A new study commissioned by the Missouri School of Journalism suggests that Americans have a more positive, more complicated set of attitudes toward journalism than the recent wave of media criticism implies.
“The consumers of American journalism respect, value and need it. But they’re also skeptical about whether journalists really live up to the standards of accuracy, fairness and respect for others that we profess,” said George Kennedy, co-author of the study and a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.
For example, the school’s national survey shows that, by 62 percent to 18 percent, respondents agree with the statement, “Journalism in the U.S. is mainly a force for good.” By the same three-to-one margin, respondents agreed, “I personally benefit from what journalists provide.” And by 75 percent to 12 percent, they agreed, “Journalism helps me understand what is going on in America.”
However, respondents to the Missouri survey agreed with results of other national surveys that they see bias in journalism (85 percent to 13 percent); that journalists too often invade the privacy of their subjects (65 percent to 26 percent); and that journalism is too negative (77 percent to 22 percent).
Kennedy said that what distinguishes this study from the dozens of recent surveys showing disdain and distrust of journalism is that this one asked, along with the usual questions, a number of questions other surveys haven’t included.
“We wanted to find out whether journalism actually serves any useful purposes in people’s lives, and what those purposes might be,” he said. “We also, of course, wanted to assess whether people believe what they read or hear.”
The conclusion was that a majority of Americans thinks journalism is important and trusts what journalists tell them, though with some reservations.
One survey respondent who agreed to be interviewed was Kimberly Huggins, a 25-year-old candy store owner in Georgia. Her assessment seems to be widely shared: “There are a lot of outrageous things, but how do you curb the outrageous things without getting in the way of things we need to know? It’s good to know what’s going on.”
Respondents agreed, by 93 percent to 4 percent, that “the freedom of the press is important to our system of government.” Asked whether journalists have too much or too little of that freedom, 14 percent of respondents said “too little;” 23 percent said “too much;” and 60 percent said “about the right amount.”
Moreover, respondents strongly supported the investigative, or watchdog, role of journalism. By 83 percent to 8 percent, they agreed, “It is important for journalists to press for access to information about our government, even when officials would like to keep it quiet.”
But they were less positive about how well journalists exercise that role; 65 percent rated journalists “good watchdogs over public officials,” and 59 percent said journalists are “good watchdogs over business practices.” By 53 percent to 28 percent, respondents agreed that “journalists do a good job of protecting the public from abuses of power.”
And by 74 percent to 18 percent, respondents said journalists tend to favor one side over the other in political and social issues. Of the 85 percent who said they see bias in the news, 48 percent identified that bias as liberal; 30 percent identified it as conservative. They also said, by 70 to 22 percent, that they think journalists are “often influenced” by “powerful people and organizations.”