Amid an alarming confluence of threats to journalists and the news media, there is a lack of urgency among American voters around the idea that press freedom is at risk in the U.S., according to a new research report released Wednesday by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
A majority of voters, 52 percent, said they did not see press freedom as under threat — a lack of perceived risk that was even higher among some when viewed through a partisan lens: 66 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Independents said they perceived little or no threat to the press, while just 38 percent of Democrats gave the same response.
The Reporters Committee led the bipartisan research project — funded by the Democracy Fund and conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Echelon Insights — in an effort to better understand the public’s attitudes toward press freedom at a moment in time when trust in the press remains low, harmful rhetoric against journalists emanates from the nation’s top government officials, investigations of unauthorized disclosures to the press are on the rise, restrictions on access to the White House and key agencies and officials are tightening, and newsrooms battle lawsuits targeted at crippling or bankrupting them while they face increasing economic strains. The research took on even more significance after the murder of four journalists and a sales assistant at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, by a gunman who had a long history of making threats against the newspaper.
Much valuable research has been conducted to address Americans’ views of the media and the roots of the decline in trust, and the survey aimed to analyze how some of those factors affect the public’s belief in and, crucially, its support of the free press. The research relied on insights gleaned from studies by the Knight Foundation and Gallup, the Trusting News project, Pew Research Center, the Media Insight Project, and Poynter, along with input from a variety of stakeholders and advisers at each stage.
Despite voters’ lack of perceived threat to press freedom, there is hope for those who seek to build support for it. According to the survey, 95 percent of voters agree on the importance of having a free press, and based on the research findings, there there are clear steps that press freedom advocates, journalists and news media organizations can take now to reinforce the value of a free press in the eyes of the public and build broader support among key constituencies:
- Highlight the press’s role to inform. According to the survey, 56 percent of voters say they value the national news media most for its role in keeping citizens informed.
- Address perceptions of bias in news coverage. Perceived bias in reporting is a top concern, with 55 percent of both Republicans and Independents citing journalists “filtering all the news with their own political opinions” as one of their biggest doubts about the national news media. Democrats are more concerned about sensationalizing news stories, with 52 percent citing it as their largest doubt.
- Don’t make President Trump the focus of the conversation. While at times it is necessary to mention the president in press freedom discussions, those seeking to build support for a free press among a broader group of voters will be more effective if they do not focus squarely on the president. The data from this project showed that when a mention of the president was added to a general message highlighting the media’s need to stand up to politicians there was a double-digit drop in the numbers of Independents and Republicans who found it a convincing reason to defend the press.
- Reach out to politically diverse audiences. To reach voters who may have lost trust in the news media, it is important to show that treatment of the press isn’t a Trump issue but rather a serious deterioration of journalists’ ability to inform the public.
- Illustrate threats to press freedom by using real examples. Voters who assessed the threat to the press before and after hearing facts about attacks on journalists saw a nine-point increase in their perception of a threat against the press after hearing the facts.
- Be transparent about newsgathering decisions and promote accountability when mistakes are made. Responses from voters across all political affiliations made clear that acknowledging mistakes was one of the most important things the media can do to show they are a credible source.
With this research we hope to provide more insight as to how we, the people, can ensure that press freedom, a key pillar of the First Amendment and American democracy, holds strong. Our concern is that the culminating effect of disparate threats will chip away at the First Amendment and its protections for a free and independent press. If the public is conditioned to accept these gradual limitations as normal — and in some cases even echo the attacks themselves, rather than vigorously defend against them — we are in a precarious position. Freedom of the press is a nonpartisan issue, and it is essential to all of us who rely on information to participate in democracy and hold government accountable.
The research report findings are based on a nationwide mixed-mode survey of 2,000 registered voters conducted from November 6-12, 2017, by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, and four focus groups conducted in September 2017 by Echelon Insights in two locations with different segments of the public.