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News media's vital to democracy, Americans say; then a partisan divide yawns

A massive new survey on media and democracy paints an unflattering picture in which the public trust in mainstream journalism is declining as perceived bias is growing.

The finding most optimistic for the preservation of a functional democracy: Five in six Americans, 84 percent, describe the news media as highly important to providing accurate information and holding the powerful accountable.

But a closer look at the numbers, released Thursday, shows something deeply problematic for civil society: a huge chasm in public attitudes toward the media, with Democrats generally favorable and Republicans openly hostile.

Perhaps this should not be surprising given the confluence of the continuous, precipitous decline of the traditional media, particularly newspapers, and four years of President Trump making "fake news" a household term and carrying out an endless assault on what he has called "the true enemy of the people."

The study by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, marrying the famous polling company and a philanthropy created with media company profits, involved more than 20,000 mail surveys between November and February. The enormity of the sample means the margin of error in the results is just 1 percentage point.

The major topline results include:

  • An overwhelming 86 percent believe there's a great deal (49 percent) or a fair amount (37 percent) of political bias in news coverage.
  • Only 31 percent have a favorable view of the news media, a share 15 points smaller than those who have an unfavorable view. The rest said they don't see things either way.
  • While almost half of Americans (49 percent) view the role of journalism as critical to democracy and a third (35 percent) says it's very important, just 13 percent say it's not important or not important at all.
  • At the same time, while 54 percent said the media was supporting our democracy to an acceptable degree or better, 43 percent said news organizations are doing a poor job on that score.

A look at the partisan breakdown provides a starkly different view. While nearly three-quarters of Republicans see a great deal of bias in the media, only a little more a quarter of Democrats see a great deal of bias.

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Similarly, 43 percent of Republicans have a very unfavorable view of the media — but only 5 percent of Democrats feel that way. Looked at another way, more than half of Democrats have a very favorable or somewhat favorable view of the media while just over 1 out of 10 Republicans feel that way.

Large bipartisan majorities did rate as a "major problem" that owners of news outlets were attempting to influence the way stories are reported (74 percent); that news organizations are being too dramatic or sensational in order to attract more readers (70 percent); and that there was too much bias in the selection of what stories news organizations cover or don't cover (70 percent).

And there was general agreement across the political spectrum that democracy only works well when people stay informed on the news.

But when asked to rate the success of the media in carrying out its democracy-building role, the huge partisan divide again appears.

Overall, less than a third said the media did well or very well at "holding leaders in politics, business, and other institutions accountable for their actions." But among Democrats 43 percent said that while only 14 percent of Republicans did.

Again, less than a third gave the media high marks for "making sure Americans have the knowledge that they need to be informed about public affairs." But 46 percent of Democrats said so, while only 14 percent of Republicans did.

The survey found a close association between following the news and voting with more than three-fourths of those who said they closely follow local news also saying they always or nearly always vote.

The proliferation of media, particularly online, leaves many overwhelmed, the survey found. Too much, too fast makes it harder, not easier, for them to stay informed, they said.

In response to this media flood, 41 percent said they only pay attention to one or two trusted sources.

And 17 percent say they have just stopped paying attention to the news altogether.

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