PRINCETON, NJ -- Most Americans appear unimpressed by the media's performance as government watchdog in the first year of the Obama administration. A third say the media have done an "excellent" or "good" job of filling this important role of a free press, 37% say their performance has been "fair," and 27% rate it "poor."
This finding comes from a Gallup survey sponsored by the nonpartisan First Amendment Center, conducted Jan. 20-21, 2010.
The plurality of Americans (43%) say the news media's performance as watchdog under Obama is on par with how it did during previous administrations; however, by 31% to 21% the remainder tilt toward believing the media has done a worse, rather than better, job under Obama.
More Republicans Than Democrats Crying Foul
In covering a presidential administration, reporters can adopt the tenacity of a pit bull or the affability of a lapdog. One way to gauge where the media as a whole actually fall on that spectrum is to do an objective analysis of all media content. Another may be to see how Republicans and Democrats react to the coverage.
"When asked which issue they would like to see the news media do a better job of reporting on going forward, the largest segment of Americans (40%) cite Obama's policies on the economy, followed by healthcare (30%)."
According to the new poll, nearly half of Democrats (45%) say the media have done an excellent or good job as a watchdog of the Democratic Obama administration, compared with 29% of independents and 30% of Republicans. Republican dissatisfaction with the media as watchdog in Obama's first year is particularly great, evident in the relatively high percentage (39%) calling the media's performance poor.
Additionally, a solid majority of Democrats (75%) believe the media are performing the same or better as a government watchdog with Obama than they did with previous administrations. Independents generally agree with this assessment, while Republicans are about evenly divided between those saying the media are doing the same or better, and those saying they are doing worse: 49% vs. 48%.
Appetite for Better Coverage of Economic Policies
The new poll also asked Americans to identify which one of several Obama administration policy areas they think the media did the best job of covering in the past year. Americans give the media the most credit on healthcare (24%) and the economy (20%), and somewhat less credit on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and terrorism. (This rank order may reflect the amount of media coverage devoted to each topic as much as it does the quality.) However, an even larger percentage -- 36% -- do not choose any of these issues, or have no opinion about which has been best covered.
When asked which issue they would like to see the news media do a better job of reporting on going forward, the largest segment of Americans (40%) cite Obama's policies on the economy, followed by healthcare (30%). Relatively few cite U.S. wars or terrorism.
When identifying the best news coverage during Obama's first year, all party groups rank healthcare relatively highly. About 4 in 10 Republicans, however, refuse to acknowledge that the media have done a good job on even one of the four issues rated.
Looking ahead, Democrats are particularly interested in seeing improved coverage of Obama's healthcare policies, with the economy ranking a close second. Republicans and independents are largely focused on the economy.
Gallup polling in recent years has consistently shown Republicans harboring more skepticism than Democrats toward the mainstream news. In October 2009, Gallup found Democrats to be among the most confident of all major U.S. subgroups that the media report the news "fully, accurately and fairly" and Republicans to be the least confident (58% vs. 36%). The same poll found 74% of Republicans saying the news media are "too liberal" versus 20% of Democrats calling them "too conservative."
Still, both Republicans and Democrats are likely to be sensitive about the treatment President Obama gets from the press; given this, the best the media can probably achieve on the watchdog question is equal levels of criticism from both sides. A high proportion of Democrats saying they think the coverage of Obama's administration has been excellent or good probably means it has been too lenient. A high proportion of Republicans saying the same probably means it has been too tough. With these figures currently registering 45% among Democrats and 30% among Republicans, the press may want to reflect on whether it did, in fact, fulfill its important role as government watchdog in 2009. And going forward, it may want to bear in mind Democrats' concern about appropriate coverage of Obama's healthcare plans, and Republicans' and independents' interest in better media oversight of his economic policies.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,026 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 20-21, 2010, as part of Gallup Daily tracking. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones and cellular phones.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.