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Pew researcher: News media have lost ability to shape public opinion

Ruth O'Brien
Special to The Freedom Forum Online


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NEW YORK — In 1968, esteemed CBS television anchor Walter Cronkite broke tradition and expressed his personal loss of confidence in America's war in Vietnam.

This was big news — for Cronkite's fellow journalists and for the public.

Such an impact as that is not likely to be felt again, said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, yesterday as he accepted the 1999-2000 Award for Outstanding Contribution to Public Opinion Research from the New York chapter of the American Association for Public Opinion Research.

"There's nothing that Dan Rather or Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw or Jim Lehrer could say that could have anything remotely close to that kind of impact on public opinion," Kohut said at Newseum/NY in a program co-sponsored by the Media Studies Center.

"The media have lost the power to shape public opinion because the media have lost their moral authority," Kohut said, summarizing this as his most dramatic finding in 15 years of polling and research.

"It's really clear that the relationship between the people and the press has changed dramatically since 1985," Kohut said. "Two changes are occurring at the same time — first, the composition of the audience is changing, and the way people are getting the news is changing; and second, the role of the media is changing in the American society. ... [These changes] are creating quite an impact."

Kohut was joined by Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which is funded by Pew. Rosenstiel agreed, adding a "crisis of faith in the newsroom, a crisis of conviction. ... Journalists no longer believe in the purpose of news and the function that it [has] in people's lives."

Kohut said much changed in the world of journalism as a result of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. The amount of animosity directed at the press, during and after the scandal, showed that the public "really didn't like what the press was doing," he said. The public's rating of the media was harsh and clearly expressed public dissatisfaction.

"We've never seen anything like it. The power of the media to shape public opinion has probably always been overstated," he admitted, "but clearly the press has lost a punch or two" since the scandal.

"The press has much less authority, much less respect and much less clout," Kohut said. "In 1985, the public was roundly critical of the way the press did its job. They said it was too sensational, too pushy, too rude, too uncaring about the people it covered."

"However, (at that time) we also found that news organizations were still believable to the overwhelming majority of the public, and most saw them as moral, professional and caring about the interests of the country," he said. Now, 15 years later, it's "a much graver picture."

"There has been a threefold increase in those who say major news organizations lack professionalism," Kohut said, and Americans are split about whether major news organizations protect or hurt democracy.

"The message is less trusted, and the messenger less respected, and the media clearly have to regain both," he added.

Rosenstiel sees the greatest change in the last 15 years not in the public's opinion of the press, but in the news media's impression of themselves.

"Journalists now agree with much of the public in their assessment of what's wrong with the press," he said. "This is a sea change."

Many reporters agree with the public that the press has become "too subjective and too speculative and involve too much opinion in their work." Journalists Rosenstiel has spoken to tell him the conversations in their newsrooms now are all about money. "We very rarely talk about journalism anymore," they say.

"The purpose of news has always been essentially conversation, to create community," Rosenstiel said. "News and information are fundamentally empowering — the more democratic a society is, the more journalism it has. It is very difficult to separate journalism from democracy."

Yet, as media outlets are consumed by business concerns, and owners become more concerned about bottom lines than community, what's left of the journalism values will be lost. Rosenstiel used Rupert Murdoch as an example. "[His] notion of media purely as commerce really has no precedent," he said. "And who owns the media and the values of the media ownership really do matter — if the values of the owner are not to build community, that will make a difference."

But the buyouts of media corporations are less a concern to Kohut than the increasing lack of interest in the news by younger generations.

"At the very time there are more ways to get the news, more news outlets, there's less interest in national news, international news, and fewer Americans enjoy keeping up with the news," he said.

"The trend is most acute in generation X and younger baby boomers who pay less attention to politics and what is going on in the world — this is not a life-cyclic thing; this is a generational pattern," Kohut said, noting that in recent years there have only been a few "mega-stories" on the national scene that have captured the public's attention, and those were "mostly driven by personalities"

This, he said, is the "age of indifference."

"The average American news consumer sits there with a clicker and says, 'Amuse me, or engage me or interest me, or you will be dispatched."

And though many journalists have been looking to the Internet as the shining new way, the source of empowerment for the people, Kohut holds little hope the Internet will save us.

"Because you have the information there doesn't necessarily mean it will lead the American public to use it," he said. "The Internet offers this tremendous information resource, but I don't think it's necessarily going to, by virtue of its being there, lead to greater civic engagement."

"The Internet is not a positive factor in how much people know about what's going on in the world. People don't go on the Internet for general enlightenment. They go on the Internet to learn more about what interests them."