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.
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.
Bias and Negativity in News Coverage
Journalists could, but seldom do, offer explanations to the public for aspects of their work that are most likely to lead to perceptions of both bias and negativity. The explanation of bias, which more consumers identify as liberal than conservative, lies in the widely accepted description of what journalists do. Their watchdog role, which requires them to question authority, report on social inequities, and give a voice to the voiceless, can lead those who consume and observe their work to ascribe liberal-leaning ideological motives to their reporting. However, seen from another perspective, journalism in America is also conservative, given that most journalists accept—and integrate into their coverage—the status quo of two-party politics, free-market economy, and the prevailing myth of social mobility. In fact, the ideological spectrum of mainstream politics and journalism in the United States is much narrower than it is in most developed societies.
The complaint of negativity also arises from how “news” is defined. Efficient government, honest business, and safe streets are things that journalists are trained to see as usual and, therefore, not newsworthy. When government fails, when business people cheat, when crime erupts—that’s news. It is hard to envision that consumers of news reporting would prefer this dynamic to be turned around.
These findings from this study—and explanations that arise from them— point to several actions journalists could and, in our view, should pursue.
Journalists should adhere to ethical standards. Journalists should remember what they say they value and practice what they profess about maintaining respect for those in the news and in the audience. They should, as their ethics code requires, pursue the truth, maintain their independence, and minimize harm.
Journalists should explain themselves. Objectivity, the long-time creed of American journalism, requires that journalists bring openmindedness and transparency to their work. Journalists seem better at the former than they are with the latter, yet consumers of news would benefit from knowing more about how and why journalists do what they do. The relationship between practitioners and audiences would benefit, too.
In the end, though, this study affirms that journalism still occupies a central and valued role in America. David Hudson, a 47-year-old computer network manager in Alabama, put it this way: “Journalism may be slanted, but it’s the best way to get the news. If you take away journalism, you’d want it back with whatever flaws it has.”
George Kennedy is a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri. He codesigned this study, which was conducted by the Center for Advanced Social Research at the University of Missouri. Given the sample number, there is a 95 percent chance that the results are accurate to within 4.4 percent, plus or minus. This study is part of a book project, with the working title “What Good is Journalism?” that is expected to be published in late 2005 by the University of Missouri Press.