October 2, 2009

Strong Support For Watchdog Role, Despite Public Criticism Of News Media

The press is coming under considerable fire these days. News organizations are facing a crippling financial crisis and public views of the accuracy of news stories have fallen to their lowest level in more than two decades, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

Nonetheless, most Americans continue to support the so-called “watchdog role” for the press. In fact, the percentage of Americans saying that press criticism of political leaders keeps them “from doing things that should not be done” is nearly as high now — at 62% — as it was in Pew Research’s first poll in 1985 (67%) when views of the news media were far less negative than they are today.

In 15 surveys since that initial poll, majorities have said that press criticism of political leaders keeps them from doing things that should not be done. Support for the press’s watchdog role has continued even as positive views of press performance have plummeted. In Pew Research’s most recent survey of press attitudes, released Sept. 13, just 29% said that news organizations get the facts straight; in 1985, nearly double that percentage (55%) said news stories were accurate.

Partisan opinions about press criticism of political leaders have shifted, depending on which party controls the White House. In the most recent survey, 65% of Republicans said press criticism of political leaders does more good than harm; in four surveys during the Bush administration, far fewer Republicans expressed this view (51% in 2001; 43% in 2003; 44% each in 2005 and 2007).

Democrats, by contrast, have become less supportive of a watchdog role for the press than they were during the Bush administration. In September, most Democrats (55%) saw more benefit than harm from press criticism of political leaders, but that was down substantially from 71% in 2007. Democratic support for the press’s watchdog role hit a low point immediately after the Lewinsky scandal broke; in February 1998, as many Democrats said press criticism keeps political leaders from doing their jobs as said it keeps leaders from doing things that should not be done (47% each).

Compared with opinions among partisans, independents’ views of the press’s watchdog role have shown far less change over the years. Currently, two-thirds of independents (66%) say that press criticism of political leaders keeps them from doing things that should not be done, which is broadly comparable to measures since 1985.

Cite this publication: Tom Rosentiel. “Strong Support For Watchdog Role, Despite Public Criticism Of News Media.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (October 2, 2009) http://www.pewresearch.org/2009/10/02/strong-support-for-watchdog-role-despite-public-criticism-of-news-media/, accessed on July 23, 2014.