Politicians are not the only ones struggling with flagging public opinion this election season. The press is also foundering in the favorability department, according to a survey released Friday by Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership.
News for the newsmongers is dismal.
Almost two-thirds of the respondents don’t trust press coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign; 89 percent said journalists focus too much on “trivial issues”; and 77 percent think that the press is politically biased. Twelve percent rejected the media altogether, saying they “either don´t trust or don´t use any media source for campaign coverage.”
One-quarter said the election coverage skews liberal, while 5 percent said it leans conservative and 45 percent said it does both - careening from too liberal to too conservative.
The public also appears weary of aggressive reporting on the campaign trail - 82 percent said the press has “too much influence on who Americans vote for.”
To a significant extent, negative coverage sways political opinion, with 42 percent saying journalists could turn them against White House hopefuls through negative coverage, and 28 percent saying positive coverage could influence their vote for the candidates.
The candidates notice the media’s influence, often to decry it.
“If the media convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations, then I don’t know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media,” Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told WMAL radio Friday.
The researchers were concerned also that public cynicism could damage the electoral process itself.
“Americans believe we face a crisis in leadership and that this election is critically important to the country´s future,” lead author Seth Rosenthal said. “At a time when Americans are demanding better leaders, their mistrust of the media´s coverage of the presidential campaign is troubling.”
Cable news earned the most trust for information about the campaign: Just under 40 percent said they trusted cable most, 19 percent trusted broadcast news, while 11 percent trust print sources most.
Two news sources in particular earned accolades. Twenty percent named CNN´s coverage as their most trusted source; 14 percent named the Fox News Channel.
Viewer politics were pronounced in that judgment though. Those who trusted Fox News support Sen. John McCain over Sen. Barack Obama, 86 percent to 6 percent. More than three-fourths of the Fox fans also identified themselves as conservatives. Those who trusted CNN supported Mr. Obama over Mr. McCain, 55 percent to 27 percent. Among CNN viewers, 45 percent were moderate and 34 percent were liberal.
“These findings suggest that the news media is at a crossroads in shaping their political coverage and winning viewers´ trust,” said Mr. Rosenthal.
The press, he said, could simply continue business as usual, their political tone either gaining trust - or annoying various segments of the population.
“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,” he added.
The survey of 997 adults was conducted Sept. 13-22 and has an error margin of three percentage points.