. Men prefer newspapers more than women in this respect, as do college graduates more than those with a high school education or less. College graduates are more likely to use on-line sources (6%) than any other demographic group for campaign news. Radio is favored by young people more than older ones; and by nearly one-third of Evangelical Republicans.

Of those who name television as their primary source of campaign news, a plurality (48%) say most of that news comes from network TV, about four-in-ten name local TV, and 28% name CNN. Perhaps reflecting the falloff in network news viewership among young people, those under 30 are much less likely than those over 50 to say they get most of their campaign news from network TV (37% vs. 58%, respectively). Whites are more likely to rely on network TV (50% vs. 40% of non-whites), while non-whites use local TV at a higher rate (48% vs. 41% of whites) in this respect. College graduates and those in the highest income bracket are among the most likely to be getting most of their TV campaign news from CNN (37% and 36%, respectively vs. 28% of the general public).

The survey also asked about use of some specialized media for campaign news. Nearly one-in-five respondents (18%) say they learn about the presidential campaign or the candidates regularly or sometimes from religious radio shows such as “Focus on the Family” and from the Christian Broadcasting Network. About two- thirds of the public say they never learn about the campaign from these outlets. More than a third (37%) cited talk radio shows and 13% cited MTV.

Fully 25% of Americans said they learn something about the campaign from late night TV shows such as David Letterman and Jay Leno; 6% said they do so regularly and 19% said sometimes. Young people “learn” from late night TV at a much higher rate than older people. Some 40% of those under 30 years old say they regularly or sometimes learn about the campaign from this source, twice as many as those over 50.


                          Alternative Sources of Campaign News

                                (% often or sometimes)

                              ------Age------  -----Party ID-----

                       Total  18-29 30-49 50+  Repub.Democ.Indep.

                         %      %     %    %     %     %     %

Learn about the

campaign from...

Religious radio shows    18     11    18    22   23     19   13

Christian Broadcast Net. 18     12    16    25   23     18   15

Talk radio               37     38    39    34   45     34   35

MTV                      12     20    8     14   11     16   11

Late Night TV            26     40    23    20   24     27   28


Crime News Tops Interest

Crime, the local community and health are the subjects that most interest the American public. Culture and the arts, news about famous people, and business and financial news are the least interesting of 14 subjects tested in the current survey.

People under the age of 30, and even those under 50, are less interested than those over 50 years of age in the kinds of stories that dominate the front page and the top of the news broadcasts. News about politics, international affairs and even local government holds less interest for younger news consumers, as shown in the table below.


                                 ---- News Interests by Age ----

                                    Total   18-29   30-49   50+

                                      %       %       %      %

1.  Crime                             41      43      39     44

2.  People/events in your community   35      28      36     39

3.  Health                            34      27      29     45

4.  Sports                            26      30      24     24

5.  Local government                  24      14      22     32

6.  Science & technology              20      19      20     19

7.  Religion                          17      12      13     26

8.  Political news                    16      10      13     22

9.  International affairs             15      10      11     24

10. Entertainment                     15      24      13     12

11. Consumer news                     14      12      12     18

12. Business & finance                13      10      13     15

13. Famous people                     13      16      10     15

14. Culture/the arts                  10      9       9      11

The Center’s survey also sought to construct a profile of the generic news interests of the regular audiences of the various media outlets. Such audiences were almost always more interested in certain topics, whether crime, local government or health, than the general public which included those who consume the news only sometimes, hardly ever and never. Nonetheless, certain themes emerged that shed light on the nature of audiences.

Audiences of all outlets were very interested in crime, but none more so than MTV, Tabloid TV and Tell-all TV show viewers. Fully 62%, 60% and 59% of their regular viewers, respectively, said they followed “very closely” news about crime. Somewhat surprisingly, viewers of network television news followed crime news marginally more closely than viewers of local television news, despite the greater diet of such news on local outlets. Least interested in crime news were listeners of NPR and religious radio shows and readers of news and business magazines (all 43% of their regular audiences). In comparison, 41% of the general public said they followed crime news very closely.

At the other end of the spectrum, interest in news about art and culture was highest among regular listeners to NPR and viewers of C-SPAN; 20% of their regular audiences said they followed such stories very closely. Viewers of Tabloid TV and Tell-all talk shows, as well as Limbaugh s listeners, are least interested (8%, 9% and 9%, respectively), even below that of the general public (10%).

Rush Limbaugh’s listeners showed high levels of interest in politics, both local and national, while viewers of daytime Tell- all TV showed very little interest in political news. The daytime audience showed higher than average levels of interest in news about entertainment and famous people.

One surprising finding was that international news was followed very closely by more network news viewers than newspaper readers (26% vs. 18%), and viewers of C-SPAN and CNN were even larger consumers of foreign news (37% and 30%, respectively).

The gender gap so prevalent in politics today is also apparent in news interest. Men express much higher levels of interest in sports, science and technology, politics, international affairs and business. Women show more interest in news about their communities, health, and culture and the arts.

Shared Audiences

While most outlets have distinctive appeals, there is also considerable overlapping of audiences, particularly when the outlets emphasize similar types of stories. For example, of regular network news viewers, 86% also watch local news, 55% also watch TV news magazines, and 82% also read daily newspapers. At the same time, there are striking cases of outlets in which there is virtually no overlapping of audiences. Of those same regular network news viewers, merely 5% also read print tabloids regularly, 6% read business magazines, 7% watch MTV, 7% listen to Limbaugh, and 9% watch C-SPAN.

From another perspective, the biggest consumers of CNN are C-SPAN viewers and vice versa. A high proportion of readers of business magazines also watch CNN regularly. C-SPAN viewers are about the highest consumers of all kinds of serious media. NPR listeners are about the lowest consumers of daytime Tell-all TV, MTV, and tabloids (both TV and print). Viewers of the Tell-all TV shows favor MTV and the TV tabloid shows while being among the lowest consumers of serious news outlets such as C-SPAN, NPR and business magazines.

Unabomber and Child Pilot Crash Top Stories

Two major news stories drew large audiences in April: the FBI’s arrest of the Unabomber suspect and the fatal plane crash of 7-year-old Jessica Dubroff while attempting to become the youngest pilot to fly across the country. Both stories were followed “very closely” by 44% of the public. Men were somewhat more interested in the Unabomber than women, while women were considerably more absorbed by the air tragedy.

Another air crash, which took the lives of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 32 other Americans in the Balkans, was followed very closely by 34%. Blacks were twice as interested as whites in the story (62% vs. 31%).

The public remained interested in news about Republican presidential candidates, with 23% following such stories very closely, down only insignificantly from a month earlier. Clinton’s veto of a bill banning so-called partial birth abortions was also followed very closely by 23%. The military conflict between Israel and Muslims in Lebanon attracted 21%, the situation in Bosnia 20%, and Congressional passage of a new law dealing with domestic terrorism 15%.