Poll finds public trust of media weakening

TV/RADIO COLUMN

CNN judged most credible source of electronic news

August 07, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Some clerics admonish their congregants: Hate the sin, love the sinner. So what's the media corollary: Mistrust the news, love the anchor?

A study released this week by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that levels of public trust toward the media have largely dipped to the uneasy levels found before last September's terrorist attacks.

After the attacks, public faith in the media rose with admiration for government officials, religious institutions and other major parts of the establishment. Now, much of the glow has faded for the press.

By a significant plurality, CNN was judged the most credible source of news on television: 37 percent of people surveyed said they believed "all or most" of what they heard on the cable channel. Only one in four people found each of the three broadcast networks - ABC, CBS and NBC - highly credible.

Yet, according to the same poll, the lead anchors on those broadcast networks are the most trusted people on television - NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, CBS' Dan Rather and ABC's Peter Jennings, in that order.

Fewer people who took part in the poll felt able to assess the credibility of CNN rivals Fox News Channel, which drew high marks from 24 percent who gave an opinion, or MSNBC, 28 percent. (All these figures look a lot better if the next highest ratings are added in - many outlets receive high to good believability ratings from well over 50 percent of respondents.)

Walter Isaacson, the chairman and CEO of the CNN News group, says the Pew Research Center's findings are grounded in his network's emphasis on news from abroad.

"The main thing we've tried to do at CNN is have more journalists and more bureaus around the world, with people who want to do real reporting," Isaacson says. "I think you've seen a reduction in the amount of global newsgathering of broadcast networks, as well as in other places in the media. We're committed to keeping our coverage."

Over the course of the past year, as crisis has given way to energized debate, Fox News has taken a firm lead in the cable news ratings race. But CNN's longer history in the business - 21 years, to six for Fox, means people turn there when news occurs, says Carroll Dougherty, editor of the Pew Research Center.

Dougherty says there's no data to support the notion that Fox News' posture - offering itself as the antidote to liberal media bias elsewhere - has hurt it with many viewers. An equal number of Democrats as Republicans find it believable, the survey finds, while registered GOP voters tend to be more leery of other outlets.

"CNN benefits from its reputation as the main news outlet at a time when the networks and others are moving away from hard news," Dougherty says.

The media received high marks from those surveyed for coverage of the war on terror - both in the United States and in Afghanistan. A plurality of people supported strong examination of the military by the press, which they say helps keep the armed forces prepared.

"People still support the role that the press can play," Dougherty says. "If anything, they're stronger for it than they were in November of last year."

In polling done for Pew last month, for example, 59 percent of people said that press criticism keeps political leaders from wrongdoing. Only 26 percent said such scrutiny keeps political leaders from doing their jobs.

But the study also conveys the deep skepticism the public holds for much of the media. The percentage of people who believed that news organizations are usually accurate, moral, caring and professional dropped noticeably compared to the center's findings last November.

Many of the most publicized claims of unfairness stem from coverage of the conflict in the Middle East. Several major newspapers have found themselves the subject of boycotts by readers who judge them insensitive to the suffering of Israelis at the hands of Palestinian bombers.

CNN executives traveled to Israel to placate anger there, but simmering tensions still could lead to the network's being dropped from that nation's satellite television operations.

Meanwhile, in Europe, pro-Palestinian sensibilities have led to significant criticisms of U.S.-based media outlets, including CNN.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs released its own study this week of the three major network newscasts' stories on the Middle East from March 27 through June 30. Its researchers argue that all three have been unrelentingly negative. President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat each came in for largely tough coverage, although the analysis found far fewer references to Arafat.

The center's conclusion of "pure media negativism" taps into widespread skepticism toward the media as a whole. Yet the Pew Research Center's findings seem to indicate public support of the media's mission, and particularly for the people who present them the news.

Maybe it's that people have abiding faith in the constitutionally sanctioned function of the media. And maybe it's that a strong name brand really does matter, even as choices abound in print, online and throughout the cable spectrum.

The full Pew Research Center study can be found at http://people-press.org.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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