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'Serious Reservations' on Fairness Are Cited : Poll Finds Most Americans Believe Press

January 16, 1986|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The American press does not face a credibility crisis, but Americans do harbor "serious reservations" about the media's fairness, objectivity and independence, according to an extensive public opinion survey released Wednesday by Times Mirror and the Gallup Organization.

Most Americans find the press believable, and those who generally support the press outnumber its critics 2 to 1, the study found. However, a majority of those surveyed think the press is regularly influenced by powerful institutions and people.

Critics of the news media, Gallup reported, "generally exhibit greater knowledge about the press, greater interest in press issues" than those who are supportive. The majority of critics also share a conservative ideology and a college education.

Despite their reservations, Americans generally view the press favorably because they value news and appreciate the press's role as a watchdog over government.

These are the overall conclusions of a nine-month survey entitled "The People & the Press" conducted by Gallup and sponsored by Times Mirror, parent company of the Los Angeles Times.

Despite substantial discussion about a crisis of confidence in the press over the last two years, Times Mirror initiated the poll because "We felt there was confusion between surveys and the way surveys were interpreted," said Tom Johnson, senior vice president of Times Mirror and publisher of the Los Angeles Times. "We weren't sure where we stood with regard to public opinion. Today I think we have a better understanding."

"We see no evidence of a broadly defined credibility crisis," said Andrew Kohut, president of Gallup. "However, the public appreciates the press more than it approves of its performance. And the critics are much more critical than supporters are supportive."

Gallup used a variety of special polling techniques to resolve in consistencies and puzzles created by previous research, including reinterviewing many of the study's original respondents to clarify conflicts and conducting a separate second survey to account for vagaries of timing. The poll, which involved in-home interviews with 4,300 people, cost $257,000, according to Times Mirror Executive Vice President Phil Williams.

"If believability per se were the only credibility issue, one could justifiably close the book on the credibility gap." said Michael J. Robinson, who is director of the Media Analysis Projects at George Washington University and helped supervise the survey with Gallup.

Gallup measured believability by several criteria, and found, for instance, that 55% of Americans think the press is accurate, while 34% do not. This is the same result pollsters have derived from roughly that same question for the last 50 years.

Specific Organizations

Specific news organizations do even better on believability. More than eight people in 10 give the highest or second-highest grade for believability to the national news media, such as the Wall Street Journal, the three networks and the news magazines. Personalities within news organizations, such as anchormen and correspondents did even better.

Contrary to some earlier polls, the study also found no evidence that Americans find broadcast news more credible than print.

The study found that Americans have a more favorable view of the press than they do of Congress, business and even President Reagan. Americans also generally respect the character of the press: Newspeople, they believe, are decent citizens, and news organizations try to do a responsible job. A majority of Americans think the press usually gets the facts straight, and eight in 10 believe the press is fair to President Reagan.

Seen as One-Sided

Despite this generally favorable impression of the press, Americans have serious reservations about specific news media practices. For example, 53% of those surveyed thought the press was one-sided when presenting political and social issues. When compared to past survey results, this number suggests that public doubt about press fairness actually is growing.

"That a majority sees issue coverage as one-sided is something no responsible newsperson can dismiss as trivial," Gallup warned.

Another majority, 55%, believe news organizations try to "cover up their mistakes."

Six in 10 believe the press is "too interested in bad news, and nearly three-fourths of the respondents thought news organizations invade people's privacy.

Use of Exit Polls Cited

One practice Americans find particularly objectionable is television newscasters' use of exit polls to predict election results before everyone has voted. Nearly three-fourths of those surveyed said voting was more important than the right of the press to announce elections as soon as possible.

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