Poll Reflects Continued Mistrust of Media Election Coverage

Contact: Patrick McKiernan
Phone: (617) 496-4695
Date: October 30, 2008

Cambridge, MA— Most Americans do not trust what they hear or read in media coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign. Poll results just released by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School and the Merriman River Group show that 62% of those surveyed are distrustful of campaign media coverage and that same percentage think that the media does a poor job of separating their own opinions from the facts in their reporting. The public’s trust has not improved since one year ago, when a statistically equivalent 64% said they did not trust the media’s election coverage.

Among the reasons for the lack of trust:

  • 89% agree or strongly agree that the news media focuses too much on trivial issues
  • 77% agree or strongly agree that the news media is politically biased
  • 82% agree or strongly agree that media coverage has too much influence on who Americans vote for
  • And, to a large extent, negative coverage appears to be responsible for this influence; 42% say the media has influenced their vote against a candidate through negative coverage, while only 28% say it has influenced their vote for a candidate through positive coverage.

“Americans believe we face a crisis in leadership and that this election is critically important to the country’s future,” said Seth Rosenthal, the study’s lead author. “At a time when Americans are demanding better leaders, their mistrust of the media’s coverage of the presidential campaign is troubling.”

Political Bias

77% of Americans believe that the news media’s election coverage is politically biased: either too liberal, too conservative, or both. 45% say the coverage is both, sometimes too liberal and sometimes too conservative, 25% say that the media is too liberal and 5% say it is too conservative.

Americans’ Most Trusted Media Sources

Americans vary widely in their response to the open-ended question asking what news source or outlet do you trust most for information about the candidates and the campaign? 39.5% trust cable television most, 18.9% trust over-air television news most, and 10.6% trust print media most. But 11.7% of Americans say they either don’t trust or don’t use any media source for campaign coverage.

  • Two news sources in particular, CNN and the Fox News Channel, are the clear leaders in Americans’ trust. 19.7% of Americans name CNN’s coverage as their most trusted and 13.9% name Fox as their most trusted. However, these two groups hold very different political attitudes.
  • Those who trust Fox most support Senator McCain 86% - 6%, while those trust CNN most support Senator Obama 55% - 27%
  • 76% of those who trust Fox say they are conservative or very conservative, while 45% who trust CNN say they are moderate and 34% liberal or very liberal
  • 76% of those who trust Fox say the media is too liberal, while 52% who trust CNN say the media is both, sometimes too liberal and sometimes too conservative and 23% say it is unbiased
  • 55% of those who trust Fox most say they have been more influenced by negative coverage, while 14% say they have been more influenced by positive coverage.
  • In comparison, those who trust CNN most are statistically split on this question; 40% say they have been influenced most by negative coverage and 38% say they have been most influenced by positive coverage.

“These findings suggest that the news media is at a crossroads in shaping their political coverage and winning viewers’ trust,” said Rosenthal. “One road forward is to provide coverage that echoes the political views of a particular segment of the population, gaining their trust while alienating others. The other is to make a serious attempt to discover why so many viewers of all political stripes perceive bias, and to strive for political coverage that more viewers trust as objective.”

The poll, of a demographically representative survey of 997 U.S. citizens, was conducted from September 13–22, 2008 and has a margin of error of ± 3.1%.

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