Introduction and Summary

The American public is more critical of press practices, less enthusiastic about the news product and less appreciative of the watchdog role played by the news media than it was a dozen years ago when The People & The Press surveys were inaugurated. Those polls concluded that criticism of the way the press did its job was offset by the approval the public gave to press scrutiny of political leaders and by its enjoyment of the news.

Today, public criticism of the press for inaccuracy, lack of fairness and sensationalism is even greater than in 1985. At the same time, Americans are much less engaged by the news itself, and fewer think that press scrutiny of political leaders is “worth it.” A sizable minority of Americans now say that press criticism prevents political leaders from doing their jobs, and a growing proportion of the public say they do not look forward to following the news each day. The rising criticism of the press is directed more at the national media — network news and large national newspapers — than at local television news and daily newspapers.

These are the findings of the latest nationwide Pew Research Center survey, which also found a public both drawn to and repulsed by tabloid coverage of crime, scandal and wrongdoing. Almost half (49%) of the sample reported that it regularly or sometimes watches a tabloid news program, and 70% could correctly identify six-year- old JonBenet Ramsey as the slain Colorado child beauty queen. But fully 89% of respondents favored prohibiting the press from publishing the names of crime suspects before they are charged, and more than 70% approved the decision by news organizations to withhold allegations about an extra-marital affair presidential candidate Bob Dole had 30 years ago.

Inaccurate, Unfair and Pushy

The public’s assessment of press performance has grown increasingly negative in recent years. A majority (56%) now say news stories and reports are often inaccurate, up more than 20 percentage points since 1985, when a similar majority (55%) said news organizations get the facts straight. The greatest increase in complaints has come from young people, especially young men, and college graduates.

Large majorities of the public also criticize the media for its intrusiveness. Television news programs are held in lower esteem than newspapers in this regard. Nearly two-thirds (64%) now believe TV news programs unnecessarily invade people’s privacy, rather than intrude only when it serves the public interest. Slightly fewer, though still a majority (57%), complain about newspapers in this regard. Levels of criticism for press intrusiveness are largely unchanged from 1994. Even among those who appreciate the media’s watchdog role, six-in-ten say both newspapers and TV news programs are unnecessarily intrusive.

Besides inaccuracy and intrusiveness, the press is attacked for its lack of fairness. Two-thirds (67%) say that in presenting news on political and social issues, news organizations tend to favor one side rather than dealing fairly with all sides. Again, this negative view of the press is more prevalent now than it was twelve years ago, when a much smaller majority (53%) criticized news organizations for biased coverage of political and social issues.

Men more often than women criticize the press for being unfair, and young men (under 30) are extremely critical: fully 78% say news organizations tend to favor one side over another. Republicans, who have made press bias part of their mantra, are more likely to say news organizations favor one side than are Democrats or Independents (77% vs. 58% and 69%, respectively). More affluent respondents are also more critical.

In one of the most telling complaints, a majority (54%) of Americans believe the news media gets in the way of society solving its problems, while just over one-third (36%) say the news media helps society solve its problems.1 This is, however, an improvement over previous years: in 1994, 71% felt the media was a hindrance and in 1995, 57% felt that way. When asked the most important reason why they believe the media gets in the way, most respondents in a recent Pew poll said it is too sensational or biased. Other reasons given were distortion of the truth, over-emphasis on negative news, invasion of privacy, shallowness, and a tendency to stir up problems without offering solutions.