No, Americans aren't yearning for more and better "objectivity" in journalism

Big new survey of public opinion on the media reveals partisan split — but using it to preach about "bias" is wrong

Published August 7, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

In this photo illustration a double exposure image shows the President of United States of America, Donald Trump with a sentence saying "Fake news".  (Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
In this photo illustration a double exposure image shows the President of United States of America, Donald Trump with a sentence saying "Fake news". (Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This article was co-produced with Press Watch, an independent site that monitors and critiques American political coverage. Please consider supporting Press Watch by making a donation.

A major new survey of public opinion about the news media is being misinterpreted by its sponsors to suggest that Americans don't think there's enough objectivity in journalism anymore.

The survey from the Knight Foundation and Gallup, Inc., did indeed find increasing complaints about bias in the news media.

But a blog post from Knight interpreted that to mean "that Americans' hope for an objective media is all but lost." And Sam Gill, the senior vice president of the Knight Foundation, declared on NPR on Monday, "People really do not think media is doing its job as a democratic institution."

If you look at the data just a bit more closely, though, you see that the bias concerns are primarily from Republicans, who after three years of Trump's Twitter assaults overwhelmingly and increasingly distrust the mainstream media, with a not insignificant number — 12% — actually claiming to believe it is "trying to ruin the country."

That's not a failure of "objectivity" by the mainstream media; that's a willful departure from reality by a large chunk of the population. If anything, it suggests to me that the mainstream media's "objectivity" hangup has resulted in a failure to successfully champion the truth.

The survey finds that Democrats, by contrast, remain quite positive about the role the media plays. While 28% of them said they consider bias a "major problem," it's reasonable to assume that many had outlets like Fox News in mind when they said that.

That's not a failure of objectivity by the mainstream media, either. That's a reasonable expression of concern — arguably one that the reality-based media is not adequately confronting.

The survey did not define what it meant by "news coverage" or "media," leaving open a huge world of possibilities.

Nor did it define what it meant by "objective" or "neutral," even while using those terms favorably in its questions. The two key bias prompts, which respondents were asked to rate as "a major problem, a minor problem, or not a problem with news coverage today" were:

  • "Increasing number of news sources reporting from a particular point of view (such as conservative or liberal) rather than being neutral"; and
  • "Too much bias in the reporting of news stories that are supposed to be objective.(My italics.)

Saying that news stories are "supposed to be objective" is, well, a matter of opinion. And the notion that "objectivity" is the only path to building trust and fulfilling journalism's democratic mission, I think, is flat wrong. A lot of media critics, myself included, have long criticized newsroom leaders for preaching a version of "objectivity" that manifests itself in false equivalences that obscure rather than expose the truth.

The news industry is now facing a rebellion, led by young reporters of color, who see "objectivity" as having failed miserably to confront overt racism and dishonesty. As I wrote in June, these editors call it "objectivity" when what they're really trying to do is avoid offending a politically neutral or "moderate" white man who doesn't actually exist.

It's not clear who wrote the Knight/Gallup report on the survey. The Knight blog post was written by John Sands, a Knight staffer with no evident journalism background. He wrote that Americans "see an increasing partisan slant in the news, and a media eager to push an agenda."

He concluded: "As a result, the media's ability to hold leaders accountable is diminished in the public's eye." But I see no support for that conclusion anywhere in the survey's responses. The only question about accountability found that views about how well the news media is "holding leaders in politics, business, and other institutions accountable for their actions" remained essentially unchanged between 2017 and 2019.

The report advertises that "The full questionnaire, topline results, detailed cross tabulations and raw data may be obtained upon request," and after multiple requests I now have that information, available at the bottom of this page.

The biggest news I took away from the survey is that young Democrats are souring on the media. From the full report:

While few Republicans in any age group view the media favorably, Democrats' opinions depend largely on their age; nearly three-fourths of those in the oldest group have a favorable opinion, versus less than a third of those under 30….

Young people are particularly unlikely to say media is supporting democracy "well" or "very well"; 40% of Americans aged 65 and over say this, compared to 22% of those aged 18-29. One-third (33%) of Democrats under 30 respond this way, compared to 54% of Democrats 30 and older.

That is inevitably driven in part by the fact that young people use the internet for news more than older people do, but I also see it as evidence that the news media needs to change — not do more of the same. (The report, without offering any supporting evidence, concludes that young people's "negative perceptions are likely a function of their increased sense of bias in the news.")

Another notable finding — not because it is surprising, but because it is so rarely discussed — is that "3 in 4 Americans worry that owners of media companies are influencing coverage."

The Knight Foundation is the largest journalism-related foundation in the country, with more than $2 billion in assets, and it has been a powerful voice for journalism, the First Amendment, and a better understanding of how news organizations can inform their communities and create an informed electorate.

I frequently quote from the 2019 report by the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy entitled "Crisis in Democracy: Renewing Trust in America," which concluded:

At its best, journalism informs the public on matters of civic concern, gives citizens a common set of facts, provides context that lends greater meaning to the news, independently monitors and holds those in power accountable, and strengthens the public discourse. Good journalism helps us to understand others whose lives and challenges are very different from our own.

I am personally grateful to Knight for funding my life-changing journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in 1996. And I would dearly love them to help fund Press Watch.

But the way Knight cast the findings of its own survey to me is symptomatic of its unwillingness to take activist positions, also seen in other major journalism philanthropies. For instance, I'd like to see Knight and other journalism nonprofits make more forceful distinctions between reality-based newsrooms and propaganda outlets that falsely market themselves as news, rather than treat them like part of the same continuum.

(I'd also like to see them invest their massive endowments where they could make the most difference: By buying newspapers.)

Look through the full report, and you'll see a lot of findings that support the view that the political divide (in terms of both supply and demand) is the overwhelming factor driving complaints of "bias," rather than an industry-wide loss of objectivity:

  • "Given the choice … more Americans say they are concerned about bias in the news other people are getting (69%) than say they worry about their own news being biased (29%)."
  • "Democrats and Republicans differ greatly in their ratings of the media on every aspect of performance, including providing objective news reports, holding political and business leaders accountable for their actions and helping Americans stay informed about current affairs."
  • Republicans are apparently using the excuse of too much "bias" in the news to explain why they've given up on figuring out the truth. Asked whether they felt that "there is so much bias in the news media that it's often difficult to sort out the facts" or "Although there is some bias in the news media, there are enough sources of news to be able to sort out the facts," two out of three Republicans chose the former, compared to only one in five Democrats.

A deeper look at the crosstabs should be fascinating. For instance, the full report notes that "people who name a conservative news outlet as their top news source are more likely to say news media they distrust are ruining the country."

Nevertheless, there's lots of valuable information in the survey, if you read it with a grain of salt. And I'll end with some undeniable good news:

  • "Americans are more likely today to say the media's role in democracy is 'critical,' up five percentage points since 2017."
  • And "Large majorities say it is 'critical' or 'very important' for the news media to provide accurate and fair news reports (92%), ensure Americans are informed about public affairs (91%) and hold leaders accountable for their actions (85%)."

By Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

MORE FROM Dan Froomkin

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