The vast majority of Americans value their right, as well as that of the press, to question authority figures. But only a third have a lot of confidence in their own ability to challenge leaders if needed.

This is a key insight that emerges from a new American Press Institute survey conducted in collaboration with the NORC at the University of Chicago. Amid a backdrop of polarization and distrust in institutions, including journalism, we sought in December 2018 to understand who feels they can make a difference where they live, what barriers might stand in the way, and how it relates to attitudes and interactions with journalism.

The findings released today suggest good news for those who value the First Amendment. More so than other recent studies, the research shows most Americans view holding political leaders accountable as an important function of the press. It also finds a majority of Americans value their own right to question leaders in politics, business, and their community.

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Yet the results also raise concerns about whether people in today’s confusing media environment feel they can make a difference as citizens. In particular, the results indicate that people are unsure about whether they can make an impact in their community and country, including when it comes to holding the powerful accountable. Some Americans, roughly 2 in 10, feel they can make life around them better, both in their immediate vicinity and in the U.S. writ large. Others are less likely to feel that way. And most people do not feel they can hold true to the rights the First Amendment enshrines: they do not feel they could question authority figures if needed.

The influence of the changing media environment is discernible as well. More Americans say they think they understand important national issues rather than local issues. Those who seek out news and those who pay for news are more likely to say they understand issues than those who do not. But these specific media behaviors do not have significant effects on people’s perceived efficacy, who feels they can make an impact and who does not.

From the findings:

  • The public believes holding political leaders accountable is an important job of the media, combating other narratives. Previous research, including our own earlier in 2018, has shown modest if not low support for the “watchdog” function of the press. When the question was asked differently, however, about the press “holding political leaders accountable,” the results were different. 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 about the watchdog role, suggesting the need for more research.
  • The public also says its own right to question authority figures is important. Thinking of the rights to free speech and petition in the First Amendment, we asked people if they felt the broader “right to question” leadership of different kinds was important. It is indeed — over 3 out of 4 Americans (77 percent) say it is very or extremely important to question political leaders and nearly the same (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.
  • At the same time, the public does not feel it can adequately question authority on its own. Many people value their right to challenge authority, but do not have a lot of confidence in their own ability to question leaders if needed. For example, about a third of Americans feel very sure they could question political leaders (34 percent), with another third feeling moderately confident, and the remaining third not all that confident. Even the people who most value their right to question leaders feel limited, with only 4 in 10 (41 percent) saying they are very confident in their own ability.
  • More generally, many Americans feel they can make at least some difference in where they live, especially locally. Thirty-nine percent of people think they can make a large or moderate impact in their local community. That compares with 27 percent who think they can do that on the national level.
  • But people are more likely to say they understand important issues facing the country than those facing their community. Most Americans feel their agency resides more immediately around them, but people are more likely to say they understand national issues rather than local ones (78 percent vs. 72 percent). Moreover, people are more likely to put greater confidence in how well they know national issues — e.g., 37 percent of Americans say they understand national issues very well versus 28 percent who say the same about local issues.
  • Demographics appear to matter. African Americans are more likely than whites and Hispanics to believe they understand important issues and can make an impact (44 percent vs. 25 percent and 23 percent, respectively). Older adults tend to believe they have a better understanding of national issues than younger adults (41 percent vs. 32 percent), while younger adults are more likely to believe they can improve their country (33 percent vs. 22 percent).
  • Basic media behaviors in today’s environment relate to understanding and competence talking about important issues, but not perceptions of efficacy. We looked at how two aspects of media usage might relate to people’s feelings about impact: whether they seek out news and whether they pay for it. Both factors influence whether people say they understand important issues and feel qualified to discuss them, but they do not significantly relate to people’s perceived ability to make change where they live. For example, 42 percent of people who pay for news say they understand important issues compared with 31 percent of those who don’t pay for news, but those who pay for news are not significantly more likely to say they can make a difference where they live (43 percent vs. 35 percent).

Overall, the results suggest a complicated picture of civic engagement today. However, we can say that the public, despite its critiques of today’s journalism, may find at least some common cause with the press. People value providing a check on power. But they may not all feel empowered to carry out that function, or more simply improve the places they live. And though it is unclear the extent to which interaction with media affects people’s perceptions of their influence in the public square, the press must find common cause with the public. For as advertising plays a smaller role and public and philanthropic support a larger one, more of journalism’s future will depend on the public’s assessment of its contribution to democracy and their communities.

About the study

NORC at the University of Chicago conducted the study in collaboration with the American Press Institute, working together on the survey questions, methods, and analysis. NORC and API are part of a longtime research collaboration, the Media Insight Project, that is designed to inform the news industry and the public about various important issues facing journalism and the news business. NORC fielded the survey December 13-16, 2018 using the AmeriSpeak® Panel, the probability-based panel of NORC at the University of Chicago. Online and telephone interviews were conducted with 1,067 adults, and the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

This survey was conducted with the support and partnership of Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation that for several years has made general operating grants to API. The relationship began with funding to study the effects of fact-checking journalism and now supports API’s wider work to understand audiences, build reader revenue, improve accountability journalism and succeed at organizational change.

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