Big Media losing grip thanks to the Internet and America’s political divide

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The American public as a whole appears to be increasingly critical of the news provided by mainstream media, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center. But digging deeper into the data shows that deep divides between the opinions of Republicans and Democrats on the state of the media are the real culprits for the general public’s change of opinion over time. A national survey of 1,503 adults conducted in June of this year reflected a continuing increase in distrust and criticism of the press over time from Americans of all walks, although the survey showed noticeable differences in opinion among different demographics—so much so that the overall results have been skewed heavily.

Most notably, the Internet news audience—that is, “people who rely on the internet as their main news source”—appears to be quite dissatisfied with mainstream media. Pew says that the Internet news audience tends to be “younger and better educated” than the general public and is perhaps more exposed to different types of news because of their reliance on the Internet. Compared to those who rely on traditional newspapers and TV for their main news sources, the Internet news audience maintains the most unfavorable opinion of all sorts of mainstream news, from local and cable TV news to daily and national papers. 38 percent of this audience has an unfavorable opinion of cable news networks like CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC, says Pew, compared to only 25 of the general public and 17 percent of the TV news audience.

The Internet news audience is even more critical of news organizations as a whole. “The internet news audience is particularly likely to criticize news organizations for their lack of empathy, their failure to ‘stand up for America,’ and political bias,” reads the report. “Roughly two-thirds (68%) of those who get most of their news from the internet say that news organizations do not care about the people they report on, and 53% believe that news organizations are too critical of America.” Comparatively, only 53 percent of the general public believes that news organizations don’t care about the people they report on, and 43 percent believes that they’re too critical of America.

This, however, doesn’t mean that the public isn’t keeping up with drinking a tall glass of press “hatorade.” Pew notes that, since 1985, the public generally sees the mainstream press as doing an increasingly bad job at remaining moral, protecting democracy, and avoiding bias. Only 39 percent of Americans surveyed felt that the media managed to get the facts straight, compared to 46 percent in 2001 and 55 percent in 1985. “As a consequence, the believability ratings for individual news organizations are lower today than they were in the 1980s and 1990s,” writes the report. Americans also feel that the press is less professional than it was in 1985, with 66 percent of survey respondents describing the press as professional compared to 72 percent (although there was a particularly low dip to 49 percent in July of 2002).

But there’s another set of data lurking below the surface that is taking its toll on these numbers. It’s no secret that Republicans and Democrats feel differently—and, in some cases, very strongly—over exactly how biased and accurate the mainstream media is, and Pew’s data reflects this. For example, almost three times as many Republicans (63 percent) say that the press is too critical of America compared to Democrats (23 percent), “and there is virtually no measure of press values or performance on which there is not a substantial gap in the views of partisans,” Pew found.

When it comes to network TV news, the daily newspaper, and national newspapers, Republican opinion repeatedly rated these significantly lower than that of Democrats and independents, and those ratings slid significantly over time. In 1985, for example, 88 percent of Republicans held a favorable view of network TV news, which has gone all the way down to 56 percent in 2007—a drop of 32 percentage points. This is compared to only an eight-point drop over the same period of time for Democrats. Pew even broke out results for those who rely on Fox News as their main source of news; compared to CNN viewers or those who watch network news, Fox viewers very consistently rated the media lower on every metric. “Politics plays a large part in these assessments,” says Pew. “Republicans outnumber Democrats by two-to-one (43% to 21%) among the core Fox News Channel audience.”

Democrats rated the mainstream media quite high—between 79 and 86 percent of Democrats had favorable opinions of the different forms of media, whereas only 41 to 68 percent of Republicans thought so. And these heavy differences no doubt played a major part in determining the numbers for the American public as a whole. But despite these obvious gaps, Pew concluded that the American public still tends to like a variety of news sources. “Though the numbers have declined in recent years, Americans continue to have more positive than negative impressions of these news organizations, and rate them far higher than most political institutions, including Congress, the Supreme Court and the political parties,” writes Pew.

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