There are many kinds of journalism, but at the heart of their constitutional responsibilities, journalists are in the business of monitoring and keeping a check on people and institutions in power.
Journalists, valuing this function, often refer to this job as “watchdog” journalism. Reporters keep an eye over their communities, especially the actions of government leaders, in order to protect them.
For those who value that idea, including many journalists, a good deal of traditional polling recently may give pause. Research earlier in 2018 from API and AP-NORC, for instance, found that just over half (54 percent) think it’s important that the press “act as a watchdog.”
In this new survey, however, we asked about that function in a different way. Instead of the “watchdog” term common in journalist vernacular, we chose more straightforward (and still common) language. Do people think it’s important for the press to hold political leaders accountable?
In our survey, the answer to that question was less grim. A large majority of Americans say it’s important that the press holds political leaders accountable. Nearly 3 out of 4 Americans (73 percent) say this is very or extremely important. That is a 19-percentage point jump from our question last year, which asked about the “watchdog.”
The reasons for this will require more contemplation and research. Does some terminology or the way we describe journalism resonate better with Americans? Was something fundamentally different happening during the two time periods these surveys were fielded? Or was it a combination of these and other factors?
More detailed findings on Americans’ views of the press and its accountability role follow below.
Most Americans view holding political leaders accountable as an important function of the press’s job.
The public believes holding political leaders accountable is an important job of the media. Forty-four percent say it is extremely important for news organizations to hold political leaders accountable, 29 percent say very important, 17 percent say moderately important, and only 9 percent say not too or not at all important.
A similar portion of Americans say it is very important news organizations hold political leaders accountable (74 percent) as say the same about reporting the latest news (71 percent). Slightly more Americans believe it is very important for news organizations to deal fairly with all sides (81 percent). And fewer people say the same about news organizations providing context along with facts (66 percent).
Americans’ beliefs about the importance of news organizations holding political leaders accountable differ depending on people’s age, education, partisanship, and views toward following news.
People who are older, those who are highly educated, and those who identify as Democrats are all more likely than those who are younger, have less education, and identify as Republicans or independents to say it is very important that news organizations hold political leaders accountable.
Eighty-two percent of those 60 and older say it is very or extremely important for news organizations to hold political leaders accountable compared with 74 percent of those 45-59 years old, 73 percent of those 30-44 years old, and 61 percent of those 18-29 years old.
Likewise, 82 percent of those with a college degree say it is very or extremely important for news organizations to hold political leaders accountable compared with 74 percent of those with some college education, 68 percent of those with a high school degree, and 60 percent of those without a high school degree.
Partisanship and opinions toward following news are also related to views about the importance of the media holding political leaders accountable.
Eighty-four percent of Democrats say it is very/extremely important for news organizations to hold political leaders accountable compared with 66 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of independents.
Eighty-five percent of those who say it is personally important to follow the news also say it is very important for news organizations to hold political leaders accountable, compared with 60 percent of those who say following the news is moderately or less important to them.
The public’s own role
In addition to looking at how the public viewed the accountability role of the press, we also wanted to explore other ways Americans see checks on those in power.
Taking a wider view of the U.S. system of government and rights, other forces help monitor the actions of influential leaders and institutions. Some of these forces — or at least abilities — reside in the American public.
As stated in the First Amendment, Americans have the right to free speech. They can speak their mind, including challenging their leaders. And they can petition, assemble, and question authority in public ways.
We wanted to explore how the public views this overarching capability to question authority figures, which is related in concept to the press’s accountability role.
Most adults say their right to publicly question authority figures is important.
The public values its right to question the actions or decisions of political, business and community leaders.
Seventy-seven percent say it is very or extremely important to question political leaders and 74 percent say the same about community leaders. Although the public is slightly less likely to value the right to question business leaders, still 64 percent say it is very or extremely important.
Less than 1 in 10 Americans say it is not too important or not at all important to question political, business, or community leaders.
Adults with college degrees are more likely than those with less education to say it is important to question leaders. For example, 86 percent of those with a college degree say it is very or extremely important to question political leaders compared with 82 percent of those with some college education, 71 percent with a high school degree, and 51 percent with no high school diploma.
News behavior is also related to valuing the right to question authority figures. Eighty-six percent of those who seek out news say the right to question political leaders is very or extremely important compared with 65 percent who primarily bump into news.
However, the majority of Americans do not have a lot of confidence in their ability to question political, business, or community leaders if needed.
Despite the public strongly valuing the right to question leaders, most people do not have a lot of confidence that they could question such leaders if needed.
Thirty-four percent say they are very or extremely confident they could question political leaders, 35 percent are moderately confident, and 30 percent are not too or not at all confident.
Similarly, 35 percent are very or extremely confident they could question community leaders, 37 percent are moderately confident, and 26 percent are not too or not at all confident.
Many people who strongly value the right to question leaders do not feel confident in their ability to do so if needed. Among those who say it is important to publicly question political or community leaders, only 4 in 10 are very or extremely confident in their ability to question such leaders if needed.
African Americans tend to have more confidence in their ability to question leaders than whites or Hispanics. For example, 54 percent of African Americans report they are very or extremely confident they could question community leaders compared with 31 percent of whites and 31 percent of Hispanics.
People who say it is very important to them to follow the news are more likely to have confidence they can question leaders than those who place less importance on following news. Forty-seven percent who report it is very important for them to follow news have confidence they could question political leaders compared with 19 percent who say it is moderately important to follow news and 16 percent who say it is not too or not at all important to follow news.
Do Americans’ views on accountability journalism relate to how they view their own accountability function?
In our analysis, we wanted to see if these two ideas are related: Are views on the press’s function to hold the powerful accountable in any way connected to how Americans see their own rights to question authority?
We saw some connections in the data.
People’s views that the press should hold political leaders accountable are tied to beliefs about their own rights and abilities to question political leaders.
People who believe that it is important for news organizations to hold political leaders accountable are more likely to value their right to publicly question political leaders and more likely to have confidence in their ability to do such questioning.
Eighty-seven percent of those who believe that it is very or extremely important for the press to hold political leaders accountable also highly value their own right to publicly question politicians compared with 52 percent of those who view the accountability of leaders as moderately important and 50 percent who say it is not that important.
Likewise, those who view the press’s watchdog function as important are more likely to have confidence in their own ability to hold leaders accountable. Thirty-nine percent of those who view press leadership accountability as very or extremely important are also very confident in their own ability to question political leaders, compared with 19 percent of those who view accountability as less important.