WASHINGTON -- An interesting relationship has emerged between Americans and the media since Sept. 11: The more worried people were about terrorism, the better they rated the press's coverage.
That is one of the conclusions reached by researchers at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, who recently polled the public on attitudes toward the press. Apparently, the need for news affected confidence in news. At the same time, most news organizations rose to the challenge, providing an enormous amount of coverage of Afghanistan and post-Sept. 11 events.
The press, and the poll, were discussed recently at a forum arranged by the Brookings Institution and Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Here are excerpts of the discussion:
ANDREW KOHUT, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press: "I'm here to say that the public image of the press is improving. There, I said it. That's the first time in 15 years of studying public attitudes toward the press that I've ever said anything remotely close to that.
"The poll shows the public giving the press better grades with regard to performance and with regard to the perceived values of the news media and journalists. We had 13 general measures of public opinion about the media, and it was a statistically significant change in the direction of improvement on all 13. As to performance, the percentage of people saying the press usually gets the facts right rose from 35 percent in the survey that we did in September prior to Sept. 11, to 45 percent. That's the best grade that the press has gotten for accuracy in our polling with this question since 1992.
"Now, the biggest rise in positive attitudes toward the press had to do with more people seeing the press as professional, moral, patriotic and compassionate. The leading news organizations' `stand up for America' jumped from 43 percent in September to 69 percent in the current survey. Seeing the press as an institution that protects democracy jumped from 46 percent to 60 percent. Seeing the press as moral rather than immoral, we have a 53-23 margin prior; in early September, the margin was 40-34.
"I should add that much of the decline in perception of the press in terms of its values occurred during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal years. That's when the American public began to doubt not only the press' performance and the way it does its job, but began to doubt its basic values. This survey shows some considerable rebounding, at least for now, on these measures.
"There are a number of signs in the surveys that we've conducted between September and early November which show a clear link between the coverage and needing the content. When we asked people an open-ended question, `Why do you say the coverage is excellent or good,' people said because it's timely, because it's comprehensive, because it's informative.
"Further, the survey showed a clear link between worrying about the prospect of future terrorism and liking the coverage. People who were very worried, 58 percent gave the press excellent grades; those somewhat worried, 48 percent excellent grades; among those least worried, only 41 percent. Similarly as public worries about terrorism declined from mid-September to early November, the very positive ratings of the press also declined.
"But I have to say that it's not only need to know alone that explains the public's positive view of the coverage. I think the lack of contention about public policy and the low partisanship in Washington undoubtedly play a supporting role in liking the way the media has covered the story."
TOM ROSENSTIEL, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism: "In the research that we've done at the Project, we've seen a long-term shift away from traditional hard news toward what journalists call soft news. In 1977, for the twilight of the Walter Cronkite era, hard news made up roughly 70 percent of what was on the evening network newscasts, whereas celebrity and lifestyle coverage made up about 15 percent.
"By 1987, the eve of the end of the Cold War, that had dropped somewhat, but only somewhat, to about 60 percent of the evening news being hard news and about 19 percent being celebrity and lifestyle. By 1997, and in numbers that are pretty comparable to what we found this June, the numbers were quite different. Only 40 percent, less than half of what was on the evening newscast, was hard news, and celebrity made up roughly a third of the newscast.
"That has changed dramatically after Sept. 11. We are back to basically a 1977 kind of mix for news. Today on an evening newscast, 80 percent -- even higher than we saw in the late '70s -- of the news on the evening newscasts is hard news, and not all of it war news. And celebrity and lifestyle makes up actually just 1 percent of what people are seeing on the evening newscasts.