The latest Pew Research Center study on Americans’ views of their news media show falling trust, growing divides, and the emergence of media tribes. There’s much to chew and choke on in this. Here are some of their findings and my musings:
News media continue to lose respect
That’s not surprising news but it’s still quite sobering. Though the majority of Americans still have generally favorable views about news media (from 60% favorable about national newspapers — specifically the New York Times and Washington Post — to, inexplicably, 79% favorable about local TV news), those numbers have fallen since 1985 (when 81% spoke favorably of national newspapers and cable news topped the list at 91%). For comparison: Favorable opinions of the Supreme Court are down 12 points and Congress 20 points since 1985; for the Democratic Party 8 points and the Republicans 12 points (to only 42%) since 1992. Only the military’s rating has risen. So the nation is getting more critical of everyone. I’ll get to a theory on that in a minute (hint: Fox).
But drill down to the specifics and MSM’s grades get worse. Today a majority of Americans says stories are often innacurate (53% now vs. 34% in 1985). I’ll get to why I think there’s a bit of a turn there in a minute (hint: Bush).
A majority say that the media are biased (55% today vs. 45% in 1985). But a plurality has always thought news media are biased. I say it’s time for news media to admit it and I also say that will improve their trust.
A plurality no longer thinks news media are moral (moral?): 46% today vs. 54% in 1985.
Yet 66% today think the news media are highly professional and — take this as good news — 44% think they protect democracy (36% disagree and 20% don’t know).
That’s the foundation. Now we’ll see some intriguing trends and divisons Pew finds. . . .
The emergence of media tribes
Pew was most struck by the growing difference in opinions about media among people who use different media. Bottom line: People who use the internet as their primary source for news — who are also younger and better educated than the rest of the country — are the most critical of mainstream media (and probably the most likely to sneer at it as “MSM”). TV viewers are older and also less critical.
I see the emergence of media tribes.
Different groups use different media and have different views of that media. Perhaps that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, the internet is used to criticize MSM and it attracts people who are critical of MSM and thus it is more critical of MSM. Or not. It could be that younger, better-educated people are already inclined to be critical of MSM and that is why they gravitate to a medium that gives them more choice, comparison, and control. Chicken, meet egg.
This is an inevitable outcome of the end of monolithic media: the death of The Press. Now that we have the means of comparison, we compare — and the old controllers do not compare well. I have long decried the allegedly grand shared experience of media that really lasted only three decades — from the 50s, when network TV killed second and third newspapers locally, to the 80s, when the cable box, VCR, and remote control gave us more choice, to the mid 90s when the internet gave us more control. I say it is a good thing to have more voices, more perspectives, more means to compare.
But I’ll also note that this division of the media tribes means that we are each seeing different Americas. That will have ever greater implications for not only news media but also for politics and public policy as well as any consumer business. Of course, this means you can’t just buy network TV to sell soap or ideas anymore. But it also means you’re never talking to one nation.
Note again that the ratings are generally favorable. But there are clear differences. Some numbers from Pew: 60% of Internet users (that is, and I’ll say this once, those who use the internet as their primary source of news) rate national papers — again, the Times and Post — favorably; that’s the same for the population as a whole. But 68% of internetters rate local TV favorably vs. 78% of the nation; that’s 62% of the internet vs. 75% of the nation favorable of cable news, 61% vs. 71% for network news, and 71% vs. 78% for local daily papers. In every case, TV viewers give these media higher favorable ratings.
Now to get more specific: 64% of internet users say that news organizations are politically biased (vs. 55% for the nation as a whole and 46% for TV viewers). 59% say that the stories are often inaccurate (vs. 53% for the nation). 68% of internet users say media don’t care about the people they report on (vs. 53%, still a majority, of the nation). And — get this — 53% of internauts say the media are too critical of America (vs 43% for the nation). I think we’ll see why that is next. . .
The growing political divide over the media
Pew found a growing partisanship in views of media. In 1985, we were unified with strong favorable opinions of network news: 88% of Republicans and independents and 92% of Democrats rated TV news favorably. Today, that’s only 56% favorable for Republicans, 70% for independents, and 84% for Democrats. Same story for the national papers: Democrats’ favorable ratings fell from 85% to 79%, independents from 80% to 60%, Republicans’ from 79% to a very grumpy 41%.
This pattern — the growing divide — holds, of course, in specific views of media behavior. Is the press too critical of America? 63% of Republicans say yes vs. only 23% of Democrats. Does the press hurt democracy? 48% of Republicans say yes vs. 28% of Democrats. Are media politically biased in their reporting? 70% of Republicans vote yes vs. 39% of Democrats (and, for comparison, 61% of independents… to me this indicates that “bias” means “disagrees with me”). Is the press liberal? Guess what: 75% of Republican say yes vs. 37% of Democrats. This divide also shows in the parties’ view of press performance. Are stories often inaccurate? 63% of Republicans say yes vs. 43% of Democrats. Note that in all these cases, the split is much greater than in 1985. The Republican-Democrat gap, as Pew calls it, grew from 9 to 40% in their views of whether the press is critical of America, from 6% to 20% over whether the press hurts America, from 6% to 31% over the question of political bias. These tribes are growing farther apart.
Why? Read on. . . .
Fox News, the great negativity machine
The Fox News tribe is markedly more critical of media and I don’t think that’s just because media are criticizing Bush and because Republicans — who, not surprisingly, outnumber Democrats 2-to-1 among Fox viewers — have long thought media to be biased and liberal. I think it’s because Fox News is inherently negative and is effective at spreading that negativity. You’ll find some justification for that view in the Pew numbers.
63% of the Fox tribe — that is, viewers who count Fox as their main source of news — believe that news media’s stories are often inaccurate vs 46% of CNN viewers and 41% of network news viewers. Foxers say that the news media are too critical of America: 52% of Fox viewers say that vs. 36% for CNN viewers and only 29% for network news viewers. Are media unfair to George Bush? 49% of Foxers say yes vs. only 19% of CNNers and 22% of network people. Are media politically biased? 54% of Foxers vote yes vs. 46% of CNNers and 42% of network viewers (note again that this is a widely held view). Now getting to views of specific media, only 39% of Fox viewers think favorably of the national papers vs. 69% of network viewers. That’s 72% vs. 83% for local daily papers, 59% vs. 87% for network TV news, 81% vs. 86% for local TV news.
More evidence for this Fox-negativity theory: CNN viewers are more favorable to Fox than Fox viewers are to CNN. That tells me that CNN viewers are nicer or at least less grumbly. They see the world through rose-colored TV lenses. The numbers: 79% of CNN viewers rate Fox favorably while 55% of Fox viewers say the same thing about CNN.
The divide over cable news carries into other media tribes. Says Pew: “Dislike of both major cable news networks runs notably high among Americans who count newspapers and the internet as tehir 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.” Pew adds that the polarized views of Fox and CNN, not surprisingly, “are most prevalent at the ideological extremes — conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.”
Now here’s the interesting bit: Pew looked at “Fox-ified Republicans” — that is, data show that “being a Republican and a Fox viewer are related to negative opinions of the mainstream media. . . . Republicans who count Fox as their main news source are considerably more critical than Republicans who rely on other sources.” Specifically, 71% of Fox-ified Republicans hold unfavorable views of the n national papers vs. 52% of Republicans in other media tribes and 33% of nonRepublicans. Note, by the way, that only 28% of Republicans are Fox-ified. That’s an important political stat. That may be how the Democrats justified snubbing the Fox presidential debates, but I still say that was short-sighted.
The growth of demographic tribes
We know well that media usage varies by age. Some Pew numbers: Comparing 1995 (note the different year) with 2007, it’s clear again how much the internet is affecting other media. Asked how they get their news about national and international newspapers (note that they could give two answers), 26 percent today use the internet vs 6% in 1999; it wasn’t asked in 1995 (which was barely after the creation of the browser). Compare that with TV — 65% now vs. 82% in 1995, newspapers — 63% then vs. 27% now (OUCH), radio — 20% then vs. 15% now, and magazines — 10% then vs. 2% now (and one wonders why the newsmagazines are sputtering).
Now look at the impact age has on opinions of media. Favorable opinions of local TV can cable news rise with age but fall for network news and national and local papers. College education generally lowers opinions of news media. Note also that women and blacks are generally more favorable.
And now for some good news?
Pew finds encouragement in the enduring positive view of the press’ watchdog role. Well, yes, except that view is declining and it is now a minority view among Republicans. In 1985, during the Reagan years, 67% of Americans — 65% of Republicans, 71% of Democrats — supported the watchdog view. Today that’s 58% for the nation, 71% still for Democrats, but only 44% for Republicans (who fell below the majority line in 2003).
What is it about local TV news?
Finally, I remain befuddled by the continued high ratings for local TV news, which comes out only slightly behind local newspapers. Local TV news sucks. It’s all fires, press releases, weather teases, and time-shifting (‘Police this morning are searching for the criminals who allegedly performed a crime right here where I’m standing last night but in fact no one who’s involved in the story is here right now and I could read this same script to you from the studio after I cadge it from the newspaper but standing here it seem so real and current, doesn’t it? Back to the you, Sally Ann…’). There’s no reporting. The faces we see are all transient as they head from market to market; they don’t know our towns. They’re often not too bright. But yet, they seem friendly. And I fear that the reason people like them is because they don’t report. What’s not to like about pap and predictability?