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People Criticize News Media, But Value the News

By John BensonJohn Benson is senior research librarian at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut, and associate editor of The Public Perspective. / April 12, 1991



OVER the years the American press has been subjected to a number of persistent criticisms. In general the public perceives news organizations as biased on political and social issues and intrusive on people's privacy. During the Persian Gulf war, Americans were ambivalent about the role of the press, but two complaints stood out: A majority believed media coverage made it hard for US officials to conduct the war, and a substantial minority felt that news organizations gave Saddam Hussein too much opportunity to promote his cause.

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For newspapers the problem is compounded by a long-term decline in readership. The percentage of adults reporting that they read a newspaper every day declined from two-thirds in 1973-75 to only half in 1988-90.

Why then does an overwhelming majority of the public rate favorably both TV news and daily newspapers? Part of the reason for this apparent ambiguity is that people value the press for more than national and international news coverage. Local events, consumer reports, sports, business, and entertainment news are all a part of the viewer's, and especially the reader's, experience.

Television news has one special advantage when events unfold quickly: immediacy. Most people learned of the outbreak of the Gulf war from television. The public tended to feel that newspaper war coverage was largely redundant of what they had already seen on TV.

Criticism and approval of the press are not necessarily contradictory. Cable News Network (CNN) received probably the greatest amount of flak for its coverage, yet its Nielsen ratings soared during the early weeks of fighting. When people feel they need to know something, they turn not uncritically to the medium that best fulfills that current need.