The public and journalists expect the same things from the news media. The public just doesn’t think it’s getting it.
What do people want from journalists? Above all, the public says it wants accuracy — for the media to verify and get the facts right. Fully 87 percent rank that as extremely or very important, higher than any other item.
People also want journalists to be fair to all sides (78 percent), to be neutral (68 percent), and to provide diverse points of view (61 percent).
A majority (54 percent) also say it is extremely or very important for the press to be a watchdog over the powerful. Thirty percent consider that somewhat important, and another 15 percent not very important.[ref On several questions in this battery, there were significant differences in opinion by party, age, and other demographic groups. For example, on this particular item about the media’s role as a watchdog, the political and demographic differences are notable. Sixty‑four percent of Democrats say the watchdog role is extremely/very important, compared to 50 percent of Republicans and 39 percent of independents. In terms of age, adults age 45 and older (61 percent) are more likely than adults under age 45 (45 percent) to think the watchdog role is important. And whites (58 percent) are more likely than blacks (42 percent) and Hispanics (46 percent) to say this is important. Finally, education is also a differentiator, with a divide between those with no college (48 percent) and college (66 percent). Later in this report key political and generational differences are provided in more detail.]
These rankings are similar to what journalists think they should be doing. On most items, in fact, the numbers are even higher for journalists.
The most striking difference between public expectations of the press and journalists’ expectations came on the watchdog role: While just over half of the public considers it extremely/very important, fully 93 percent of journalists rank it so.
Knowing that people think accuracy is the most important thing and journalists agree — does the public think the news media are accurate?
We asked a new question developed for this survey: If people have to choose, do they say that the press is basically accurate and they can trust what they see? Or do they think that the press is fairly inaccurate and they need to check multiple sources to know what’s true?
In all, 6 in 10 people consider most news reports accurate enough that they can trust them and don’t have to check multiple sources to verify information. Four in 10 have the opposite view — that news reports are pretty inaccurate, so much so that they feel they need to check multiple sources to verify information before they know what to believe.
Journalists we surveyed were very close to anticipating how the public feels about this question.
We also asked the public a related question, about what kinds of coverage they find most useful. We asked them to select a preference from four basic choices:
- news coverage that mostly just reports the facts
- news coverage that mostly reports facts with some background and analysis
- news coverage that is mostly analysis
- commentary and opinion
The findings are striking. People want facts, but they want more than just the facts. More than 6 in 10, 63 percent, say they want news coverage that is mostly facts but includes some background and analysis.
By contrast, just over a quarter, 27 percent, say the press should stick strictly to the facts.[ref This question, asked with four response options, is a different result than a Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2016. Offering two choices, Pew found that 59 percent of adults think the media should present the facts without interpretation, and 40 percent prefer facts presented with interpretation. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact‑tank/2016/11/18/news‑media‑interpretation‑vs‑facts/]
But by and large, the public doesn’t think the media is giving them mostly facts with only some background analysis. When we asked people what best describes most of the news content they see — putting aside pure commentary and opinion pieces — only 33 percent describe most of the news coverage they see as providing mostly facts with just some background and analysis. Only 7 percent say most of the news they see is just the facts.
Instead, the largest group of people consider most news coverage they see as far more opinionated. Forty‑two percent of adults think most news seems like commentary and opinion, posing as news. And another 17 percent think most news coverage includes too much analysis.
In other words, people want context and background in their news coverage — and journalists want to provide it. But the majority of the public thinks the press has veered too far toward opinion.
This stands out as a major gap — and both a challenge and an opportunity for journalists. Journalists need to take a hard look at their attempts to contextualize the news or add analysis and interpretation. Have they just become another round of commentators?
How hard is it to distinguish news from opinion?
We took this question of separating news versus opinion one step further and asked people how difficult it is for them to identify the difference between news and commentary in different kinds of media they might encounter.
For the specific news outlet a person uses most often, most feel they generally have no problem making this distinction. Nearly three‑quarters of people (73 percent) find it very or somewhat easy to distinguish news from commentary in their favorite news outlet.
[pullquote align=right]People want context and background in their news coverage — and journalists want to provide it, but the majority of the public thinks the press has veered too far toward opinion.[/pullquote]
But for all other media types, only about half or less say they can fairly easily make that distinction.
Local television news, which usually contains no formal commentary segments, scores highest. Sixty‑three percent say they can tell the difference between news and commentary on local TV news.
For cable news, and the news media in general, the numbers are just over half (54 percent for cable news, 55 percent for the news media generally). Fifty‑five percent can also easily tell the difference between news and commentary on PBS, and 47 percent say the same for public radio.
We also asked about social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook — often carrying a mix of commentary and news — and just 43 percent say they find it very or somewhat easy to sort news from commentary on these popular platforms.
In short, the press clearly needs to do more to clarify what is news, what is opinion, and what is analysis. The public wants it. The press wants to provide it, but has failed to make those distinctions clear enough for the public to understand.