Summary of Findings

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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).

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.

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

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.

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.

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.