There’s substantial agreement on what Americans want from the news media and what journalists want to report, according to a pair of studies that also reveal a troubling caveat: a nagging feeling among both the ideal isn’t being met.
Public suspicion about journalism is also fueled by some basic misunderstandings on how the process works, particularly in an era of rapid change, according to the twin surveys of the American public and journalists released Monday by the Media Insight Project. The effort is a collaboration between The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the American Press Institute.
The close look at attitudes comes in the midst of President Donald Trump’s relentless attacks on the news media and the continued downsizing of the economically beleaguered newspaper industry. It has left journalists beaten down: The surveys found about 3 in 4 journalists believe the public’s level of trust in the news media has decreased in the past year. Yet only 44 percent of American adults actually say their level of trust has decreased.
The public actually wants what most journalists say they want to give them — news stories that are factual and offer context and analysis, said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. But the public doesn’t feel like they’re seeing enough of that work, with 42 percent of Americans saying journalists stray too far into commentary, according to the new research.
That’s one reason that Anna Retana, a mother of five from Emumclaw, Washington, said that she’s cut back on her news consumption.
“Most people who watch the news or read a newspaper, they’re wanting to find out the truth,” Retana said. “They don’t want to have tons of propaganda to sift through, and that’s what we see a lot of.”
Journalists can’t take for granted that the public knows what it’s getting, Rosenstiel said. Much of journalism’s shared language and structure is rooted in newspapers, yet many Americans get their news through social media streams, where it isn’t always clear from where stories come, Rosenstiel said. Newspapers have “op-ed” sections, yet half of the public doesn’t know what the term means.
That may contribute to the finding that most American adults aged 18 to 29 think the news is fairly inaccurate, while most above 30 felt it was fairly accurate.
There’s broad agreement that journalists need to do a better job of explaining their work. Sixty-eight percent of the public said the media should offer more information about its sources — and 66 percent of the journalists agree. Nearly half of the public said journalists should explain how their story was reported and 42 percent of the journalists said the same thing.
“You need to explain the mystery of how the meal was cooked,” Rosenstiel said. “We ought to take a cue from the way people go to the grocery store. Before they buy something, they need to learn what the ingredients are.”
The public and journalists answered similarly on what each thought the media should be doing, with one major exception. Only a little more than half of the people said the press should act as a watchdog to powerful people and institutions, while 93 percent of journalists view this as their role.
There’s some good news about journalism. When Americans are asked about their favorite news organization, a third of them say they trust it more than they did a year ago, while only about 1 in 10 say their level of trust has declined.
Lamar Walker, of Huntsville, Alabama, said he follows the news on his smartphone and smart TV and feels smarter for it. He thinks the news media is doing an “excellent” job.
“As long as they’re telling the truth, a lot of people are going to like the news,” Walker said.
The poll of 2,019 adults was conducted March 21 through April 17. It used a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all adults is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Respondents were first selected randomly using address-based sampling methods, and later interviewed online or by phone.
The poll of 1,127 journalists was conducted March 1 through April 12 using a sample selected from a database of media contacts maintained by Cision Media Research. The margin of sampling error for all journalists is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The surveys were conducted with funding from the American Press Institute.