Only 14 percent of the American public can identify freedom of the press as a right guaranteed by the First Amendment, according to a new study by the University of Connecticut’s department of public policy. That’s not particularly surprising, given the erosion of support for the media in recent years. More shocking is the fact that only 57 percent of journalists could identify freedom of speech as one of the amendment’s guarantees.
The national survey was conducted in late March and early April and included 1,000 adults and 300 television and newspaper journalists. It found considerable differences of opinion and understanding between reporters and the people they cover.
For example, only 3 percent of the journalists surveyed said the U.S. media have too much freedom. But 43 percent of the public felt that way. And while 95 percent of the journalists strongly agreed that newspapers should be allowed “to publish freely without governmental approval of a story,” only 55 percent of the public shared that enthusiasm. About one in five (22 percent) said the government should be allowed to censor the press.
When asked about a recent court ruling that required New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper to reveal confidential sources to a grand jury investigating leaks designed to discredit a government whistleblower, only 8 percent of journalists voiced approval for that decision. Yet a majority (57 percent) of the public said they agreed with the court.
However, 55 percent of non-journalists support the current effort to enact a federal Shield Law, along with 87 percent of news people.
According to Ken Dautrich, chairman of the department of public policy, the public’s views on the rights of the press are connected to doubts about the quality of the reporting. “If you look at the way the American public rates journalism, there’s a lot of skepticism,” he says. That skepticism is “based on the public’s lack of confidence in journalism today. Journalists, by feeding into that, are having a negative impact on general feelings about freedom of the press. The biggest divergence is on accuracy.”
While 72 percent of the journalists said their profession did a good or excellent job of reporting information accurately, only 39 percent of the public agreed. At the same time, 61 percent of the public respondents said they disagreed with the statement that “the news media tries to report the news without bias.” There’s particularly skepticism about stories that rely on unidentified sources. More than half (53 percent) of the public think stories with unnamed sources should not be published at all.
On the technology front, 83 percent of journalists reported using blogs, with four out of 10 saying they use them at least once a week. And 85 percent believe bloggers should enjoy First Amendment protections, although 75 percent say bloggers are not real journalists because they do not adhere to “commonly held ethical standards.”