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Amid Criticism, Support for Media’s ‘Watchdog’ Role Stands Out

August 8, 2013

OVERVIEW from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press

Public evaluations of news organizations’ performance on key measures such as accuracy, fairness and independence remain mired near all-time lows. But there is a bright spot among these otherwise gloomy ratings: broad majorities continue to say the press acts as a watchdog by preventing political leaders from doing things that should not be done, a view that is as widely held today as at any point over the past three decades.

In the wake of revelations about government activities, including the NSA surveillance program and the IRS targeting of political groups, nearly seven-in-ten (68%) say press criticism of political leaders keeps them from doing things that should not be done, while just 21% say press criticism keeps leaders from doing their job. Support for the media’s watchdog role has risen 10 points since 2011 even as other press ratings have shown little sign of improvement.

About equal majorities of Republicans (69%), independents (69%) and Democrats (67%) view news organizations as a check on political leaders and there has been a significant rise in this view across nearly all demographic and political groups. Young people especially have become more likely to say news organizations keep political leaders from doing things that should not be done, a shift in opinion that has taken place concurrently with rising concerns about civil liberties.

Outside of its role as a watchdog, the press receives broadly negative ratings from the public on core performance measures. Two-thirds (67%) say that news reports are often inaccurate, and even greater percentages say that news organizations tend to favor one side (76%) and are often influenced by powerful people and organizations (75%). Ratings of news organizations have declined steadily since Pew Research first began tracking attitudes in 1985, and many current ratings stand near all-time lows reached in 2011.

The Pew Research Center’s biennial media attitudes survey, conducted July 17-21, 2013, among 1,480 adults, finds that 50% of the public now cites the internet as a main source for national and international news, up from 43% in 2011. Television (69%) remains the public’s top source for news. Far fewer cite newspapers (28%) or radio (23%) as their main source. (Respondents were allowed to name up to two sources.)

The current media landscape is starkly different than in 2001, when 45% said newspapers were their main source for news and just 13% cited the internet. The percentage turning to television for news has changed little over this same period of time. Read more in Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.


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