Support for the watchdog
One area where public confidence in the media has not eroded over the years is the watchdog role of the press. The Pew Research Center, for several years, has asked the following:
“Some people think that by criticizing leaders, news organizations keep political leaders from doing their job. Others think that such criticism is worth it because it keeps political leaders from doing things that should not be done. Which position is closer to your opinion?”
This study finds that roughly two-thirds of Americans believe news organizations keep political leaders “from doing things that shouldn’t be done.” Only about a third worry that the press “keeps political leaders from doing their job.”
Those numbers are similar to what Pew has found over the years.
But there is a notable partisan divide here. While roughly 8 in 10 Democrats and two-thirds of independents believe news organizations keep political leaders from doing bad things, fewer than 4 in 10 Republicans feel that way.
There are even more striking differences if we look at people by their party identification.
In general, the research finds that Republicans and, to a lesser degree, independents are less trusting of the news media.
But there are substantive and, in some cases, dramatic differences between how Republicans see the media in general and how they see the media they turn to most often.
To begin with, only 8 percent of Republicans say they have “a lot of trust” in the information they get from the news media generally. That number jumps to 27 percent if they are asked about the news media they use most often.
There were similarly large shifts in other trust metrics among Republicans depending on whether they discussed the news media in general or the news media they used most often.
For instance, just 15 percent of Republicans think the news media deal fairly with all sides, but 45 percent think the news media they use most often do.
That number also jumps among independents, but not as dramatically—from 26 percent to 44 percent—depending on whether they are asked about the news media in general or the news media they use most often. It also jumps, though less so, among Democrats, from 45 percent to 56 percent.
Are the news media too liberal? Seventy percent of Republicans say the news media are too liberal. Only 23 percent think the news media are “just about right.” But those numbers almost flip when Republicans think about the news media they use most often. Then 33 percent think the media are too liberal and 63 percent think they’re just about right.
Just 13 percent of Republicans think the news media care about the people they report on, but 43 percent think that about the media they use most often, a number similar to Democrats’ 46 percent.
Just 8 percent of Republicans think the media admit their mistakes, but 43 percent think the media they rely on most do.
Just 14 percent of Republicans say the news media are moral, but 57 percent think the media they use are.
And 18 percent of Republicans think the media protect democracy, but 46 percent think the media they use do so.
Independents also have a higher opinion of the news media when asked about the media they use most often, but they are less trusting than Republicans in some instances.
For example, 36 percent of independents think the media they use most often care about people they report on (up from 16 percent of the media in general).
And, in all, 44 percent of independents say the news media they use most often are moral, fewer than either Republicans (57 percent) or Democrats (59 percent). But that is still a higher number than the 15 percent of independents who feel that way about the news media in general.
Independents are about as likely as Republicans to say the news media they use most often protect democracy (42 percent and 46 percent, respectively), though both are less likely than Democrats (57 percent).
News media outlets named by party
And what are the news media that people of different political affiliations say they turn to most often? Do Republicans look at different media than Democrats and independents do?
The data suggest there is some common ground, but also significant segmentation.
Cable channels such as Fox, CNN, and MSNBC are the most popular form of news for Democrats (37 percent), independents (37 percent), and Republicans (52 percent).
But people with different political affiliations do tend to name different cable channels to some degree. Republicans are more likely to name Fox (40 percent) than either independents (16 percent) or Democrats (7 percent). Democrats, by contrast, are more likely to name CNN (30 percent) than independents (20 percent) or Republicans (18 percent).
So there is some common public square, even in cable news, though it is a limited one.
Broadcast television channels such as ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS, among others, are also frequently used across the political spectrum, with many Democrats (30 percent), independents (28 percent), and Republicans (23 percent) saying they turn to such sources. But here, the differences among the specific channels are small. About 1 in 10 respondents name any of these specific networks as a news source they rely on often, with similar numbers of Democrats, Republicans, and independents saying they use NBC, CBS, and ABC.
In short, in a segmented media landscape, people are scattered not always because of partisanship, but often by having so many news outlets to choose from.