The Press as Pest?

November 8th, 2010 by Stuart White

By Stuart White

One of the chief ironies of being a journalist reporting on pests is that in the eyes of many people, the press is itself a pest.  In the course of reporting on obnoxious bar behavior for an earlier post, one bartender answered this reporter’s question about the most obnoxious thing he’d seen in the bar with, “You, buddy.  You take the cake.”

Granted, the question came in the middle of a field goal attempt in which the gentleman seemed highly invested, but the encounter and others like it underscore an important truth: the public doesn’t much care for the old Fourth Estate.

In the wake of the midterm elections, the time seemed right to send out a survey checking up on people’s faith in the press, specifically it’s ability to report fairly on politics.  The results, somewhat surprisingly, weren’t as grim as one might imagine.

In general, the survey’s respondents were very media-savvy.  Only three of the 35 said they didn’t follow the news, and all but eight reported getting their news from multiple sources.

Despite recent dire studies, about 71% of the survey’s 35 respondents ranked their trust of the media as a four or five on a five-point scale.  One respondent, whose trust of the media only warranted a three, drew a distinction between print and television media outlets.

“If by mainstream, we’re talking about NYT, WSJ, WaPo and print pubs in general, I definitely ‘trust’ them,” said the respondent.  “It’s not that I don’t distrust cable news as much as I find it ineffective at best, and biased at worst. I don’t find it misleading, however.”

According to the respondent, much of the responsibility falls to the audience.  “Every news consumer should take ownership of what they read/watch and understand the outlet’s context,” they said.

However, despite the sample’s overall trust of the media, only one respondent described the media’s coverage of politics as “just right.”  The remainder described the media as “too biased” (41%), “too trivial” (26%), “too impulsive” (24%), or “too pervasive” (9%).

These concerns existed on both sides of the political aisle.  Of the sample’s four self-identified conservative voters, concerns about media bias, impulsiveness and triviality mirrored that of the rest of the respondents’.

One conservative respondent even saw media bias as having a direct impact on the electoral process, saying, “It absolutely changes the minds of voters.”  Another respondent called the media “purposefully polarizing.”

While respondents expressed a variety of views, the consensus seemed to be that the media tends to focus on political extremes rather than measured debate, and despite the group’s overall trust of the media, most of the respondents’ comments were tempered with criticism.

What’s the peskiest aspect of the media?  One respondent put it best, saying, “I think the debate is important, but it’s that ‘one step beyond’ factor that starts to aggravate.”

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