Tensions inside American newsrooms have emerged amid the recent protests over the killing of George Floyd while in police custody, including clashes between reporters and editors and concerns about newsroom diversity. While a recent study shows black Americans give high marks to the news media’s coverage of the protests, a survey conducted before the protests found deep divides between racial and ethnic groups in feelings of how the news media represent them.
While most Americans say that the news media do not understand them, black, Hispanic and white Americans often cite very different reasons for why they are misunderstood, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted Feb. 18-March 2, 2020.
Overall, 59% of Americans think news organizations do not understand people like them, while a minority – 37% – say they do feel understood. This feeling is about on par with the last time the question was asked in 2018.
How we did this
This analysis of Americans’ feelings about how news organizations misunderstand people like them is based on a survey of 10,300 U.S. adults conducted Feb. 18 to March 2, 2020. Everyone who took part in the survey is a member of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel, 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.
This analysis was made possible by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which received support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
While no one reason dominates when looking at all Americans, sizable gaps exist between racial and ethnic groups in why they feel misunderstood. Roughly similar portions of black (58%), Hispanic (55%) and white Americans (61%) say the news media misunderstand them, but they cite markedly different reasons for this misunderstanding.
Black Americans are far more likely than the other two groups to feel that the misunderstanding is based on their race or some other demographic trait. Among black adults who think the news media do not understand people like them, about a third (34%) say the main way they are misunderstood is their personal characteristics. This is far higher than the 10% of white adults and 17% of Hispanic adults who say the same.
White Americans, on the other hand, are far more likely than the other groups to say the problem stems from political misunderstandings. Of white adults who say news organizations misunderstand them, nearly four-in-ten (39%) say it’s mostly based on their political views. About a quarter of Hispanic Americans say the same, and both groups are higher than black Americans (15%).
Hispanic Americans are somewhat more likely than the other two groups to think that their personal interests are what is misunderstood most (26%, compared with 16% of black and 17% of white adults). In a 2019 study, U.S. adults living in areas with a higher proportion of Hispanic residents were somewhat less likely to feel a connection to local journalists and news organizations, such as through speaking to a journalist.
All three racial or ethnic groups are about on par in thinking that the news media misunderstand their social and economic class.
A similar question was posed to those who feel the news media do understand them, asking how they are most understood, and again, no single reason dominates. (For more details, you can find a link to the questions and responses in “How we did this”). But on this question, the divides by race and ethnicity are often not nearly as large.
Divides do emerge between political parties and other demographic groups in whether they feel news organizations understand them. For instance, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are far more likely to feel the news media misunderstand them than Democrats and Democratic leaners (73% vs. 47%). Male U.S. adults are somewhat more likely than female adults to feel this, and those ages 18 to 29 are more likely to say this than those older than them.
Divides between the parties and demographic groups also emerge when it comes to why they feel misunderstood, though these divides are often not as large as by race and ethnicity, particularly when it comes to the feeling that their personal characteristics are misunderstood.
For instance, Republicans who feel news organizations misunderstand them are far more likely to say their political views are most misunderstood, while Democrats are somewhat more likely to cite their social class, personal interests and personal characteristics.
Americans 50 years of age and older are more likely to cite their political views, while those younger than that are more likely to think their personal interests are misunderstood. Those with a household income of $75,000 or higher are less likely to cite social class, but more likely to say political views than those with a lower household income.