AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2004

Low Marks   

The public takes a jaundiced view of the nation’s news media, a First Amendment Center/AJR poll finds. More than 60 percent believes making up stories is a widespread problem, and just 39 percent thinks news organizations try to report without bias.

By Paul McMasters
Paul McMasters is the Freedom Forum's First Amendment ombudsman.     

Related reading:
   » A Skeptical Public

The latest State of the First Amendment survey lands on the front porch of the nation's journalism community bristling with harsh headlines for the news media.

The 2004 edition of the poll, conducted by the First Amendment Center in collaboration with AJR, shows a recovery from a post-9/11 low in public support for the First Amendment in general, but Americans remain critical of the professionalism and ethics of the people and organizations that deliver the news.

They say that the press is biased, that it routinely falsifies and fabricates stories, and that it abuses its freedom.

In the minds of too many Americans, freedom of the press is the least popular of the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment – only 15 percent mentions the press when asked to list those five freedoms.

More alarming, four in 10 Americans believe the press has too much freedom.

Several first-time questions in the eight-year-old national survey prompted troubling responses related to the fabrication and plagiarism scandals such as the one at the New York Times – where rising star Jayson Blair tarnished the gold standard of journalism, brought down two top editors and caused dramatic policy changes. That uproar had not subsided before an eerily similar one in both sins and consequences arose at USA Today, although it was a globetrotting veteran, Jack Kelley, who authored the newsroom havoc there.

Despite expansive, long-term coverage and intense debate about these and similar scandals at other news organizations, barely half of the respondents in the SOFA poll said they had heard about the scandals. Of the 52 percent who had heard of the scandals, the majority, 66 percent, said their level of trust for the local newspapers had not changed; 30 percent said that the incidents had lowered their trust in their local papers.

Perhaps the most disappointing finding for journalists, however, is the fact that 61 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that "the falsifying or making up of stories in the American news media is a widespread problem."

There is more disappointment. At a time when both print and broadcast news organizations are struggling to distinguish the legitimate press from the partisan and polarizing elements of the general "media," the 2004 SOFA survey found that only 39 percent agreed with the statement that "the news media try to report the news without bias." The majority disagreed.

The news for the press is no better in responses to questions that have been asked in previous surveys. For example, while journalists and their critics continue to debate the promiscuous use of anonymous sources, 70 percent this year said they support the right of journalists to keep sources confidential. However, that is 15 points below the 85 percent who said so in 1997. Those who don't believe journalists should be able to keep their sources confidential doubled during that period from 12 percent to 25 percent.

Slightly more than half, 56 percent, agreed that "newspapers should be allowed to freely criticize the U.S. military about its strategy and performance," roughly the same number as in the previous two years the question was asked. The problem, of course, is that even mere facts, especially in a time of war, can be interpreted as critical of the military. Four in 10 Americans, however, do not think the press should be critical.

And while the fact that 42 percent of Americans believe the press has too much freedom is a sobering measure of distrust, that figure was 46 percent last year and peaked at 53 percent in 1999. Journalists and their advocates may be heartened that 12 percent in the current survey said the press has too little freedom; that is the highest such response in the history of the survey.

Interestingly, some respondents changed their minds when reminded of just whom press freedom in America belongs to. When asked in a separate question if "Americans" have too much press freedom, the response drops from 42 percent to 36 percent.

The 2004 survey did have a couple of nuggets of good news. In a first-time question, 77 percent agreed that the news media should act as a "watchdog" on government. Also, a growing number of Americans appear to share the press' concern about increasing government secrecy and control of information. In this year's poll, 50 percent said that they have too little information about the government's war on terrorism; that figure was 40 percent in 2002.

Journalists have their own opinions about the state of the press. A poll of national and local journalists in both print and broadcast media released earlier this summer by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed journalists to be quite critical of their profession. Substantial numbers thought journalism was headed in the wrong direction and that business demands were "seriously hurting" news coverage. They expressed concerns about factual errors, sloppy reporting, simplistic coverage and distortions in reporting caused by the 24-hour news cycle.

Winning popularity contests with the public is not the point of journalism, of course. In fact, about the best the press, a habitual bearer of bad news, can hope for in the public mind is grudging respect. But to the extent the press appears to be falling short of what most journalists and most Americans want it to be, the opinions revealed in the latest State of the First Amendment survey offer some insight into what must be done to close that gap.

It is important to note that poor showings in public opinion polls, layered upon their own concerns about the press today, can cause journalists, as well as their audiences, to lose sight of the great good the American press does on a daily basis.

Journalists and their advocates need to find new and better ways to deliver that story to the American public. These findings in the 2004 State of the First Amendment survey lend a new level of urgency to that assignment.

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