News Ratings… and the Meaning of Media

Sep 14, 2009 8:30am

A new Pew Research Center poll finds some grim measures in public ratings of the news media. But I hope I’m not being a Pollyanna when I say that something about it makes me wonder just what’s being measured.

First the uglies: Just 29 percent of Americans say news organizations generally “get the facts straight,” 21 percent say news outfits are willing to admit their mistakes, 20 percent say they’re “pretty independent” vs. being influenced by the powerful and 18 percent say they deal fairly with all sides. All are new lows in data back to 1985.

Ouch.

Now my second thought: It seems pretty clear that the definition of a “news organization” has changed, or at least expanded dramatically, since 1985, both with the rise of the internet and what might be termed point-of-view news outfits. Lumping all that together into a rating of “news organizations,” if that concept indeed has changed substantively, may not be the most reliable metric. Does the phrase really mean today what it meant 24 years ago?

That ponder seems supported by the fact that other, more specific ratings are less bad for the media. Looking parochially at my own corner of the business, 64 percent rate network television news (also grouped together) favorably – also a new low, but in part because more than ever, 12 percent, can’t rate the network news at all, probably owing to declining viewership. Twenty-four percent rate the network news unfavorably; it’s been higher, 30 percent in 1995.

Not to push it too far, but just among those who have an opinion of the network news – that is, excluding the record-high 12 percent who can’t rate us at all – the current favorability figure is 73 percent. Again, it's been higher, but that's hardly dreadful – easily better than most public figures. (President Obama has a 63 percent favorable rating in our latest poll, 64 percent if you percentage out the few undecideds.)

Seventy-six percent, moreover, say it’d be an “important loss” if network news organizations were to go out of business. (Other “important loss” ratings run from 68 percent for national newspapers to 82 percent for local TV news.) And 62 percent say the news organizations they’re familiar with are being fair to the Obama administration.

Also consider an ABC News/Facebook poll we did in 2007. We tested trust in the reporting done by "the traditional news media, such as newspapers, news magazines, TV and radio news," and, separately, in the news reporting done by "new media sources on the Internet." Sixty-three percent expressed a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the traditional media, vs. 51 percent in the new media.

In terms of viewership, Pew finds that 71 percent cite television news as one of the two places from which they get most of their national and international news, stable from last year and up from its low, 65 percent, in 2007. The internet, having moved ahead of newspapers last year, stays a stable and distant No. 2, cited by 42 percent.

The poll was done in July (with the exception of the Obama coverage question, from August). Check here for Pew’s release, which includes an interesting look at partisanship in media ratings.

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