Do Americans Want Flag-Waving News?

Pew news review picks up mixed signals

Do American news viewers want it both ways: objective but at the same time skewed? A lengthy study from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press finds that viewers seem to want it that way.

The Patriotic Press?
Pew separated viewers by the newscasts they usually watched and then asked loyal viewers of broadcast networks, CNN or Fox News (above) how they think news organizations represent a U.S. point of view.
News organizations generally… Total Networks CNN Fox
Source: Pew Research Center
Stand up for the U.S.51%56%51%44%
Are too critical of us33343846
Neither/don't know16101110

Nearly two-thirds, 64% of just over 1,200 respondents to the phone survey in late June and early July, said they preferred news coverage of the war on terrorism to be neutral, while 29% said they preferred pro-American coverage.

Yet about three-quarters of all polled viewers of TV news agreed with the statement that "it is good that news organizations take a pro-American point of view." This sentiment held regardless of whether they were viewers of the broadcast networks (72% agreed), CNN (74%) or Fox News (77%).

"The survey shows," the study report said, "that the public has nuanced views about patriotism and the press."

Pew Research Center Editor Carroll Doherty said, "It's easy to understand why people see these things as inconsistent. And it's also true that the public can often hold two seemingly conflicting opinions at the same time."

The answers no doubt were affected by the war in Iraq, and Doherty acknowledged that, "on questions like this, there is some social desirability influence." But she also noted about viewers: "They don't want propaganda. At least that's what they're telling us.

"It's about point of view vs. coverage. We make a distinction in the question, and certainly the public makes a distinction in its answers. There's a pretty fine line between point of view and coverage. Point of view is a more difficult concept. People want to believe that the networks are supporting America. But it's one thing to put up an American flag or an 'Iraqi Freedom' logo. The public doesn't want that to influence the coverage. And I don't see the public objecting to flags or flag decals on the air as undermining neutral coverage."

A narrow majority, 51% of respondents, believe that news organizations did, in fact, "stand up for America," while 46% felt the news had become too critical of the country. Only 25% believed the news had become too pro-American.

And the image of the liberal media persists. Fifty-five percent of respondents believe that news organizations are politically biased, with twice as many finding that bias to be liberal, 51% vs. 26% finding it conservative.

The survey documented Fox's increasing presence as a news source, as well as gaps between viewers of Fox News and other news outlets. According to the survey, 22% named Fox News Channel as their primary news source, up from 16% a year ago. As for CNN, 27% said they get most of their news there, about the same as last year. Pew did not break out similar numbers for the third cable news net, MSNBC, because, it said, the sample was smaller and would risk a far higher margin for error.

"The growing audience for the Fox News Channel, nearly half of whom identify themselves as conservatives, has more consistently negative views of media, especially regarding its patriotism. Nearly two-thirds of Fox News viewers (65%) believe some news outlets are becoming too critical of America, compared with fewer than half of CNN and network news viewers (48%, 45% respectively)." Fox News viewers, Pew said, "also are more likely to prefer pro-American coverage of the war on terrorism."

Pew said 41% of Fox News viewers identified themselves as Republican, 47% as conservative and 27% as conservative Republican. Twenty-four percent listed themselves as Democrat, 30% as independent (2% higher than CNN's total there), 43% as moderate, 6% as liberal Democrat (only 1% lower than CNN's total in that category) and 15% as liberal. Fox viewers were a few percentage points more likely to be among the best-educated and most affluent of viewers. Fox News had no comment on the study.

The broadcast networks and CNN were within a few percentage points in several categories. Thirty-eight percent of broadcast network news viewers identified themselves as conservative, as did 36% of CNN viewers; 43% of the viewers of each called themselves moderate.

Approval of President Bush was higher among Fox News viewers, but still high in all three viewer categories. More than 80% of Fox viewers approved of the decision to go to war with Iraq, while 66% of broadcast viewers and 73% CNN viewers approved the move. The President's performance on the economy was rated lower in all viewer categories; albeit rated higher by Fox viewers.