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Major News Media Trusted Less, Poll Says

Journalism: Public is more critical of TV networks and large national papers, study says. Fewer people value press' watchdog role.

March 21, 1997|JACK NELSON | CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

WASHINGTON — The American public, fed up with what it increasingly views as unfair, inaccurate and sensational journalism, is paying less attention to mainstream news media and watching or reading with far less enthusiasm than 10 years ago, according to a new nationwide poll.

The public is especially critical of coverage by network news and large national newspapers, according to the Pew Research Center survey. It found that only 26% of Americans say that they enjoy watching network news "a great deal," down sharply from 42% in a 1985 poll. Similarly, only 27% say that they look forward to reading the paper each day, compared with 42% in 1985.

Past polls also have found increasing public criticism of the news media but the latest Pew Center survey paints a much starker picture of press credibility and the public's growing alienation from the mainstream media.

The survey comes as news organizations, as well as newspaper and network television executives, are studying ways to establish better rapport between the media and a public that is spending less time reading newspapers and watching television news. Favorable ratings for network television news have fallen steadily from 30% in 1985 and 27% in 1992 to just 15% this year registering a "very favorable" opinion. Network news viewership has also fallen sharply, with only 40% saying that they watch nightly network news regularly, compared with 60% in 1993.

For large national newspapers, favorable ratings have dropped from 53% in 1992 to 41% today.

The public's traditionally strong support for the press' watchdog roll has seriously eroded since a 1985 Times Mirror-sponsored Gallup poll found a 67%-to-17% majority that regarded press scrutiny of political leaders as necessary to keep them honest. The current poll shows a margin of support of only 56% to 32%.

Decreasing support for the watchdog role was found among all demographic and political groups but was most pronounced among older Americans and the less affluent.

A majority of the public--56%--now believes news stories are often inaccurate. In 1985, by contrast, 55% said news organizations generally got their facts straight.

The latest Pew Center poll, a sample of 1,211 adults 18 years of age or older, was conducted during Feb. 20 to 23. Kohut said that, based on the total sample, "one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points."

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