Public Relations Tactics

Study: Credibility of News Media Hits Two Decade Low

Publication Date: 10/2009

Source: SO01 Public Relations Tactics
Product Code: 6C-100909
Organization/Author/Firm: John Elsasser
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The public’s assessment of the accuracy of news stories is now at its lowest level in more than two decades of Pew Research surveys, and Americans’ views of media bias and independence now match previous lows.

According to a report issued on Sept. 13 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 29 percent of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight, while 63 percent say that news stories are often inaccurate. In the initial survey about the news media’s performance in 1985, 55 percent of respondents said that news stories were accurate while 34 percent said that they were inaccurate. The percentage had fallen sharply by the late 1990s and has remained low over the last decade.

“The decline in credibility of the media is no surprise,” Matt Kucharski, APR, senior vice president of Minneapolis-based Padilla Speer Beardsley, tells Tactics. “Budget cutbacks mean less original reporting and more ‘forwarding’ of news from other sources. The problem is, nobody’s taking time to vet the original story to see if it’s really accurate. Regardless of who is to blame, PR professionals need to exercise even more news judgment than in the past because there are fewer reporters out there to separate the good from the garbage.”

Meanwhile, 26 percent of respondents now say that news organizations are careful to ensure that their reporting is not politically biased, compared with 60 percent who say news organizations are politically biased.

Eric Newton, vice president of the journalism program at the Knight Foundation, says there are several big trends behind the report.

“In the ‘creative destruction’ of the new media economics in the digital age, professional daily newsroom employment is at a 20-year low, and the public’s ability to spot errors is at an all-time high, so it is easy to understand why the accuracy gap is growing,” he tells Tactics.

As far as bias, however, the meaning is not as easy to interpret, Newton says.

“It’s possible that the increasing bias is coming from society itself and is reflected in, rather than caused by, the journalism. People continue to lean toward ‘comfort news’ — news that is laced with opinion, as on popular cable programs and talk radio,” he says. “That kind of news isn’t very healthy, but it seems to taste good because it makes people feel better about their own opinions. Unfortunately, it is about as useful for self-government as comfort food is for physical fitness.”

The poll finds that television remains the dominant news source for the public, with 71 percent saying that they get most of their national and international news from television. Forty-two percent say that they get most of their news on these subjects from the Internet, compared with 33 percent who cite newspapers. Last December, for the first time in a Pew Research Center survey, more people said they obtained most of their national and international news from the Internet than those who said that newspapers were their main source.

The declining public confidence rating in media accuracy follows the larger trends of dissatisfaction and distrust toward nearly all institutions, says J.R. Hipple, CEO of Atlanta-based Hipple & Co. Reputation Management.

Within this climate of distrust, the organizations that stand to gain the most are those with reputations for quality products, financial integrity, community responsibility and leadership integrity and vision,” Hipple says. “It’s the same old golden rule kind of stuff that’s been taught since the leaders of our institutions were in grade school. Good things do come to good people and the organizations they lead.”