Friday, August 10, 2007

FOX guarding the chickens

Pew Research Center has released a survey of Americans' attitudes toward news organizations, and the results ain't pretty.

Not much surprise here: The 20-plus year long souring of Americans on news media continues, more so with Americans who get a substantial chunk of their news from the internet.
The internet news audience – roughly a quarter of all Americans – tends to be younger and better educated than the public as a whole. People who rely on the internet as their main news source express relatively unfavorable opinions of mainstream news sources and are among the most critical of press performance. As many as 38% of those who rely mostly on the internet for news say they have an unfavorable opinion of cable news networks such as CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, compared with 25% of the public overall, and just 17% of television news viewers.

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. 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. By comparison, smaller percentages of the general public fault the press for not caring about people they report on (53%), and being too critical of America (43%).

I'm not quite sure what to make of the "do not care about the people they report on" measure--what does that mean? That they don't share the same concerns as most of their viewers? I'd probably agree, but I don't think that's where the question is headed. Does it mean they calculatingly, even cynically, consider the people in stories they cover for their ratings value rather than for the values and policies they represent? I suppose I'd agree with that, too, but I'm not sure it's earth-shattering news. On the age-old question for journalists--Given the choice between putting out the fire and covering the fire, which would you choose?--the answer has never really changed.

On the other hand, I was a little surprised that the internet news audience strongly agreed that news organizations are to be faulted for failing to "stand up for America." Given the jingoism and dissent-is-treason tone of much that comes out of the American news media for the last several years (let's say, just to pin an arbitrary date on it, sometime in the second week in September, 2001), that result seems a little odd.

Or does it? Read on:
Generally, the press receives its most positive ratings for its performance from people who rely on television as their main source of news, with those who rely on newspapers – and especially the internet – expressing more critical opinions.

However, those who cite the Fox News Channel as their primary source of news stand out among the TV news audience for their negative evaluations of news organizations' practices. Fully 63% of Americans who count Fox as their main news source say news stories are often inaccurate – a view held by fewer than half of those who cite CNN (46%) or network news (41%) as their main source.

Similarly, Fox viewers are far more likely to say the press is too critical of America (52% vs. 36% of CNN viewers and 29% of network news viewers).
And the Fox News Channel audience gives starkly lower ratings to network news programs and national newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post.

Politics plays a large part in these assessments – Republicans outnumber Democrats by two-to-one (43% to 21%) among the core Fox News Channel audience, while there are far more Democrats than Republicans among CNN's viewers (43% Democrat, 22% Republican) and network news viewers (41% Democrat, 24% Republican).

Not surprisingly, the Fox News Channel audience is far more likely to say that news organizations have been unfair in their coverage of George W. Bush (49%) than those who cite CNN (19%) or network news (22%) as their main news source.

Further analysis of the data shows that being a Republican and a Fox viewer are related to negative opinions of the mainstream media. The overlapping impact of these two factors can most clearly be seen in the favorability ratings of network TV news, major national newspapers, and the daily newspapers that respondents are most familiar with. For all three, Republicans who count Fox as their main news source are considerably more critical than Republicans who rely on other sources. For example, fully 71% of Fox News Republicans hold an unfavorable opinion of major national newspapers, compared with 52% of Republicans who use other sources, and 33% of those who are not Republicans.

The FOX viewers must have weighed in heavily among the internet audience in the Pew sample, which did somewhat surprise me. A truism of the past few years is that left-wing blogging (which I take to be the primary "news source" for internet users) has far outpaced right-wing blogging, in proliferation of top-tier sites, in readership numbers, and advertising dollars. One explanation often given for this is the party-line driven, on-message character of right-wing blogs, compared to the buzzing, blooming confusion of blogs on the left. The lefty blogs are much more likely to say things that didn't come out of the Democratic party leaders' fax machines.

I suppose that the "stand up for America" results are also an indication of how far to the right the general discussion has been moved in the last half-dozen years.

However you parse it, though, one thing remains--FOX news is the communication arm of the Republican Party. Not much left to argue about there.

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