Loving and Doubting Journalism at the Same Time: A University of Missouri Survey of Public Attitudes toward Journalism Reveals a Complex Pattern of Responses
Kennedy, George, Nieman Reports
Americans have a more positive--and more complicated--set of attitudes toward journalism than the recent wave of criticism would suggest. A study from the University of Missouri School of Journalism shows that the consumers of U.S. journalism respect, value and need it, even as they are skeptical about whether journalists live up to the standards of accuracy, fairness and respect for others that the profession sets for itself.
A few contrasting responses that emerged from a national telephone survey of 495 people, chosen at random and interviewed during the summer of 2004, illustrate the competing sentiments that form this complex relationship:
* By 75 percent to 12 percent, survey respondents agreed that "journalism helps me understand what is going on in America."
* By 65 percent to 26 percent, respondents also said that "journalists often invade people's privacy."
* By 62 percent to 19 percent, they agreed that "in general, American journalism is credible."
* By 85 percent to 13 percent, they said they see "social or political bias in news coverage."
What these and other responses to our survey's 50 questions indicate is the public's sophisticated appreciation of journalism's strengths and its shortcomings. Americans' understanding of the press begins with nearly unanimous support for its fundamental role in sustaining the democracy. Ninety-three percent agreed that "the freedom of the press is important to our system of government." Only four percent disagreed. [See story on page 49 for a survey of high school students on this same question.]
In this survey, the public also strongly supports the role most journalists see as their most important--as watchdog over the holders of power. Eighty-three percent of respondents agreed with the statement that "it is important for journalists to press for access to information about our government, even when officials would like to keep it quiet." Eight percent disagreed. Two-thirds told us that newspaper and television journalism is "valuable" or "very valuable" to them. However, 70 percent said journalists are "often influenced by powerful people and organizations," and 77 percent believe that the news is "too negative," while half labeled it as "too sensational."
It struck us as interesting that the largest single group of respondents was made up of people who hold both strongly negative and strongly positive attitudes. One of these people, who agreed to a follow-up interview, was Kimberly Huggins, 25-year-old owner of a candy store in Georgia. One of her comments spoke for a view we found held by many: "There are a lot of outrageous things, but how do you curb the outrageous things without getting in the way of things we need to know? It's good to know what's going on." By significant margins, these consumers of journalism are saying that they want and need to know what's going on, and they generally trust journalists to tell them. But by similar margins, they're also saying they want journalists to do a better job.
Surveys taken of journalists' views on their own work have shown consistently that the core values of American journalism include accuracy, fairness and respect. And on those values, journalists and consumers agree. The criticism--both internal and external--arises from a widespread belief that those values are too often honored in rhetoric but not evidenced in practice. …