PBS could help rebuild trust in US media

This piece is adapted from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s weekly newsletter.

In February, M&RR, a marketing research firm, released the results of a “nationwide survey” that found PBS to be “America’s most trusted institution.” According to a press release from the broadcaster, “a vast majority–76%–of respondents trust PBS ‘a great deal’ or ‘somewhat’ compared with lower-ranking perceptions of other institutions,” including government entities and other media outlets. PBS developed the survey, which designated it the “most trusted” institution for the past eighteen years. PBS and M&RR did not release the entire survey, nor the specific wording of many questions. 

 

Given that overall trust in both media organizations and public institutions is currently at an all-time low, and that ratings for PBS have been on the decline (except during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic), the unique trustworthiness of PBS deserves further exploration. In order to understand the issue of trust, to see how PBS can capitalize on this level of trust to expand viewership, and to ponder the potential role of PBS in building trust among Americans towards their public institutions, we surveyed PBS viewers to see how their trust in the network compared with their trust in other legacy news sources and social media platforms. 

 

With funding and support from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, we conducted an audience survey of PBS viewers over the course of two weeks in January 2021. We partnered with Qualtrics, an analytics firm, to reach 1,500 respondents who constitute a nationally representative sample of Americans. We endeavored to find out why Americans trust PBS, what aspects of PBS garner the most trust, and what factors explain this level of trust even as PBS viewership has fluctuated. 

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The results from our research both modify and complicate the findings from PBS and M&RR’s most recent survey. Since our research respondents were limited to self-identified PBS viewers, it came as no surprise that more than 50 percent said that PBS was a highly-consumed source in their individual news diets. But in an untrusting and deeply polarized society and media ecosystem, PBS stands out as a rare, potentially unique space where viewers from across the political spectrum come for news and information. Our survey found that the political leanings of PBS viewers span the spectrum from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. This diversity in viewership suggests a potential role for PBS in improving trust in news and media and in reducing polarization. Its tempered, fact-based, and perceived political neutrality may be a template to follow as American television news looks to reinvent itself in the wake of the 2016 and 2020 presidential election cycles. 

Our findings also indicate that when Americans watch PBS news, they do so because they find the programming trustworthy and unbiased or neutral. Of the 1,500 viewers surveyed, more than half rank PBS as neutral when asked about “bias in news.” When asked, “What aspects of PBS contribute to your sense of trust in PBS?” 32 percent answered that local PBS station’s news coverage bolstered their trust. Even more respondents–40 percent–said that PBS’ national news programming led them to trust PBS. 

 

Such trust might support PBS assuming a more prominent role in the media ecosystem. For that to happen, however, PBS will require greater financial investment in both local and national news reporting, current affairs and wider programming. PBS receives funding from multiple sources, including the federal government. Government funding first passes to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which then distributes funds to the local television stations affiliated with PBS. The CPB was established as a firewall between Congress and the local stations so that, ideally, Congress could not directly influence programming decisions through the withholding of funds. In 2019, the CPB  received $445 million dollars from the federal government. This yearly amount has not changed significantly since 2014. The bulk of this money–89 percent in 2019 –goes to supporting hundreds of local public radio and television stations across the country (75 percent goes to television, while 25 percent goes to radio). Television’s share in 2019 came to $304 million. Out of this $304 million, only $75.93 million was spent on actual programming. The rest went to paying salaries, purchasing equipment, and keeping the lights on. Federal funding accounts for only 15 percent of the budget for public television. The bulk of PBS’ budget comes from “viewers like you,” contributions from state and local governments, individual donations, and corporate gifts. And regardless of outlet, TV programming can be quite expensive. Without greater public support, there is little financial room to invest in quality news programming that could strengthen viewer loyalty and trust. 

 

These financial limitations also play a role in how PBS is able to engage digitally with audiences. Looking at how audience members consume PBS content, the majority of our respondents preferred to access PBS content online or through apps and social media rather than through broadcast. 

Our results present both PBS and Congress with a digital dilemma rooted in over a decade of research that points to the country’s need for a more robust system of public-service media. In 2008, Ellen Goodman, a law professor at Rutgers University, wrote about the need for the US to move from a belief in “public service broadcasting” to a more dynamic and inclusive “public service media.” Most European countries made this semantic and purposeful shift years ago, embracing digital platforms over more traditional broadcasting. In 2010, Goodman co-authored a paper recommending that Congress turn the Public Broadcasting Act into the Public Media Act, which would have given the Corporation for Public Broadcasting more room to fund organizations that produce digital media, not just to local stations. Part of the US public media funding problem, Goodman contended, was that the bulk of the federal funding for public broadcasting “is devoted to the massive physical infrastructure required for broadcasting… [And] to a large extent, this system is outdated because broadcasting itself is no longer the dominant medium…” This statement is as true today as it was in 2008.

 

Our research gives weight to Goodman’s argument that public broadcasting must be improved and untethered from the medium of broadcasting to meet the needs and demands of a digital audience. An audience whose needs are met may be more inclined to trust the media they are consuming. For PBS to experiment digitally and keep the lights on, it requires greater funding and a rethink of public policies towards public broadcasting. If the funds were available for digital experimentation at the local level of broadcasting and within the PBS programming community broadly, PBS may be able to play a larger role in restoring trust in the media.

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Christopher Ali, Hilde Van den Bulck and Bo Lee

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