Survey: More Americans see less media bias — but why?

Jul 25, 2017

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment

Attention you so-called "enemies of the people" and alleged purveyors of biased reporting: There's reason to think fewer people than last year might see you that way, despite the ongoing, politicized attacks from multiple quarters on the news media's credibility.

President Donald Trump hurled that "enemies" epithet at journalists some time ago, and continues to complain about biased news coverage nearly every time there are news accounts regarding contacts with Russian officials by his administration.

But such criticism comes with varying levels of vitriol from a variety of quarters, and started long before Trump took office. Often, the harshest criticism of the media comes just as much from those who consume news as from those who make it.

This year, however, there are signs that the public's disdain for the media has somewhat abated. The 2017 "State of the First Amendment" survey, released over the July 4 holiday by the First Amendment Center of the Newseum Institutein partnership with the Fors Marsh Group, found that:

  • A solid majority of the public — about 68 percent — still believes in the importance of news media as a watchdog on democracy.
  • Less than half (43.2 percent) said they believe the news media tries to report the news without bias; but this figure is a marked improvement from 2015 (23 percent) and 2016 (24 percent).

There are some likely reasons for this shift: A significant amount of TV, online and print journalism has shifted from the softer "horse race" focus of the 2016 election to this year's focus on hard news and complex issues. And — with more than a bit of irony — as more Americans are inclined only to consume news from sources that line up with their individual perspectives, there's a likely parallel increase in the "trust factor" in those sources, even if they resemble echo chambers more than truth-tellers. Among those who believe that media tries to report unbiased information, most expressed a preference for news information that aligns with their own views (60.7 percent). Those more critical of media efforts to report news without bias were also less prone to report a preference for news aligned with their own views (49.1 percent).

So, no celebratory back flips in the nation's newsrooms, please, especially since the uptick only puts the "bias" figure roughly back to levels seen in 2013 and 2014 (46 percent and 41 percent, respectively).

Those inclined to support the work of today's journalists hope that the drop in those who perceive media bias generally stems from that combination of dramatically increased visibility of news operations and their reporting on serious news, such as health care reform and investigations of Russian influence in the 2016 election. For my own part, I believe more people saw reporting of real news, not fluffy "click-bait" features and dramatic but mostly meaningless polling reports, and it earned back some of their lost approval and trust.

Here's an idea for journalists nationwide: Keep trying hard news, accountability reporting on issues that — while not necessarily "sexy" — matter the most to people and their communities, such as jobs, health care, education, and local and state government.

For years, news industry moguls and newsroom leaders have sought ways to reverse their dwindling income, which has led to fewer newsrooms resources and less real journalism, and which in turn has prompted additional loss of consumers. Clearly, mushy stories about the travails of celebrities, feel-good stories, and valuing tweets over investigative reporting are not working out that well.

Acting on this realization will mean putting an emphasis on innovation and finding new ways to report on subjects that, in themselves, don't necessarily draw in a new generation of readers. But therein is the opportunity for those who will be the news media success stories of the 21st century. This year's survey results show that the opportunity is there, that news consumers are hungry for imaginative reporting on issues that directly impact their lives.

But we can still take comfort in the 20 percent drop in those who presume journalists are incapable of reporting without bias: Attitudes can change, and trust can be regained.

Read the full report.

Editor's Note: A version of this column appeared earlier on the Newseum Institute website as part of the 2017 State of the First Amendment report.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute. He can be reached at, or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.