The FINANCIAL — Americans believe the news media play an important role in democracy, particularly in terms of informing the public, yet they do not think the media are fulfilling that role well.
Forty-four percent of Americans say the news media are “critical” to democracy, with another 40% saying they are “very important.” At the same time, Americans are nearly twice as likely to say the media support our democracy “very poorly” or “poorly” (43%) as to say they support it “very well” or “well” (28%). Another 27% say the media do an acceptable job in this role.
These results are based on the Knight Foundation/Gallup survey on trust, media and democracy. The large-scale mail survey of more than 19,000 U.S. adults was conducted Aug. 4-Oct. 2, 2017.
In addition to assessing media importance and performance at a broad level, the survey explored Americans’ views about several specific tasks the media play in a democracy.
A majority of Americans say the media are “critical” to accomplishing the specific democratic goals of keeping citizens informed about public affairs (54%) and holding leaders accountable (50%). Forty-seven percent also believe the media perform a critical function by providing objective news reports. Far fewer think the media are critical for connecting people to their community or the U.S. more broadly (30% and 38%, respectively), but at least three in four Americans say these functions are at least very important.
At the same time, U.S. adults do not believe the media are playing any of these roles particularly well, with little distinction in the ratings of the various tasks. Roughly three in 10 say the media are performing each task well, while about four in 10 say poorly. Americans are somewhat less critical in their evaluations of the job the media is doing in making residents feel connected to their community, for which 28% say the media are doing well and 29% poorly.
These results suggest the media are doing relatively better on the item Americans see as least important — connecting residents to their local community. On the most important media roles — informing Americans and holding leaders accountable — the scores are negative but not much different from ratings on less important functions.
Politics Related to Perceived Media Importance and, Especially, Performance
Democrats regard the media as more important to U.S. democracy than independents and Republicans do. A majority of Democrats, 54%, believe the media are critical to democracy, compared with 44% of independents and 33% of Republicans. But Republicans are not inclined to think the media are unimportant, given that 46% rate it as very important to democracy.
At the same time, party differences on the perceived importance of the specific democratic goals for the media tend to be modest. For example, 58% of Democrats and 49% of Republicans see informing the public as a critical media role. Also, 49% of Democrats and 45% of Republicans say providing objective news reports is a critical democratic function for the media to play. There is, however, a wider partisan gap in perceptions of how critical the media’s role is in holding leaders accountable — 58% of Democrats versus 41% of Republicans say it is critical, perhaps because a Republican president is in office. Full results by party on the importance ratings appear at the end of this article.
A majority of Republicans, 69%, believe the media are doing a poor job supporting democracy today, while half of Democrats say the media are doing their job well. Independents, like Republicans, are more pessimistic than optimistic in their evaluations.
There are also large partisan differences in perceptions of how the media are doing in achieving the specific democratic goals. Democrats are at least twice as likely to say the media are performing these tasks well rather than poorly, whereas on most dimensions Republicans’ ratios of poor-to-good ratings exceed three-to-one. Full results are available at the end of this article.
Democrats’ ratings on the two dimensions — importance and performance — show most items in the upper-right quadrant of the following graph, indicating the media are performing well on functions they believe are important. Republicans’ ratings on these tasks place them in the lower-right quadrant of the graph given their belief the media are doing poorly on dimensions they see as important.
These findings align with the downward trend in Americans’ trust in the media over the past few decades mostly because of increasing perceptions of bias in news reporting. Despite these trends, the vast majority of Americans still say the media play a very important role in our democracy. Many more Republicans than Democrats believe the news media are not delivering on their core democratic functions, but both party groups still largely agree that many of the media’s roles are important. This provides some hope that at least a sliver of common ground remains between the two party groups on which broader confidence in the news media might be rebuilt.