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Politics

Media Seen as Key to Democracy But Not Supporting It Well

by Zacc Ritter and Jeffrey M. Jones
Media Seen as Key to Democracy But Not Supporting It Well

Story Highlights

  • 84% say news media "critical" or "very important" to our democracy
  • 28% believe the news media supporting our democracy
  • Informing citizens, holding leaders accountable seen as top roles

WASHINGTON, D.C -- 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.

20171228_AmericanPredict2018-mediaimportance@2x

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.

Importance of News Media in Accomplishing Democratic Goals
How important is the role of the news media in accomplishing each of the following goals?
Critical Very important Somewhat important Not that important
% % % %
Making sure Americans have the knowledge they need to be informed about public affairs 54 34 7 2
Holding leaders in politics, business and other institutions accountable for their actions 50 33 11 3
Providing objective news reports 47 38 10 2
Making residents feel connected to the U.S. as a whole 38 41 15 3
Making residents feel connected to their community 30 45 19 4
Aug. 4-Oct. 2, 2017
Knight-Gallup Survey on Trust, Media and Democracy

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.

Ratings of How News Media Performs in Accomplishing Key Democratic Goals
Very well/Well Acceptably Very poorly/Poorly Net ("well" minus "poorly")
% % % pct. pts.
Making sure Americans have the knowledge they need to be informed about public affairs 30 29 38 -8
Holding leaders in politics, business and other institutions accountable for their actions 30 26 42 -12
Providing objective news reports 30 26 40 -10
Making residents feel connected to their community 28 40 29 -1
Making residents feel connected to the U.S. as a whole 27 32 38 -11
Aug. 4-Oct. 2, 2017
Knight-Gallup Survey on Trust, Media and Democracy

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.

20171228_AmericanPredict2018-mediasupportdemocracy@2x

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.

20171228_AmericanPredict2018-Democratic-Republican@2x

Implications

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.

Read the full Knight Foundation/Gallup report "Americans' Views: Trust, Media and Democracy."

Survey Methods

Results are based on mail interviews conducted Aug. 4-Oct. 2, 2017, with a random sample of 19,196 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Gallup used a randomly selected Addressed-Based Sampling (ABS) design. The study included oversamples of households known to contain members of hard-to-reach subgroups, including blacks, Hispanics and young adults. The sample was weighted to correct for unequal probability of selection and non-response, to match the national demographics on gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region and population density.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage point at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Ratings of Importance of News Media to Democracy, by Political Party
Critical Very important Somewhat Important Not that important
% % % %
Important to Our Democracy
Democrats 54 36 7 1
Independents 44 36 13 4
Republicans 33 46 15 4
Important role: Informing Americans
Democrats 58 31 6 1
Independents 56 32 7 2
Republicans 49 38 8 3
Important role: Holding leaders accountable
Democrats 58 29 8 1
Independents 53 31 11 4
Republicans 41 39 13 5
Important role: Providing objective news reports
Democrats 49 38 9 1
Independents 50 36 10 2
Republicans 45 40 9 3
Important role: Connecting residents to the U.S.
Democrats 40 41 14 2
Independents 36 39 18 4
Republicans 37 42 14 4
Important role: Connecting residents to community
Democrats 33 46 16 2
Independents 30 41 22 5
Republicans 27 46 20 5
Aug. 4-Oct. 2, 2017
Knight-Gallup Survey on Trust, Media and Democracy

Evaluations of the Job the News Media Are Doing Supporting Our Democracy, by Party Identification
Very well/Well Acceptably Very poorly/Poorly
% % %
Important to Our Democracy
Democrats 50 31 17
Independents 23 29 47
Republicans 10 20 69
Important role: Informing Americans
Democrats 48 31 18
Independents 24 29 45
Republicans 16 26 57
Important role: Holding leaders accountable
Democrats 47 26 23
Independents 26 25 48
Republicans 15 24 58
Important role: Providing objective news reports
Democrats 50 31 15
Independents 24 27 47
Republicans 13 20 65
Important role: Connecting residents to the U.S.
Democrats 41 35 20
Independents 21 33 43
Republicans 15 28 54
Important role: Connecting residents to community
Democrats 41 39 17
Independents 22 42 33
Republicans 19 38 40
Aug. 4-Oct. 2, 2017
Knight-Gallup Survey on Trust, Media and Democracy

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