Public Policy Polling yesterday released its annual study of people’s trust in TV news, and the results are sure to please Fox News detractors. Last year, 49 percent of respondents said they trusted Fox News Channel; this year just 42 percent do. Last year, 37 percent said they distrusted Fox; this year, 46 percent of respondents said they did. The once most trusted name in news—according to last year’s poll—is now the least. (PPP surveyed 632 American voters, 40 percent Democrats, 37 percent Republican, and the poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.9 percent. The full survey results are available in a PDF.)
Here is the broad-brushstrokes table that shows PBS (not included last year) is the most trusted place for TV news, and that the networks are all more trusted this year than they were last year. (via the PPP blog)
And some finer grain stuff.
Reporters are mostly focusing on Fox, parsing through the factors that have led to its trust decline. Mara Gay at AOL’s Surge Desk writes: “According to the polling data, the network lost ground with moderates and liberals: 60 percent of moderates in this year’s poll said they distrust the network, while only 48 percent did a year ago. Not surprisingly, Fox fared even worse among liberals: 82 percent of them said they distrust the network, versus 66 percent a year ago.”
Media Matters implies its own reasons:
Fox News’ 2010 featured the network’s hosts and contributors aggressively campaigning and fundraising for the GOP, trafficking in over-the-top rhetoric, and hyping an unending cavalcade of manufactured scandals (like Obama supposedly giving a major chunk of Arizona back to Mexico).
2010 also marked the network’s hiring of Sarah Palin, their continued employment of serial misinformer Glenn Beck, and the revelation that Fox execs are deliberately slanting the network’s news coverage.
In likely related news, Public Policy Polling released their second annual TV News Trust Poll, which found that, in contrast to a year ago, a plurality of Americans now distrust Fox News.
For me, though, the most fascinating figure is not Fox’s drop, but the relatively low levels of trust respondents had in network channels ABC and CBS. First, why are the networks so un-trusted across the board? And second, what is it about NBC that makes it significantly more trustworthy than its competitors? There is nothing in the report that gives a clear or even a muddled reason.
Perhaps, in the future, an extra layer of questioning could get at what it is about a channel that makes it trustworthy or not. (Also, perhaps a clearer explanation to readers and respondents of what “trusts” or “distrusts” actually means.) Not only would these questions show specifically what might build “trust,” but they would show specific areas in which channels were failing to build it. Why not ask
“Do you trust Fox News’s anchors?”
“Do you trust NBC’s reporting?”
“Do you trust ABC’s polling?”
“Do you trust CNN’s disaster coverage?”
“Do you trust Fox News’s daytime coverage? Its primetime coverage?”
It could get out of hand, but it would no doubt be revealing
Another question I have looking at these results: Where’s MSNBC?
On the PPP Blog, Tom Jensen writes, “It may be MSNBC’s liberal tilt that vaults its parent network to the top overall.” Given that just 18 percent of respondents said they were liberal, and 40 percent Democrats, I am not so sure. But why wasn’t MSNBC included in the survey independently? It might have been confusing to respondents, having NBC and its sister station in the survey, but it would have added value.
The hot-button cable news story of the past year or so has been MSNBC vs. Fox: Are they ideologically opposite equivalents in their presentation of the news, or is this, as many have suggested, a false equivalency? We may not be able to quantify whether Phil Griffin’s network is the Fox News of the left, but including it in this survey would have given some insight into where the public stands on the matter.
But the biggest question I have looking at the data is whether trustworthiness (whatever that really means) plays into what people actually choose watch. That question could have been asked. As could this: Which channel do you most frequently tune into? With that result, we could begin to determine whether there is any correlation between what people watch and what they trust. For now, all we have is this PPP report and the ratings. And combined, they seem to suggest that at least in cable news trust and viewership do not go hand in hand. We report, you decide. Least trusted, most watched.
Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.
Tags: cable news, CNN, Fox News, NBC, Public Policy Polling