Dueling polls: How popular is the press?

Sunday, December 2, 2001

Are the nation’s news media doing a good job of covering the war on terrorism? The answer may depend upon who’s doing the asking.

A new survey from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press indicates that two-thirds of Americans have a positive opinion of the press these days, while the Gallup Organization suggests that a majority of those polled disapprove of the news media’s performance, with 54% giving a negative rating.

These conflicting results come in the wake of years of declining public respect for the nation’s news media. In fact, surveys by the First Amendment Center show each year that roughly 50% of Americans believe the news media enjoy too much freedom.

Still, many in the news media had high hopes that Americans would rediscover just how important a free press can be in a free society, particularly at a time when national security is at stake and civil liberties are in play.

A report released this month by the Project for Excellence in Journalism noted that “local television news over the last generation ha[s] evolved into something less than journalism because the medium thought it lacked compelling stories to tell. Manipulating viewers overtook thinking about content.…

“Since that unthinkable September morning, Americans have returned to the news,” the report stated. “Now TV professionals have an opportunity, and a reason, to show the public that they can practice journalism again.”

This journalism has been well-received, according to the Pew Research Center survey:

About two-thirds of those polled said that the news media stand up for America and help protect democracy.

  • About 76% said coverage of the war on terrorism has been either good or excellent — a very positive number, but still below the 90% approval rating in the days following Sept. 11.

  • About 47% of those polled said the news media care about the people they report on, almost double the figure prior to the September attacks.
  • On the other hand, the Gallup poll suggests that the news media’s window of opportunity may have closed. The report cites two reasons for the news media’s fall from favor since Sept. 11. Gallup notes that 68% of respondents said the news media provided too much detailed information about U.S. military actions. (The Pew Center study also reflects support for some government censorship when national security is at stake.) And 60% said the news media overreacted to the threat of anthrax.

    Why does the popularity of the press even matter? Why should we care whether press credibility is up or down?

    Under the U.S. Constitution, a free press has a very special role to play. The Founding Fathers envisioned the First Amendment as a vehicle for keeping a powerful central government in check. To their credit, they guaranteed a free press at a time when the press was extremely partisan and often unfair.

    Years of media overkill, from O.J. Simpson to Gary Condit, have led many Americans to forget this important watchdog role. Sometimes it appears that we’re collectively so tired of the tabloidization of television news — and to some extent its newspaper rivals — that we lose sight of the pivotal role a free press plays in a democracy.

    Exacerbating the situation are those who for political or ratings reasons take every opportunity to paint the media as a biased monolith.

    In a newspaper column published this week, Fox News talk-show host Bill O’Reilly essentially equated the press with domestic terrorists, predicting that the news media will soon turn on President George W. Bush: “Hiding in the weeds, biding its time, is an enemy with its sights trained on Mr. Bush. … This covert enemy lives to bring down the powerful and successful, and the attackers don’t need bombs, bullets or anthrax. They use ink and innuendo.”

    O’Reilly is paid to be cynical, but it’s a bit much to lambaste the press for news coverage that hasn’t happened yet.

    None of this is to say that the press should receive a free pass. Now, perhaps as much as at any time, we need full, fair and responsible reporting.

    While the Gallup and Pew Center surveys give us conflicting views of how the general public feels, individual readers and viewers are in the best possible position to assess just how well their news media are covering the war on terrorism.

    Take a look at this morning’s newspaper. Is there significant coverage of the war in Afghanistan? Do the stories provide perspective and background? Are there efforts to explain how the events in Afghanistan affect the lives in your hometown? Does the editorial page reflect a cross-section of viewpoints about the war, including those of the newspaper? Overall, does the newspaper amplify and expand information you are getting from the electronic media?

    On the television front, does your local news program inform and not alarm? Are you getting real information rather than teaser bulletins like “New anthrax scare, tonight at nine”? Are important stories reported even if they don’t have strong visual elements?

    If your primary sources of news don’t meet these tests, this is a good time to speak up. While some dissatisfied news consumers will simply turn off the television or cancel the newspaper, there’s a real benefit in calling the editor or news director with your concerns.

    The truth is that most news professionals strive to do a good job. Many view their roles as a community service. Most are receptive to calls from the public they serve.

    The best path to improve journalism is through fair and balanced feedback from readers and viewers. Sometimes it takes a little free speech to help improve a free press.

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