Survey: Media Accuracy at New Low

Feel free to believe this column or not, but the public's view of media accuracy has hit new lows.

A new survey by the Pew Research Center finds just 29 percent of U.S. adults think news organizations generally get the facts right. That's down from 55 percent in a similar survey in 1985. Pew analysts said today that the figure had fallen sharply since the late 1990s.

That's the news from Pew. The unwritten sidebar: In 1985 the "news media" was made up of predominantly of trained journalists. Today, for many people the term includes often-sloppy bloggers with no journalism training and web publishers with motivations that have everything to do with political agendas and little to do with truth. Indeed, under that broad definition, the "news media" is less accurate than ever.

Just 26 percent of respondents in the new survey agree that "news organizations are careful that their reporting is not politically biased." Only 20 percent think news organizations are independent of powerful people and organizations and only 21 percent think news orgs are willing to admit their mistakes.

Complaining about news media inaccuracies was long a largely Republican pastime. But increasingly Democrats feel the same. Today, 59 percent of Democrats think reports of news organizations are often inaccurate, a big jump from just 43 percent two years ago.

Here's the thing: Other studies have found that people tend to seek and agree with facts and articles that supports their views, whilst ignoring or discounting articles that do not. If an article presents viewpoint or set of facts that run counter to your preconceived beliefs, you (and I) are apt to label it "wrong" or "inaccurate."

So the Pew survey raises this question: Do people find their favored media outlets inaccurate, or do the highly negative survey responses tend to refer to other media? With the Internet, information you agree with is easier to find than ever. If you lean left, there are several mainstream media orgs and countless "underground" web sites catering to your views, with sometimes accurate and often sensationalized — but always highly selected — stories just for you. Likewise if you lean right.

While the Pew survey didn't tackle this issue head-on, these numbers seem to support the notion that our collective view of accuracy is party-dependent: A whopping 72 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of Fox News, as do 43 percent of Democrats. And 60 percent of Democrats hold a favorable view of MSNBC, while only 34 percent of Republicans do.

A couple of figures that reveal the mindset of the respondents, suggesting the survey results may not be reflecting just changes on the Internet: 71 percent said TV is still where they get most of their national and international news. And 44 percent said TV stations "do the most to uncover local news stories," while only 25 percent thought newspapers were best at that.

The results raise another question: Were respondents thinking only of politically charged articles as they responded (I bet many were) or were they lumping in their views of reporting accuracy on health findings, scientific discoveries, business, sports and local car crashes?

The survey was conducted July 22-26 among 1,506 adults reached on landlines and cell phones.

In The Water Cooler, Imaginova's Editorial Director Robert Roy Britt looks at what people are talking about in the world of science and beyond. Find more in the archives and on Twitter.