Public strongly backs news media as ‘watchdog on government’

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

WASHINGTON — Americans strongly support the idea of a free press as a watchdog on government, despite concerns by many about bias in news reports, according to the 2011 State of the First Amendment national survey conducted by the First Amendment Center.

The results, the latest in an ongoing series of polls since 1997 concerning public knowledge and opinion about the First Amendment, were released today in remarks at the National Press Club by First Amendment Center President Ken Paulson. Paulson also is president of the American Society of News Editors, the nation’s largest organization of newsroom leaders.

In the national survey conducted in June, 76% agreed it is important for our democracy that the news media act as an independent “watchdog” over government on behalf of the public; 66% disagreed with the statement, “The news media try to report the news without bias.”

The survey also found strong support for the concept of “shield laws”: 75% said journalists should be able to keep sources confidential, the highest level of support in the survey’s results over the last decade.

Those surveyed also supported greater transparency by the U.S. Supreme Court: 78% of poll respondents say broadcasters and others should be able to televise the Court’s proceedings.

“The First Amendment gives journalists extraordinary freedom to pursue and publish the news, but also creates the expectation that these liberties will be used in the public interest, keeping an eye on people in power,” Paulson said.

Other results from the survey:

  • Only 3% of those surveyed could name “petition” as one of the five freedoms in the First Amendment, the lowest percentage of any of the five freedoms.
  • Only freedom of speech was named by more than half of respondents, 62%. Freedoms of religion, press and assembly were named by fewer than 20% of those responding.
  • A majority of those surveyed say that public high school students should be allowed to report on controversial issues in their student newspapers without the approval of school authorities.
  • 62% say that public schools should not be allowed to discipline students for comments they post outside of school.

“Even as we prepare to celebrate on Dec. 15 the 220th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, most Americans can name only one of the five freedoms in the First Amendment,” said Gene Policinski, senior vice president of the First Amendment Center. “Educators and others must join in an effort to provide at least this base level of knowledge about our most basic freedoms.”

The 2011 survey was conducted by telephone by the PERT Group, directed by Kenneth Dautrich. The national survey of 1,006 adult respondents was conducted in June by telephone. The sampling error is +/-3.2%.

See previous State of the First Amendment surveys.

The PERT Group is headquartered in Bloomfield, Conn., with offices in Pittsburgh and Kansas City, and personnel in Stamford, Conn., Caldwell, N.J., and Philadelphia.

The First Amendment Center works to preserve and protect First Amendment freedoms through information and education. The center serves as a forum for the study and exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, of the press and of religion, and the rights to assemble and to petition the government. The center, with offices at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and Washington, D.C., is an operating program of the Freedom Forum and is associated with the Newseum.

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News media contacts:

  • First Amendment Center experts are available to discuss the survey findings and other religious-liberty and free-expression issues. Please contact Gene Policinski at 615-579-5560.
  • For information about how the survey was conducted, contact Ken Dautrich, PERT Group, 860-604-4305.

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