Who you gonna believe? Survey says: Not the news media

We hear a lot lately about the struggles of traditional news media in the Internet age. But it seems a lot of people believe the damage may be self-inflicted.

A new study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press indicates the fewest number of people in more than two decades believe the media accurately reports the news. The study shows that in July 2009 only 29% of Americans believe news organizations generally get the facts straight, while 63% say news stories are often inaccurate. That is a drastic change from when this was first surveyed in July 1985. Then, 55% said news stories were accurate while 34% said they were inaccurate.

What should be equally concerning to news organizations is that this attitude also seems to be reflected in views of its stature. Today, a full 70% say the press tries to cover up its mistakes, compared to 55% in 1985, while those saying the press is “highly professional” dropped from 72% in 1985 to 59% this year. The latter mirrors almost exactly the increase in those saying the press is “not professional,” up to 27% this year from 11% in 1985. These results also appear to reflect some degree of partisanship in American politics. For example, while 11% of both Democrats and Republicans considered the press not professional in 1985, this year it was 39% of Republicans and 18% of Democrats. Yet there is one area where the decrease in believability was more bipartisan. In 1985 37% of Republicans and 32% of Democrats said the media was often inaccurate compared to 69% of Republicans and 59% of Democrats this year.

Polarization in American politics over the last two decades in seen in other areas. For example, nearly three-quarters of Republicans (72%) view Fox News favorably compared to 43% of Democrats. While I’m surprised the last number is that high, I am even more shocked that in 2007 61% of Democrats viewed Fox News favorably. For comparison, only 16% of Republicans view the New York Times favorably compared to 39% of Democrats. While Fox News was the media outlet viewed most favorably by Republicans, for Democrats it was CNN at 75% (compared to 44% for Republicans).

What perhaps isn’t surprising is that, as a rule, local news outlets fare a bit better. A majority of people hold favorable opinions of local TV news (73%) and the daily newspaper they are most familiar with (65%). But there’s also bad news for newspapers which most people won’t find surprising. While television continues to be the main source of national and international news for most (715), the Internet is now second in that category. It increased from 24% in September 2007 to 42% now, while newspapers stayed roughly the same (34% and 33%, respectively). The only saving grace for newspapers appears to be local news, where 41% rely on newspapers and only 17% on the Internet. It isn’t clear, though, whether the survey distinguished between how many of those relying on the newspaper for local news were getting the news from the dead tree version or off newspaper web sites.

As the survey was conducted in July, they don’t reflect the impact of the coverage of the health care reform debate during the August Congressional recess. I speculate the media would fare even worse in the accuracy department across the board.

Media is a word that has come to mean bad journalism.

Graham Greene, Ways of Escape

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