The favorable reaction to news coverage following Sept. 11 has clearly improved the public's broader view of the press's role and performance – especially as to whether news organizations stand up for America and protect democracy. However, there are still important aspects of press behavior that the public views negatively. In particular, roughly half (52%) say that the press tries to cover up its mistakes and nearly as many (47%) think the press is politically biased in its reporting.
In broader terms, just 35% say the news media helps society to solve its problems, only slightly higher than the 31% who felt that way before the attacks. About half of the public (51%) continues to believe that the news media “gets in the way” of society solving its problems.
Moreover, there is little evidence that the ideological gap in press evaluations has narrowed as a result of this new, more favorable climate for the media. Conservative Republicans, for the most part, remain highly critical of the news media, and in many cases the media's image has improved only on the moderate-to-liberal end of the political spectrum, further exacerbating ideological divisions.
Media's Weakest Links: Bias and Mistakes
For years, Republicans have been more convinced than Democrats that the press is politically biased in its reporting, and the events of the past few months have done little to change this view. As was the case in early September, a solid majority of Republicans think the press is politically biased. Democrats and independents, on the other hand, have become significantly less cynical about media bias since the terrorist attacks. Today, just four-in-ten independents see the media as biased, down from 57% prior to Sept. 11, and the decline among Democrats has been nearly as great (from 55% to 42% today).
Similarly, while there has been a 15-point overall decline (from 67% to 52%) since early September in the percentage saying the press covers up its mistakes, there is a somewhat larger partisan gap on this question. While 56% of Republicans and independents say the press typically tries to cover up its mistakes, 46% of Democrats agree.
More See Press as Pro-American
Public perceptions that the media both “stands up for America” and “protects democracy” have increased notably since the terrorist attacks, resulting in solid majorities viewing the press favorably in both of these areas. These shifts have been pronounced regardless of party identification, though Democrats are particularly likely to believe news organizations are standing up for America. Fully 78% of Democrats hold this view today, up from 47% in early September.
Gender and education are both related to views of press patriotism, but in contrasting ways. Women are significantly more likely to say that the press stands up for America, but men are more likely to say the press defends democracy. And while those with less education think the press is pro-American, more educated people see the press protecting democracy.
Young People More Positive
One of the most striking turnarounds in the public's view of the press is the perception of how news organizations treat the subjects of their reports. Prior to the attacks, less than a quarter (23%) said the press cared about the people they report on – the single lowest rating of any press evaluation on the survey. Today, that figure has doubled to a 47% plurality who feel the press cares about the people they report on.
In particular, the perceptions of younger Americans have undergone a dramatic change. Before Sept. 11, just 22% of those under age 30 thought news organizations cared about the people they report on; fully half (52%) hold that view today. Women are more likely to perceive the press as caring than are men (53% to 41%).
Professionalism Bounces Back
Traditionally, the public has rated the press highly for its professionalism. In the mid-1980s, nearly eight-in-ten said the press cared about how good a job it did, and more than seven-in-ten believed the media was highly professional. Even when these measures hit their nadir in 1999, 69% thought the press cared about its job performance, and a majority felt the press was professional. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, these ratings have returned to their previous highs. Today, 78% say the press cares about doing a good job, and 73% think of the press as highly professional.
Despite this perception of professionalism, Americans are divided as to whether news organizations get the facts straight (46%) or whether their stories and reports are often inaccurate (45%). Still, this divided sense of media accuracy represents a significant gain from early September when just 35% said they thought the press was typically accurate and 57% disagreed. This gain has occurred across all demographic and ideological groups fairly evenly, and there is no ideological divide with respect to press accuracy.
The Attentiveness Gap
Americans who have followed the news most closely since Sept. 11 tend to have a more favorable impression of news organizations than those with lower levels of news interest, particularly in their assessments of media values and how news organizations treat people. Of those who have followed the news most closely, 63% see news organizations as moral and 56% say the press cares about the people they report on. This compares with only 44% and 40%, respectively, among those who have paid the least attention to the news.
But attentive Americans are not uniformly more favorable toward the press. While those who are more attentive are much more likely than those who are not to say the press is willing to admit its mistakes, there is no significant gap between the attentive and inattentive with respect to evaluations of media accuracy. In addition, those who follow the news more closely have virtually identical perceptions of media bias as do those who pay little or no attention to the news.
Most See Criticism as Worth It
In spite of the war and the domestic terrorist dangers, general attitudes toward the media's watchdog role have remained fairly stable. When asked whether media criticism of political leaders keeps them from doing their jobs or keeps them from doing things that shouldn't be done, more than half (54%) choose the latter, down only slightly from 60% in early September. When asked whether criticism of the military weakens the country's defenses or keeps the nation militarily prepared, a 49% plurality chooses the latter, down from 59% shortly after the Gulf war.