Chapter 2

What the public expects from the press (and what journalists think)

The public and journalists expect the same things from the news media. The public just doesn’t think it’s getting it.

What do people want from journalists? Above all, the public says it wants accuracy — for the media to verify and get the facts right. Fully 87 percent rank that as extremely or very important, higher than any other item.

People also want journalists to be fair to all sides (78 percent), to be neutral (68 percent), and to provide diverse points of view (61 percent).

A majority (54 percent) also say it is extremely or very important for the press to be a watchdog over the powerful. Thirty percent consider that somewhat important, and another 15 percent not very important.1

These rankings are similar to what journalists think they should be doing. On most items, in fact, the numbers are even higher for journalists.

The most striking difference between public expectations of the press and journalists’ expectations came on the watchdog role: While just over half of the public considers it extremely/very important, fully 93 percent of journalists rank it so.

Things journalists may do Public Journalists
Verify and get the facts right 87% 99%
Be fair to all sides 78% 87%
Be neutral 68% 76%
Provide diverse points of view 61% 85%
Act as a watchdog 54% 93%
Report on possible solutions to problems in society 53% 71%
Help people understand communities unlike their own 52% 69%
Make it easier to find important civic information 51% 74%
Provide forums for community discussions 38% 50%
Make the news entertaining so people pay attention 24% 24%

Data Source: Question: "Indicate how important you think each item is for the news media to try to do."
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

Knowing that people think accuracy is the most important thing and journalists agree — does the public think the news media are accurate?

We asked a new question developed for this survey: If people have to choose, do they say that the press is basically accurate and they can trust what they see? Or do they think that the press is fairly inaccurate and they need to check multiple sources to know what’s true?

In all, 6 in 10 people consider most news reports accurate enough that they can trust them and don’t have to check multiple sources to verify information. Four in 10 have the opposite view — that news reports are pretty inaccurate, so much so that they feel they need to check multiple sources to verify information before they know what to believe.

Journalists we surveyed were very close to anticipating how the public feels about this question.

Statements about news reports’ accuracy What the public says What journalists expect most people to say
Most news reports are fairly inaccurate 40% 36%
Most news reports are fairly accurate 59% 63%

Data Source: Question: “Choose the statement that best describes how you view the news, even if it is not exactly right.”
Question: “Which of the following statements comes closest to describing how you think most Americans view the news?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

We also asked the public a related question, about what kinds of coverage they find most useful. We asked them to select a preference from four basic choices:

  • news coverage that mostly just reports the facts
  • news coverage that mostly reports facts with some background and analysis
  • news coverage that is mostly analysis
  • commentary and opinion

The findings are striking. People want facts, but they want more than just the facts. More than 6 in 10, 63 percent, say they want news coverage that is mostly facts but includes some background and analysis.

By contrast, just over a quarter, 27 percent, say the press should stick strictly to the facts.2

Mostly just facts Facts with some background/analysis Mostly analysis Just commentary/opinion
What public thinks is useful 27% 63% 5% 5%
What public thinks news actually is 7% 33% 17% 42%

Data Source: Question: “Next, thinking about when you watch, read, or hear the news, which of the following best describes what you find most useful…”
Question: “Now, we’d like to ask you about the content of news coverage specifically. Putting aside pure commentary and opinion pieces, which of the following do you think best describes news coverage these days?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

But by and large, the public doesn’t think the media is giving them mostly facts with only some background analysis. When we asked people what best describes most of the news content they see — putting aside pure commentary and opinion pieces — only 33 percent describe most of the news coverage they see as providing mostly facts with just some background and analysis. Only 7 percent say most of the news they see is just the facts.

Instead, the largest group of people consider most news coverage they see as far more opinionated. Forty‑two percent of adults think most news seems like commentary and opinion, posing as news. And another 17 percent think most news coverage includes too much analysis.

In other words, people want context and background in their news coverage — and journalists want to provide it. But the majority of the public thinks the press has veered too far toward opinion.

This stands out as a major gap — and both a challenge and an opportunity for journalists. Journalists need to take a hard look at their attempts to contextualize the news or add analysis and interpretation. Have they just become another round of commentators?

How hard is it to distinguish news from opinion?

We took this question of separating news versus opinion one step further and asked people how difficult it is for them to identify the difference between news and commentary in different kinds of media they might encounter.

For the specific news outlet a person uses most often, most feel they generally have no problem making this distinction. Nearly three‑quarters of people (73 percent) find it very or somewhat easy to distinguish news from commentary in their favorite news outlet.

People want context and background in their news coverage — and journalists want to provide it, but the majority of the public thinks the press has veered too far toward opinion.

But for all other media types, only about half or less say they can fairly easily make that distinction.
Local television news, which usually contains no formal commentary segments, scores highest. Sixty‑three percent say they can tell the difference between news and commentary on local TV news.

For cable news, and the news media in general, the numbers are just over half (54 percent for cable news, 55 percent for the news media generally). Fifty‑five percent can also easily tell the difference between news and commentary on PBS, and 47 percent say the same for public radio.

We also asked about social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook — often carrying a mix of commentary and news — and just 43 percent say they find it very or somewhat easy to sort news from commentary on these popular platforms.

Ways public consumes news Very/somewhat easy to recognize opinion Neither difficult nor easy Very/somewhat difficult
News organization used most frequently 75% 16% 8%
Local TV News 63% 25% 10%
Broadcast TV news such as NBC, CBS, or ABC 57% 23% 18%
PBS 55% 31% 11%
Your local newspaper 55% 29% 13%
The news media in general 55% 20% 24%
National cable TV news such as Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC 54% 22% 23%
Talk radio 50% 28% 19%
Public radio such as NPR 47% 34% 15%
National newspapers 47% 31% 19%
Social media 43% 21% 32%
Online-only news websites 43% 31% 21%

Data Source: Question: “Many news organizations produce opinion content as well as report the news. How easy or difficult is it for you to tell the difference between the opinion content and news reporting in each of the following?”
Question: “Now thinking about news you see on social platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, how easy or difficult is it for you to tell the difference between opinion content and news reporting?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

In short, the press clearly needs to do more to clarify what is news, what is opinion, and what is analysis. The public wants it. The press wants to provide it, but has failed to make those distinctions clear enough for the public to understand.

  1. On several questions in this battery, there were significant differences in opinion by party, age, and other demographic groups. For example, on this particular item about the media’s role as a watchdog, the political and demographic differences are notable. Sixty‑four percent of Democrats say the watchdog role is extremely/very important, compared to 50 percent of Republicans and 39 percent of independents. In terms of age, adults age 45 and older (61 percent) are more likely than adults under age 45 (45 percent) to think the watchdog role is important. And whites (58 percent) are more likely than blacks (42 percent) and Hispanics (46 percent) to say this is important. Finally, education is also a differentiator, with a divide between those with no college (48 percent) and college (66 percent). Later in this report key political and generational differences are provided in more detail.
  2. This question, asked with four response options, is a different result than a Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2016. Offering two choices, Pew found that 59 percent of adults think the media should present the facts without interpretation, and 40 percent prefer facts presented with interpretation.‑tank/2016/11/18/news‑media‑interpretation‑vs‑facts/