Good Press, Bad Press

It’s become a popular mantra recently that the press is losing credibility with the American people. But from a survey (PDF) conducted by the First Amendment Center in collaboration with American Journalism Review this spring, things are only looking half bad.

For one thing, it turns out Americans don’t all view journalists as a lawless bunch running amok armed with press hats, anonymous sources, and a childlike will to do as they please. In fact, only 39 percent said that “the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants,” while 10 percent said the press has too little freedom, and 47 percent thought the amount of freedom is perfect as is. Compare that to five years ago, when a majority — 51 percent — said the press had too much freedom.

When it comes to coverage of the war, though, respondents tend to pull in the reins. In response to the statement “Newspapers should be allowed to freely criticize the U.S. military about its strategy and performance,” 59 percent said they agree, but more than a fourth strongly disagree.

AJR broke the findings about four questions from that survey that specifically deal with the news media — questions that brought in more mixed results.

Somewhat surprisingly, 69 percent of respondents said that “Journalists should be allowed to keep a news source confidential.” The survey was administered in late May, so it’s possible that those numbers would be different now that Judith Miller is behind bars. But even back in May we had Newsweek’s mistaken Koran story behind us and the anticipation of the Plame verdict looming ahead. Concern over anonymous sources has been percolating long enough that major newspapers have recently reworked their guidelines for anonymous sources (although whether they followed through with those changes is up for debate). Given that, a 69 percent approval rating for anonymous sources is higher than one might expect.

But there’s some gap between what people seem to think of the press in theory, versus what they think of actual product. While 74 percent said media acting as a check on government is “important for our democracy,” 65 percent thought that “The falsifying or making up of stories in the American news media is a widespread problem.” And concern over media bias (whatever that may mean) has remained high: down 6 percent from last year, 33 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “Overall, the news media tries to report the news without bias,” while 42 percent strongly disagreed and another 22 percent mildly disagreed.

In short, what this seems to add up to is a portrait of a public that wants to trust the press, but a press corps that keeps giving the public reasons not to trust it.

We know the feeling.

Samantha Henig

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Samantha Henig was a CJR Daily intern.