Pew Poll: Public Disapproves of ‘Biased’ Reporting, But Supports Media’s ‘Watchdog Role’

By Alissa Tabirian | August 15, 2013 | 5:29pm EDT

President Obama calls on reporters at a 2011 White House press conference. (AP)

( – Public opinion of news organizations’ reporting and overall performance is near at an all-time low, but paradoxically, the media’s role as government watchdog is garnering greater public support, according to a new poll by Pew Research Center.

The poll finds that the American public rates news organizations poorly for “performance on key measures such as accuracy, fairness and independence.” But the majority of those surveyed also “say the press acts as a watchdog by preventing political leaders from doing things that should not be done.”

“Support for the media’s watchdog role has risen 10 points since 2011,” the telephone survey, which was conducted in July, reveals.

Sixty-eight percent of the public say “news organizations’ criticism of political leaders keeps them from doing things that should not be done,” while only 21 percent say the Fourth Estate’s criticism is “keeping leaders from doing their job” – a sentiment shared across the political spectrum.

“About equal majorities of Republicans (69%), independents (69%) and Democrats (67%) view news organizations as a check on political leaders,” the survey found. And an overwhelming 75 percent majority of the younger generation believes that “press prevents misbehavior by political leaders.”

However, the press' watchdog role is not accompanied by high levels of societal respect. The same poll also found that "while most say journalists play a more important role in helping people navigate the news, their contributions to society more generally are seen as far less significant – especially when compared with other professions."

Sixty-seven percent believe “news reports are often inaccurate;” while only 26 percent “say news organizations get the facts straight.” In addition, “far more say news organizations focus on unimportant stories (65%) rather than on important ones (28%).” And 71 percent of the public also say “the press tries to cover up its mistakes.”

Three quarters of respondents think news organizations “favor one side,” and an equal percentage are convinced that the media is “influenced by powerful people and organizations.”

Seventy-two percent of those polled “see news organizations in ideological terms,” with 46 percent deeming news organizations “liberal,” 26 percent “conservative,” and 19 percent neither. The majority of those who cite the Internet as their primary news source “are more likely to say news organizations are politically biased” than those who get most of their news from television, radio or newspapers.

The poll also addresses the impact of ideological differences on negative attitudes toward the media. “Republicans are 16 points more likely than Democrats to say news stories are often inaccurate,” with 75 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of Democrats holding this belief.

And “far more Democrats say the press protects democracy (59%) than hurts democracy (27%). By contrast, as many Republicans say news organizations hurt (46%) as help (43%) democracy.”

The public’s disapproval of the media’s performance mirrors their dissatisfaction with the direction of the country. According to the latest Gallup satisfaction poll, “Three-quarters of Americans are now dissatisfied with the nation’s course,” which is “on par with the lowest readings seen since early 2012.”

Meanwhile, the approval ratings of President Obama and the U.S. Supreme Court have dropped to 44 and 43 percent, respectively.

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