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

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

Gallup also found what it considered “one of the most surprising” discoveries on the issue of the press’ independence. Contrary to the familiar charge that Americans consider the news media increasingly powerful and even arrogant, “a majority (53%) sees the press as often influenced by powerful people and organizations, not as independent,” the study said.

Heavy majorities see the press as influenced by the federal government (73%), corporations (70%), advertisers (65%) and labor unions (62%).

Clear majorities see the press as often influenced by Republicans (60%), by Democrats (58%) and by the military (50%). Only small numbers of Americans believe that blacks, Catholics or Jews exert influence over the news.

Liberal Bias Doubted

Forty-eight percent of those responding think liberals influence the press, while 45% believe conservatives do. But, according to Gallup, only “about one in five believes that the news product itself is liberally biased.”

Put together, Gallup said, the results do not support the fashionable notion that the press has become too arrogant or too liberal.

On the contrary, “the public thinks powerful groups and institutions push the press around. . . . Fewer than one in five believes the press spends too much time covering political corruption. We find almost no evidence that the public regards the news media as too adversarial.”

Gallup attributed the widespread belief that the press suffers from a credibility problem to the apparent contradiction between the public’s generally favorable view of the news media and its strong reservations about specific press practices. To resolve the conflict, Gallup went back a second time to interview the same respondents and ask them to reconcile their views.

‘Satisfied Overall’

The pollsters concluded that Americans are “satisfied overall” because they appreciate the news media’s “watchdog function, and above all (enjoy) the appeal of news.”

Americans so value news, Gallup found, that public support for the press actually increased during the TWA hostage crisis last August, despite extensive criticism at the time that the press had overcovered and sensationalized the story.

As in previous polls, Gallup’s survey found that Americans generally value the rights of the press over the rights of the government, but not over those of individuals.

For instance, nearly 90% of Americans thought the press should be subject to libel laws, and 75% believe such statutes should be the same for public officials as for private citizens. Legally, public officials have a more difficult time proving that they have been defamed.

Similarly, most Americans see the increasing number of libel suits as a positive trend that will help keep the press from becoming irresponsible, Gallup found.

Confidential Sources

When the interests of the press are pitted against those of government, however, it is the press that wins. Nearly 80% of Americans believe that reporters should be allowed to keep sources confidential if it is the only way to get information.

Nearly 70% of those responding thought press criticism of government keeps leaders from doing wrong, rather than impeding them from doing their jobs. Fifty-one percent even said that press criticism of the military is more likely to strengthen national defense than weaken it.

Why do so many journalists believe they are confronting a credibility crisis when, on balance, none exists?

Gallup attributed this perception, at least in part, to the sophistication and influence of the 5% minority of Americans who are the news media’s strongest critics.

Vociferous Critics

Members of this group, which Gallup called Vociferous Critics, know more about the media, are more likely to read the New York Times or Wall Street Journal and watch more news on television than Americans overall. They also are more interested in the press than Americans generally.

Vociferous critics are usually professionals, male, wealthy, college educated and conservative politically.

Their criticism stems, unlike most Americans, from the sense that the press is too critical of the power structure--government and business--which is the part of American society with which they most identify, Kohut explained.

Gallup said the intensity and influence of the vociferous critics is one reason the press believes it is facing a credibility crisis when actually it is not. “The press hears more disapproval than really exists in the public because the opponents are louder,” the survey said.

Main Streeters

A second group critical of the press, called Main Streeters by Gallup, also watch, listen to and read more news than the average American. Gallup said members of this group, who make up 15% of Americans, are usually male, white, Protestant, have a modest education, predominantly regard themselves as politically conservative and live in small towns.

One puzzle Gallup discerned from these two groups is the relationship between knowledge about the press and a negative feeling about it. “In the public at large, those who know more about the news media like it less.”

Gallup offered several explanations: that sophistication on any subject breeds skepticism, that negative attitudes cause people to learn more about the press or that knowing more about the press actually causes people to have negative feelings about it.

“We do not know yet what causes what, and won’t know for sure without doubling-back again.”

Critics May Be Increasing

Further research also is needed, Gallup said, to determine whether the number of critics of the press is growing.

“The press does have a problem,” the survey warned. “The insurgents are generally more formidable than the loyalists they confront, hence more likely to matter. Insurgents could mean much more than their numbers imply, even more than a mere misperception on behalf of newspeople who hear the criticism.”

Gallup called the largest group of press loyalists--26% of all Americans--Empathetic Supporters. This group is disproportionately female, upper income, college-educated and liberal. They approve the press’ watchdog role and think that, if anything, the news media are too dependent on the power structure.

Among other survey results:

--Americans think about the press and recognize news personalities far less than many journalists may think. Less than half of Americans, for instance, can recognize a photo of CBS anchorman Dan Rather. The only exception to this is Barbara Walters. Nearly 80% of Americans know her.

--Only 12% of Americans recognize television commentator and columnist George Will.

--Only 23% of Americans said they ever discuss the press with friends; only scientists are discussed by fewer people.

--Although he has been widely criticized for an alleged liberal bias, Rather is the favorite network anchor among Republicans and Southerners.

--Walter Cronkite, though semi-retired, remains the most believed man in television news, with 57% of Americans granting him the highest possible rating for believability. Overall, 92% of Americans consider him believable. Cronkite’s replacement, Rather, was considered highly believable by the second greatest number, 44%, and believable by 89%. Television talk show host Phil Donahue is considered believable by 60%.

--Nearly 80% of Americans said the press was “fair” in its coverage of President Reagan; only 12% said unfair.

--News personalities get much higher ratings than the organizations they work for, moving Gallup to say that “the news media benefit from their most visible spokespersons, whether Rather, (ABC’s Peter) Jennings, (NBC’s Tom) Brokaw or the rest.”


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