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The Times Poll : Public and Press--Two Viewpoints

Times Staff Writer

American newspaper reporters and editors are substantially more liberal than the general public on a wide range of social and political issues, but readers seem largely convinced that the press does not permit this liberalism to unfairly influence its news coverage, a nationwide Los Angeles Times Poll conducted over the last five months shows.

When readers are asked how the newspaper they read most frequently “feels about” various issues, most readers say they don’t know. Those readers who say they do know how their papers feel tend to perceive those feelings as similar to their own.

Reader Perceptions

When readers are asked to “describe the views of the (newspaper you read most frequently) on most matters having to do with politics,” they divide almost equally in their perceptions: 25% say their paper is “liberal,” 24% say it’s “conservative,” 26% say it’s “middle-of-the-road” and 25% have no opinion.

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Readers are much more likely to describe the media as liberal, though, when asked to describe the views of the media in general. Then, 31% say that on “most matters having to do with politics,” the views of the media--"television, newspapers, magazines and radio"--are liberal; only 13% say the media’s views are conservative. But even on this question, most of the respondents either say the media are “middle-of-the-road” (28%) or they say they don’t know or have no opinion on the question (28%).

The survey, supervised by I.A. Lewis, director of the Times poll, consisted of telephone interviews of about 30 minutes each with a random selection of about 3,000 members of the general public and 3,000 reporters and editors on more than 600 newspapers of all sizes in all parts of the country.

All of the more than 6,000 interviewees were promised anonymity, and everyone was asked the identical 106 questions--questions on such issues as abortion, handgun control, South Africa, school prayer, capital punishment, gay rights, affirmative action, the economy and the role of the government, as well as on his or her opinion of the quality, bias, fairness, responsibility, accuracy and influence of the newspaper he or she reads most frequently. (There was virtually no significant difference between the responses of members of the general public who said they read newspapers regularly and the responses of those who said they do not read newspapers regularly, so the responses of the readers are used almost exclusively in this story.)

In the poll, 55% of the newspaper journalists say they’re liberal, 26% say they’re middle-of-the-road and 17% say they’re conservative. Only 24% of their readers describe themselves as liberal, 33% say they’re middle-of-the-road and 29% say they’re conservative.

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Even other college-educated professionals, who generally share many demographic characteristics with the press, do not consider themselves as liberal as newspaper journalists consider themselves: 37% of the college-educated professionals say they’re liberal, 27% say they’re middle-of-the-road and 30% say they’re conservative.

Newspaper reporters and editors are not only much more liberal than their readers, but the reporters and editors also tend to be Anglo (96%), male (73%) and college-educated (88%) in proportions far greater than their readers and with average incomes far in excess of their readers’.

The poll also shows that newspaper journalists are only about half as likely as their readers to be strongly religious--and that newspaper journalists are about twice as likely as their readers to practice no religion at all.

Moreover, journalists are much less likely than their readers to consider such personal/social issues as crime, drugs, inflation or unemployment as “the biggest problem facing the country today.” In contrast, reporters and editors are much more likely than their readers to consider the federal budget deficit or the control of nuclear arms as “the biggest problem facing the country today.”

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The results of the Times poll clearly lend substantial credence to the claim of many conservatives that there is a “liberal media elite” in this country. But journalists have long maintained that, their personal philosophies, priorities and demographics notwithstanding, they are generally able to provide readers with fair, unbiased news coverage, and the Times poll suggests that readers agree that is true when asked about the newspaper they read most frequently.

High Standards of Fairness

The majority of the 2,993 members of the general public interviewed in the survey say they think the newspaper they read is “fair” and “impartial” in its news presentation. They also say the press in general has high standards of fairness and integrity.

Although only a small percentage of the newspaper journalists in the Times survey described themselves as conservatives or Republicans, for example, and only 26% say they voted for President Reagan last year, almost half the regular newspaper readers (43%) think the news media have treated Reagan fairly. Of the remainder, almost twice as many think the media have made Reagan “look better than he is” (30%) as think the media have made him “look worse than he is” (18%).

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Similarly, although slightly more than half the reporters and editors in the survey think of themselves as liberals and Democrats, only 29% of their readers think the press treated former President Carter, a Democrat, fairly. Of the remainder, three times more readers think the media made Carter “look worse than he was” than think the media made him “look better than he was.”

On all 15 poll questions involving specific social and political issues, a large majority of the general public--66% on the average--say they don’t even know (or aren’t sure) how the paper they read most frequently “feels about” the issues. Another 5% (on the average) say they know their paper takes neither a positive nor a negative position on the issue.

When the remaining 28% who say they know how their papers feel about the issues were asked whether they know “because of what they (the newspapers) say in the editorials on the editorial page or because of the way the news stories . . . are reported in the news sections of the paper,” they are almost evenly divided--15% say news coverage, 13% say editorials.

Does that mean 15% of the general public thinks the news columns are biased? Or do these figures suggest that many people just don’t make much distinction between what a newspaper says about a subject on its editorial page and what it says in the news pages?

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Either way, it seems clear that most readers just don’t know how their paper “feels about” most issues. More than half the public doesn’t know or isn’t sure how their paper “feels about” even such controversial issues as school prayer, handgun control and capital punishment,

In fact, on several of the most emotional issues--issues on which one might expect to find the greatest hostility toward the press--the study found instead uncertainty and confusion.

On the issue of permitting prayers in the public schools, for example, almost three-fourths of the readers who say they know how their paper feels say their paper is in favor of school prayer (as the readers themselves are in favor, by an almost 4-1 margin). In fact, two-thirds of the journalists in the survey oppose school prayer, so it would not seem that the journalists’ own views are influencing their news coverage on this issue.

On the issue of “allowing women to have an abortion,” about 60% of the readers who say they know how their paper feels say their paper opposes abortion. In fact, the newspaper journalists say they favor allowing women to have an abortion--by an almost 6-1 margin, so--again--the journalists’ views would not appear to be influencing their news coverage. (Readers also approve allowing women to have an abortion, though by a much narrower margin--51% to 42%.)

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On giving the death penalty to “people convicted of murder,” almost 80% of the readers who say they know how their papers feel say their paper is in favor of the death penalty (as the readers themselves are in favor, by a 4 1/2 to 1 margin). In fact, the journalists are exactly evenly divided on the question, 47% favoring the death penalty, 47% opposed, with the balance being uncertain or having no opinion. Again, the statistics would suggest no bias in news coverage.

Do the public’s various misperceptions and uncertainties about how their papers feel on a given issue implicitly prove that the press must be presenting the news fairly and impartially? Or do they just demonstrate that whatever bias may exist in the press is so subtle that the readers don’t even realize it? Or do they simply show that people don’t care enough about even the most emotional issues (or about what the press says on those issues) to either be aware of what their paper says or to perceive a bias, if indeed it exists?

Bias Hasn’t Entered Coverage

William Schneider, The Times’ political analyst and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, has studied the poll results and says he is inclined toward the lattermost interpretation.

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“This poll does not prove or disprove the charge that the media is politically biased, but it does show that if there is any bias, it hasn’t crept into the news coverage to the extent that the pubic feels aggrieved by it,” Schneider says.

Because of the overwhelming liberalism of newspaper journalists, the poll shows, “The potential for bias is there,” Schneider says, “but so far, readers seem to feel only a healthy skepticism toward the media, not widespread disgruntlement.”

When asked, for example, “How would you rate the job the (paper you read most frequently) is doing in terms of how fair and impartial it is to all sides?” only 13% of the newspaper readers rated their paper “bad” (10% say “fairly bad,” and 3% say “very bad”), while 84% rated it good (30% say “very good,” and 54% say “fairly good”).

Similarly, when asked, “All things considered, do you think the news in the (paper you read most frequently) is slanted or do you think it is impartial?” 59% of the readers say “impartial” and another 15% had no opinion. Of the 24% who say they think the news is slanted, 14% say it’s because “that’s the way they (the journalists) see things and they think they’re telling the truth,” 6% say it’s because “they want to bring you around to their way of seeing things” and 4% say they aren’t sure why it’s slanted.

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The press fared even better in comparative terms. When asked which of four major institutions--the news media, government, business or labor--has “the highest standards of honesty and integrity” and “the highest standards of fairness and impartiality,” readers ranked the media first by substantial margins:

--"Honesty and integrity”: 45% say the media have the highest standards, 14% say the government, 14% say business and 9% say labor; 7% say none, and 11% had no opinion or refused to say.

--"Fairness and impartiality”: 45% say the media, 16% say government, 13% say business and 11% say labor; 4% say none, and 11% had no opinion or refused to say.

Promoting the Public Good

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The poll also asked which of these institutions “has done the most to promote the public good”: 40% say the media, 21% say government, 17% say business and 11% say labor; 1% say none and 10% had no opinion or refused to say.

Journalists have long maintained that they do not permit their personal views to unfairly influence their news coverage, and that professionalism may help explain the high ratings the media generally received from their readers in this survey. Another explanation may be that a newspaper’s highest-ranking editor--the paper’s ultimate gatekeeper--tends to be somewhat less liberal than the rest of his staff and is, thus, somewhat more in tune with the readers: 53% of the top editors interviewed in the poll gave answers to the social and political policy questions that would generally class them as liberal; 37% would be classed as conservative. That ratio is almost identical to the ratio among other college-trained professionals in the survey--51% of whose answers are liberal and 35% of whose answers are conservative--and it puts them closer to their overall reading public than to their staffs on the ideological spectrum.

Ratios Not Constant

These ratios tend to fluctuate, depending on the size of the papers involved, though. The liberal-conservative ratio among reporters and editors other than the top editor remains relatively constant, regardless of the size of the paper, but the smaller the paper, the less liberal the top editor and the reader are likely to be. Since there are far more small newspapers than there are large newspapers--and since each paper has an editor, regardless of its size--this tends to skew the statistics on the top editors considerably. Even on papers of less than 100,000 circulation, however, the cumulative responses of top editors on the social and political questions are more liberal than those of their readers--by a margin of 52% to 40%. (The cumulative responses of editors other than the top editor are 65% liberal; the responses of reporters are 68% liberal.) On the larger and more influential papers, the percentage of liberal answers jumps to 60% among top editors and 46% among readers (and to 68% among other editors and to 72% among reporters).

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Overall, top editors are even closer to their readers when asked, “How would you describe your views on most matters having to do with politics?”: 35% say “conservative,” 33% say “middle-of-the-road,” and 31% say “liberal"--ratios very similar to those for their readers (and less liberal than either the newspaper staffs or the other college-educated professionals).

When the top editors were asked to “describe the editorial position of your paper on most matters having to do with politics” the responses were 41% “conservative,” 37% “middle-of-the-road” and only 21% liberal--ratios that would make the papers’ editorial pages not only much more conservative than the top editors and the newspaper staffs but much more conservative even than their readers.

Tendency to Liberalism

When the question was “How would you describe the views of the media (in general) on most matters having to do with politics?” however, the journalists--editors and reporters (like their readers)--generally found the media much more liberal than conservative: 53% of the journalists say the media are liberal and only 10% say conservative; 30% say neither, and 7% had no opinion. Top editors had almost the identical view.

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Moreover, when the general public is asked about the relative liberalism of several major institutions in contemporary society, 36% say the media are the most liberal, 23% say labor is the most liberal, 15% say government and 11% say business; 15% said “none” or had no opinion.

Why are the media in general perceived as being more liberal than the newspaper people read most frequently?

Are television news and the national magazines more liberal than most daily newspapers? Or does the public just see things that way because people implicitly trust most that medium which is closest (even if that medium is a large metropolitan daily newspaper)?

The Times poll offers no clear answer to these questions--in part because The Times did not poll television or news magazine editors and reporters. Nor were there questions in the poll asking specifically about perceptions of political bias on network television or in national magazines.

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Variations in Bias

But when the public was asked, “Generally speaking, do you think television news stories are more slanted or biased than newspaper stories, or do you think newspaper stories are more slanted or biased than television news stories, or do you think they’re both about equally slanted or biased, or do you think neither is slanted or biased?” the results were:

--43% say they are equally biased, 17% say television is more biased and 15% say newspapers are more biased. Only 19% say neither is biased; 6% had no opinion.

When respondents were asked to describe the views of their local TV news program on political matters, 24% of the respondents said the local television news program they watch most has “liberal views,” and only 16% said it has conservative views; 37% said “middle-of-the-road,” and 23% had no opinion.

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Whatever the readers’ and journalists’ perceptions of the ideology of the media, the reality --as the Times poll makes clear--is that on specific issues, as well as in their own characterization of their political beliefs, members of the press (at least the 3,165 newspaper reporters and editors from 621 newspapers interviewed for this story) are predominantly liberal, considerably more liberal than the general public.

Of course, there is some disagreement these days on just what a “liberal” (or a “conservative”) is. Many issues are too complex to make such labels meaningful. Besides, an individual can be “liberal” on one issue and “conservative” on another. Moreover, making any but the most crude distinctions based on the results of a public opinion poll is chancy because the number of possible answers available to a respondent is necessarily limited and there is always a margin of error, even within those choices. Nevertheless, taken in the aggregate (if not individually), it seems altogether legitimate to suggest that the social and political policy questions in this poll constitute a reasonably valid ideological litmus test, especially given the consistent pattern of responses from journalists and readers alike.

Indeed, when asked, “How would you describe your views on most matters having to do with politics?” 55% of the newspaper journalists say they’re liberal (12% say “very liberal,” and 43% say “somewhat liberal”), and only 23% of their readers say they’re liberal (5% say “very liberal,” and 18% say “somewhat liberal.”

Similar gaps between reader and journalist almost invariably exist on a wide range of specific issues.

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Sometimes, the readers and the journalists take diametrically opposed positions--as on the question: “Are you in favor of the way Ronald Reagan is handling his job as President?” Journalists say “No” by a 2-1 margin; readers say “Yes” by about the same margin.

Sometimes, the public voted overwhelmingly on one side of a question, and the newspaper journalists were evenly divided--as on the death penalty question.

On several other issues--handgun control, affirmative action, “withdrawing American investments from South Africa because of their apartheid policy,” “allowing women to have an abortion” and “hiring an employee regardless of whether he or she is a homosexual or a lesbian"--both the journalists and their readers say “Yes,” but the Yes/No margin among journalists is always much larger than it is among readers.

Public Less Liberal

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Thus, when the responses to all questions on social and political issues are combined, the newspaper staffs provided “liberal” answers 68% of the time and “conservative” answers 22% of the time. Readers provided “liberal” answers 43% of the time and “conservative” answers 37% of the time--which makes the public much less liberal than the newspaper journalists but somewhat more liberal than it considers itself when asked to characterize its political views in a single are-you-liberal-or-conservative question.

Especially Interesting

This latter finding is especially interesting: Despite the Reagan landslide in 1984 and all the recent stories about the conservative trend in America, more members of the general public still seem to take liberal positions than conservative positions on the major social and political issues of the day. In fact, although the vast majority of readers say they don’t know their newspaper’s views on most issues they were asked about, those who say they do know their newspaper’s views generally see those views as the same as their own. Of the 28% of the readers who say they know their newspaper’s views on 15 specific, issue-oriented questions, 16% (on the average) say their papers’ position is the liberal one and 12% say it’s conservative. That is almost exactly the same proportion as the readers’ description of their own positions on the same issues.

This may help explain why the public rates the press as highly as it does. Not only are the journalists perceived as basically fair and impartial (according to the findings of this poll), but members of the public and the press seem to share more common ideological ground than is generally perceived.

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READERS AND JOURNALISTS

Opinions of newspaper readers compared with the staff of the paper they read.

Favor Oppose Government help for people who Readers 83% 11% are unable to support themselves News Staff 95% 3% Allowing women to Readers 51% 42% have an abortion News Staff 82% 14% Prayers in public schools Readers 74% 19% News Staff 25% 67% Affirmative action for blacks Readers 57% 21% and other minorities News Staff 81% 14% The death peanalty for persons Readers 75% 17% convicted of murder News Staff 47% 47% Hiring an employee regardless of Readers 56% 31% whether he or she is a homosexual News Staff 89% 7% Stricter controls on private Readers 50% 41% ownership of handguns News Staff 78% 19% Government regulation Readers 22% 51% of business News Staff 49% 41% Increasing the federal budget Readers 38% 52% for military defense News Staff 15% 80% Government efforts to make reductions Readers 55% 23% in income gap between rich and poor News Staff 50% 39% Withdrawing American investments Readers 31% 26% from South Africa News Staff 62% 29% A verifiable freeze on all Readers 67% 22% nuclear weapons development News Staff 84% 13% Covert CIA support for rebels Readers 19% 45% fighting in Nicaragua News Staff 17% 76% The way Ronald Reagan is handling Readers 57% 27% his job as President News Staff 30% 60%

Neither Government help for people who 4% are unable to support themselves 1% Allowing women to 5% have an abortion 3% Prayers in public schools 5% 6% Affirmative action for blacks 9% and other minorities 3% The death peanalty for persons 3% convicted of murder 5% Hiring an employee regardless of 8% whether he or she is a homosexual 3% Stricter controls on private 5% ownership of handguns 2% Government regulation 13% of business 8% Increasing the federal budget 5% for military defense 3% Government efforts to make reductions 8% in income gap between rich and poor 7% Withdrawing American investments 19% from South Africa 7% A verifiable freeze on all 6% nuclear weapons development 2% Covert CIA support for rebels 15% fighting in Nicaragua 5% The way Ronald Reagan is handling 11% his job as President 9%

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Labor Business In a dispute between business and Readers 32% 35% labor which side do you usually take? News Staff 31% 27%

Neither In a dispute between business and 34% labor which side do you usually take? 39%

Con- Liberal servative In politics, are you liberal Readers 24% 29% or conservative? News Staff 55% 17% Average, all questions Readers 43% 37% News Staff 68% 22%

Neither In politics, are you liberal 33% or conservative? 26% Average, all questions 11% 8%

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READERS’ PERCEPTION OF THE MEDIA Television, newspapers, magazines, radio

Newspaper Rating Good Very: Fairly: Bad 65% 31% 4% Newspaper Impartiality Good Very: Fairly: Bad 30% 54% 13%

Honesty: Media Gov’t. Business Labor 45% 14% 14% 9% Fairness: 43% 16% 13% 11% Promote Public Good: 40% 21% 17% 11% Have Power Cut Back: 5% 38% 14% 27%


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