According to a Dan Jones KSL/Deseret News Poll reported atop page one a couple of weeks ago, 59 percent of Utahns distrusted the national media, 39 percent the local media.
The findings were consistent with what other polls have been telling us about public attitudes toward media believability for several years now. Still, those figures are staggering considering "the fourth branch of government" prides itself on its trustworthiness and regards itself as the watchdog and lantern bearer for the people.The Deseret News story could only conjecture over the reasons those figures are so high, and why local media come out better than the national. (It said that other institutions like Congress fared even worse in polls than the press.) Because the questions were so broad ("generally speaking, do you trust or distrust the national media to treat stories fairly and objectively" and did not ask for "reasons why," the poll didn't get far into the complex love-hate relationship between the media and their publics.
- WHEN YOU ASK what people think of "the media" you have first to deal with what "media" means. Lump the serious press with the titillating press - the tabloid television magazine shows, the supermarket tabloids, the lurid magazines - and you get quite a melange. It's hard to sort out people's perceptions of such a grab bag of information sources.
It was for that reason that Mike Korologos, then assistant to the editor of the Salt Lake Tribune and the guardian of its style, did mighty though futile battle against the word "media" when it was coming into vogue. He urged staffers to resist it, but he was trying to hold back the floodwaters as the electronic revolution came on full bore and one term, "press," no longer fit all. (For that matter, we purists who insist that "media" is plural and that the singular is "medium" also are fighting a brave, but I'm afraid losing, battle against usage.)
Then it also would be useful to find out what kind of news is regarded as unfair and unobjective. Many media report on a wide variety of news, from garden parties to government, from weighty social issues to fads. They also offer all sorts of other gratifications, from providing companionship and entertainment to telling folks how to cope and what and where to buy.
Furthermore, people are less likely to believe the media are objective when they themselves are emotionally involved in the issue being reported. The media often take their lumps, for example, in surveys of businessmen's attitudes toward how the media cover business news. A Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University found that most business people think journalists are unfair, though journalists feel otherwise. I've found that when people say "you can't believe anything you read in the papers" they mean they have been personally offended, perhaps by a wrong fact in a story about themselves.
A few surveys have probed people's attitudes toward media believability comprehensively and regularly. The most thorough have been those done since 1985 for the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press in Washington, D.C., by the Gallup organization. The center's landmark "The People & the Press" report summarizing the base series was published in 1989. Unfortunately, the surveys haven't been fully replicated since.
- BECAUSE THESE studies were done over four years, they also established some trends. They found that by and large the public was more critical of the press (it used the term "press" interchangeably with "news organizations" rather than "media") in 1989 than when the first studies were done in 1985. An overwhelming majority of the public saw political bias in the way the press covers the news; 68 percent said that in dealing with political and social issues, the press tended to favor one side - findings very close to Jones'. Only 54 percent of the public thought news organizations usually get their facts straight.
The Times Mirror Poll found a jaundiced view about media performance both among government and business leaders and the general public - considerably less charitable than the views the media had of themselves.
But there's a most interesting contradiction in all this.
It is that the public gave the media highly favorable ratings despite the criticisms of believability, and these ratings far exceeded those given political figures and other institutions.
Says Times Mirror's 1989 report, "Today the press is favorably regarded by a substantial proportion of the general public as gave it a positive rating in 1985. Eighty-two percent of the public viewed network television news favorably, compared with 80 percent for local television news and 77 percent for daily newspapers." Public displeasure with the media, as in unfavorable views of its coverage of the 1988 campaign, proved to be mere temporary downturns.
- CONTRADICTIONS also abound in other polls, including the most recent Times Mirror study, a comparative media survey across eight countries of North America and Western Europe, reported in March. It found "large majorities said the press helps their democracies and has a good influence on their societies - usually better than the influence of other institutions, including even the churches in most cases." But it also discovered "alarming levels of public support for government restrictions on the press." Majorities in most countries, including ours, thought that both TV and newspapers were one-sided in the way they cover political and social issues.
Polls have shown that while people believe reports of government ineptitude or malfeasance they often think the press is making too much of reporting on shady doings. That was true during at least the early days of Watergate, and it is true of Whitewater. A majority of Americans in a Times Mirror poll reported in April thought that the administration was covering up Whitewater, but even more thought that the media were paying too much attention to the matter.
- THE EARLIER Times Mirror polls also found a considerable spread in the believability ratings when comparing specific news organizations and personalities. Some 45 percent of the public found the Wall Street Journal highly believable and 38 percent somewhat believable, while 27 percent thought USA Today highly believable and 43 percent somewhat believable. Only 11 percent found Geraldo Rivera highly believable, 15 percent somewhat believable. What proportion of those people actually read these papers or watched Rivera was not reported.
The same kind of attempt to distinguish between attitudes toward various kinds of media has been made in other surveys. A Gallup Poll done for Newsweek found believability ratings of media ranging from 81 percent for local TV news to 29 percent for the supermarket tabloids.
There's much the media should find alarming in this welter of statistics, which indicate that they have a continuing job of building credibility and educating the public on their methods, problems, missions and philosophies. But they shouldn't be so discouraged by the negative appraisals that they cannot take heart from the more positive.