Sunday, August 15, 2010

Trust And The Fourth Estate

Every year Gallup measures American confidence in certain institutions.  Right now the military is riding high.  while Congress is at the bottom.  Near the bottom are banks, HMOs and big business.  While I support a healthy skepticism of any institution, you have to wonder how Americans come by these impressions.  I'd guess it's rarely based on a huge amount of direct contact, so much as general feelings based on stories and other second-hand means.  (That's how it works for most things--we don't have time to go around studying everything.)

Right now the press is not that popular.  Only about a quarter of citizens have a lot of confidence in newspapers or television news.  More telling is the general trend.  From 1991 to 2003 that number was usually 33% or higher. (More confusing is how in 1993 when TV news was added to the survey, Americans had 15% more confidence in it than newspapers.  Did everyone understand the question?  Since then, the two numbers have tracked more closely.)

Note, though, if you combine those who have either a great deal or a fair amount of confidence, the number, though it's been dropping, is still around 45%.  But it's been a few years since it was above 50%.
It seems, actually, that a fair amount of the change in attitude has come from the left.  Over the past decade, the number who think the press is too liberal has stayed fairly steady, around 45%.  Meanwhile, those who believe it's just about right has dropped a bit from 40% to 35%, while those who believe it's too conservative has risen from 11% to 15%.  These differences were even more pronounced in the final years of the Bush presidency.  I'd guess the anti-war side felt the press didn't reflect their beliefs.

As you might guess, liberals are far more likely to have confidence in the press than conservatives, with independents in the middle.  Those on the right say this suggests the press is more likely to tell liberals what they want to hear, while liberals respond that they believe more in speaking truth to power, or that facts have a liberal bias.

Interestingly, over the past year, there was a steep rise--from 27% to 36%--in Republicans who have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. (During the same period liberals had a slight drop from 60% to 58%.)  I assume this time the liberals would say conservatives are finally getting what they want from the press, while conservatives claim the press is starting to shake off its uncritical view of President Obama.

I wish the Gallup numbers went further back.  I'd like to know how popular the press was back in the days when Woodward and Bernstein were uncovering the Watergate scandal.  Or when Walter Cronkite told American what he felt about Vietnam.  I'm guessing people believed the media more back then, but who knows?

I don't want Americans to be too cynical, and I certainly don't want them getting caught up in nutty conspiracy theories.  But, as the left says (in the cleaned up version), "question authority."  Authority isn't just the government, or big business--it's any group with a lot of power who claims to be telling us the truth.  Probably better to trust the  media too little than too much.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Lawrence King said...

It seems to me that the press is at its most powerful not when most people think to themselves "I trust the press," but when most people simply do not think about the press at all.

One thing that all the networks do today is to advertise their own news by claiming it is accurate, or fair, or "in-depth", or whatever. This keeps people aware of the fact that the news -- even their favorite news -- could (at least in principle) be inaccurate or biased. Liberals may trust MSNBC and revile Fox, and conservatives may trust Fox and revile the other networks, but their trust remains a self-conscious trust. Like the way you trust a friend who lies a lot, when he says something that, after careful thought, you decide is probably true.

Whereas fifty years ago, people didn't think about "the press" much. They just pretty much accepted that what Walter Cronkite said was true. As Virginia's father told her, "If you read it in the Sun, it's so." That's real power.

11:47 AM, August 15, 2010  

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