A year-long investigation, sponsored by Times Mirror, indicates that press supporters in America outnumber critics two to one. it also show that supporters and critics alike think the press is not free enough from outside influences in the way it reports the news.
These conclusions are not the result of any single question or response. They emerge, instead, from a statistical interpretation based on dozens of measures applied to thousands of respondents interviewed throughout 1985. These are but two of 16 major conclusions. But it isn’t just the conclusions Times Mirror wants to present in this report. The way in which Gallup conducted these surveys also becomes an important part of the story.
A year ago, Times Mirror asked The Gallup Organization to design a series of studies and surveys that, taken together, would provide a deeper understanding of public orientations toward the press. Recognizing that many other studies existed — but knowing, too, that these earlier polls often raised as many questions as they answered — Times Mirror commissioned Gallup to develop its own methodology, one that would probe the underlying dimensions of public opinion toward the press. Times Mirror also asked Gallup to design the study so it could be repeated to track future public attitudes toward the press. Finally, Gallup was assigned the task of solving some of the puzzles in public attitudes toward the press that other polls had presented.
Beginning last spring, Gallup conducted focus group interviews in three metropolitan areas, Then, last summer, Gallup carried out four waves of national survey research. All told, Gallup conducted some 4,000 interviews in the summer and autumn of 1985. The focus groups and four national surveys constitute the largest, most fully integrated analysis ever conducted into public thinking about the American News media.
The study employed sophisticated cluster analysis techniques rarely used in public opinion research. The conclusions rendered are based not only on what people said to individual questions, but on the overall patterns of responses given during the course of the one-hour interview. The study not only looked at literal responses, but what respondents seemed to mean when all the pieces were put together and their attitudes considered as a whole.
The size of the surveys allowed Times Mirror and Gallup to revisit some of the most customary issues in public attitudes toward the news media — including measures of credibility and favorability, traditional concerns in past polls. This landmark study also incorporated new indicators dealing with the saliency of the press and with the relative value the public assigns to press freedom.
But Times Mirror and Gallup believe the study’s most distinguishing characteristic is the approach used in studying public opinion toward the press. Gallup moved beyond traditional polling practices and conducted a full-scale investigation.
In order to do this investigation, Gallup also initiated a “double-back” methodology. As is often done, Gallup interviewed thousands of the same people at different points in time But, in this instance, the re-interviewing — doubling back — was done not to measure change in opinion over time. Instead, the “double-back” technique allowed Gallup to explain some of the enigmas that emerged in earlier surveys and which appeared also in the earliest phases of Gallup’s own research.