Study: Journos, Public Hold Divergent Views on Media

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By: Joe Strupp

A major survey released Tuesday by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center shows that the public and working journalists have sharply different views about press freedom, bias in news, and journalists’ rights.

While many often charge the media with bias, nearly half of non-journalists polled said they believed partisan journalism was a good thing. Journalists disagreed with them on this point.

The non-journalists charge news organizations with often getting their facts wrong and more than half say the government should limit press freedoms at times, according to the national survey conducted for the Annenberg Center.

But journalists surveyed in the same study — including reporters, editors, TV producers, and owners — sharply disagreed with the public on those issues and many others, defending the quality of their work and strenuously opposing government controls.

As in most previous surveys of journalists, a high number called themselves politically “moderate” (49%), with 31% describing themselves as “liberal” and just 9% as “conservative.”

Forty-eight percent of the public but only 11% of journalists said news organizations were “often inaccurate.” When serious mistakes are made, 74% of the journalists said news organizations quickly report the error, but only 30% of the public said they do. In the public, 24% said news organizations try to ignore errors and 41% said they try to cover them up.

“That was the most surprising thing, the public perception that journalists don’t correct errors,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Center, told E&P. “We focused on the serious errors and you have journalists believing they correct them. You’d like to know what the truth is.”

Sixteen percent of the 673 news professionals polled and 43% of the 1,500 non-journalists surveyed said it was “a good thing if some news organizations have a decidedly political point of view in their coverage of the news.” Eighty percent of journalists and 53% of the public said it was a “bad thing.”

These findings mirror results in several other recent surveys.

“This study reveals a worrisome divide between the public’s view of journalism and journalists’ own views of their work,” Geneva Overholser, a former Washington Post ombudsman and the author of a new book on the press, said in a statement. “If journalists do indeed believe that what they do is valuable, fair, and ethically sound, it’s past time they began to put that case more effectively to the public.”

“The public perception that journalism is often inaccurate should raise alarm in the journalistic community. Confidence in the press is built on the belief that fact is reliably reported,” Jamieson said in a statement. “The public belief that when reporters get the facts wrong they fail to quickly report the error invites editors to ask what accounts not only for that perception but for the discrepancy between their confidence in the correction process and the public’s doubts.”

Among respondents who were asked if the government “has the right to limit the right of the press to report a story,” 44% of journalists said “never,” 48% said “rarely” and 6% said “sometimes.” Among the non-journalists, 29% said “never,” 17% said “rarely,” 37% said “sometimes” and 14% said “always.”

Survey organizers acknowledged that the journalists polled, with a median of 23 years of experience, was distinctly more liberal than the public in general, measured by a separate poll of 1,500 adults. Thirty-one percent of those in the journalists’ sample called themselves liberal, 49% said they were moderates and just 9% said they were conservatives. In the public generally, 24% said they were liberal, 33% moderate, and 38% conservative.

“The study did not probe political opinions on many issues, but one question did measure a huge gap between journalists and the public,” the survey stated. “The journalists were asked whether they favored a law in their state that would allow same-sex marriages. Fifty-nine percent said they did, while 20% said they did not. In polling for the National Annenberg Election Survey last year, only 28% of the public favored such a law while 64% did not.”

The survey revealed differences among conservative journalists and conservatives in the public at large, as well. For example, among conservatives in the general public, 21% said the government never had the right to halt reporting and 15% said “rarely.” But among conservative journalists, 32% said “never” and 54% said “rarely.”

The survey of journalists was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International between March 7 and May 2, 2005, among 673 journalists including owners and executives, editors and producers, and staff journalists, and representing both print and broadcast media, and local and national organizations. Interviews were conducted online and by telephone by Princeton Data Source.

For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Among the 673 journalists surveyed, 424 were from newspapers, 10 from magazines, 48 from broadcast and cable television networks, 47 from top-50-market local television stations, 41 from other television stations, 26 from national radio networks, 14 from top-50-market local radio stations, 45 from Web sites, and 18 from wire services.

The newspaper staff respondents only included those from the 350 highest-circulation newspapers. They broke down to 188 from the top-20-circulation papers, 126 from papers ranked between 21 and 100 in circulation, and 110 from papers ranking between 101 and 350 in circulation.

The public survey was conducted by telephone between March 3 and April 5, 2005, among a nationwide representative sample of 1,500 adults 18 years of age and older. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Full survey results are available at the Annenberg Center’s Web site in PDF form.

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