The November general election is rapidly approaching, with debates raging over how fairly news outlets are covering the candidates and important issues. Survey data from earlier this year shows that most Americans think news coverage in their country is one-sided, but they fault media organizations themselves much more than the journalists who work for them.  

About eight-in-ten Americans think news coverage favors one side, more so among Republicans

Overall, about eight-in-ten Americans (79%) say news organizations tend to favor one side when presenting the news on political and social issues, according to a survey conducted Feb. 18 to March 2, 2020. Far fewer (20%) say these organizations deal fairly with all sides. The share of Americans who say news organizations tend to favor one side has increased 7 percentage points since early 2019.

Republicans have long been more likely than Democrats to say news coverage unfairly favors one side, and that remains the case today. About nine-in-ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (91%) think news coverage of political and social issues favors one side, compared with 69% of Democrats and Democratic leaners.

To examine Americans’ views of whether news coverage is fair to all sides, we surveyed 10,300 U.S. adults between Feb. 18 and March 2, 2020. Everyone who completed the survey is a member of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. Recruiting our panelists by phone or mail ensures that nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. This gives us confidence that any sample can represent the whole population (see our Methods 101 explainer on random sampling). To further ensure that each survey reflects a balanced cross section of the nation, the data is weighted to match the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.

Here are the questions used for this analysis, along with responses, and its methodology.

Visit our interactive data tool to access the questions included in this post, as well as other data on Americans’ attitudes toward the news media.

This analysis was made possible by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which received support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Where do Americans place the blame for this perceived lack of fairness? Among those who say news outlets tend to favor one side, roughly eight-in-ten (83%) say this favoritism is mostly because of the news organizations themselves, not the individual journalists. Just 16% say the journalists are to blame.

Americans largely blame news outlets, not journalists, for unfair coverage, and think political agendas get in the way of coverage being fair

Republicans and Democrats are equally likely to place the blame on news organizations instead of journalists. Among those who think news coverage favors one side, 83% of both Republicans and Democrats (including leaners) say this.

The most common reason that Americans see for unfair news coverage is the pushing of a political agenda. Among those who say news outlets tend to favor one side, about two-thirds (66%) say the most common source is political views or an agenda. This is far higher than the portion who say the most common reason for unfair coverage is financial interests (20%), poor journalistic practices (8%) or insufficient time and resources (6%).

Republicans who think news coverage favors one side are more likely than Democrats to cite a political agenda as the main reason for unfair coverage (78% vs. 54%), but members of both partisan coalitions are more likely to say this than any other reason. Democrats, meanwhile, are more likely than Republicans to cite financial interests as the main reason (28% vs. 11%).

Most Americans think journalists can set aside their views when reporting

One potential reason the public may place the blame for unfair coverage on news organizations more than journalists is that Americans generally believe individual journalists are capable of distancing their own views from their reporting. Six-in-ten U.S. adults say it is possible for journalists to fully set aside their own views and opinions when reporting on an issue or event, much higher than the 39% who say they cannot do this. And while Democrats are somewhat more likely than Republicans to think journalists are able to distance their views from their reporting, at least half in both parties say this (65% vs. 53%).

To explore public attitudes on these questions in more detail, visit our interactive data tool.

Note: Here are the questions used for this analysis, along with responses, and its methodology.

Mason Walker  is a research analyst focusing on journalism and media.
Jeffrey Gottfried  is a senior researcher focusing on journalism research at Pew Research Center.