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U.S.: Americans Need News But Don't Trust Media

Washington, 6 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A survey has concluded that Americans have a strong need for news in their everyday lives, but many distrust the media and believe journalists are improperly influenced by corporate owners, advertisers and elected officials.

The survey, released Monday, was commissioned by the Freedom Forum, a non-partisan private foundation dedicated to the preservation of freedom of speech and the press.

Joe Urschel, deputy director of Newseum, the Freedom Forum affilate which had a role in developing the survey, told RFE/RL that the purpose of the survey was to identify problems between the media and the public in order to help them "better understand one another."

"We knew going in that people didn't have a very high opinion of the media," said Urschel. "What we really wanted to know was why and how deep those feelings ran."

Urschel said the results of the survey were both interesting and disturbing. On the positive side, he said, the survey shows how Americans clearly need and depend on the news.

According to the survey, 70 percent of the respondents said the news is either very or somewhat useful to them in making everyday decisions. Sixty-seven percent said they spend at least an hour a day getting the news while another 20 percent said they spend two hours or more.

Two-thirds indicated that it would matter some or a lot if they were unable to get news for a week. Women reported needing the news more than men -- 68 percent to 58 percent.

Urschel said it is fascinating to see the high interest in news among young people. Seventy-six percent of the respondents between the ages of 18 - 29 said the news is somewhat or very useful in their lives. In contrast, 70 percent of those aged 45-59, and 64 percent of those aged 60 and up, found daily news useful.

But young people are getting their news from other sources than television and print press, according to the survey. Ten percent of the respondents aged 18 - 29 get their daily news from the Internet and 30 percent get news at least once a week from the Internet.

Urschel said the Internet is having a huge impact on the way the media operates, saying the younger generation is used to live reporting similar to that done by CNN. Urschel says the Internet offers them the same immediate coverage. He warned, however, that because of the current unstructured nature of the Internet, the news is sometimes unfiltered, inaccurate and unverifiable.

The most disturbing side to the survey, said Urschel, was the finding that most Americans do not trust the motives or methods of the media on which they rely.

While 80 percent of the respondents stated they believe a free press is crucial to the functioning of a democratic society, a large percentage of the respondents said they believe the press has become more strongly identified with special interests than with the good of society.

Those surveyed said they believe the news is sometimes or often improperly influenced by: the media's desire to make a profit (91 percent), the machinations of corporate media owners (88 percent), the needs of advertisers (88 percent), big business (87 percent), and the personal agendas of elected officials (81 percent).

Urschel said the perception is understandable given that most media companies are huge money-makers and very attractive to investors.

"News organizations are now being bought by people who are not in the traditional business of disseminating news," said Urschel. "So there are different cultural values that are now being applied to media companies."

Urschel said that he thinks Americans suspect journalists working for these news organizations are constrained or influenced by business concerns and won't be as aggressive or independent in their pursuit of certain stories.

The survey also found that Americans strongly dislike sensationalism. Seventy-five percent of respondents said the press pays too much attention to the personal lives of public officials, and 82 percent said they were concerned by the media's lack of sensitivity when interviewing victims of tragedies. About half of the respondents believe the news was too biased or too negative.

Others expressed concern about journalists' abilities, saying they often fail to ask politicians the right kind of questions, too often quote unnamed sources, fail to adequately cover international news, spend too little time on issues important to young people, and unfairly favor a liberal point of view.

From an ethical standpoint, the survey indicates that Americans have a low opinion of journalists. A large percentage of the respondents said journalists are people with agendas, placing them in the same category as politicians, lawyers and sales people -- and not with those who provide a service such as doctors, teachers and the clergy.

Although those surveyed strongly claimed to support the need for a free press in a democracy, 85 percent could not name freedom of the press as one of the five guarantees of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. And nearly two-thirds stated that there were times when the press should not be allowed to publish or broadcast certain things.

By U.S. media standards, any restrictions on the press is considered prior restraint, which is illegal under U.S. law. However, the findings of the survey suggest that the current freedoms guaranteed to the press in America might not survive a popular vote.

"I think the media will have to do a better job at promoting the good they do," said Urschel. "By good, I mean the actual service that news organizations provide in the United States, in particular, but also in nations with a free and unfettered press. People get a lot of news about what is going on -- not just from the government, but from people who oppose the government, and people with new ideas in business, and so on. The media is great repository of ideas. The bigger that repository, the better it is for society as a whole."

Urschel said the media needs to better explain the process of gathering news and how journalists on a daily basis have to grapple with difficult and complex ethical concerns regarding the public's right to know verses the right to privacy.