The American public has a great many complaints about the national news media, but they are not necessarily the same complaints made by professional media critics.
Among the most stinging citizen complaints is a widely held belief that the news media hold back important news from the public, a sentiment that is apparently shared by more than half the people.
Another is an even more pervasive perception that reporters and editors for TV network news operations and large newspapers such as The Washington Post, The New York Times and others have little or no concern for the average person. By more than 2 to 1, people believe that the news media "frequently violate the privacy of individual citizens."
These are among the chief findings of a special Washington Post poll on attitudes toward the major news media in the United States. The American people, the poll shows, find much that they approve of in the news media -- some critics might say a surprising amount -- but they are sharply critical of the national press nevertheless.
"They don't give all the facts," a 60-year-old Cincinnati housewife told poll interviewers. "They suppress more than they report."
In Flint, Mich., a 31-year-old steel mill worker said, "They can do better. They hold back some of the truth."
Asked whether they agree or disagree that "the major news media often cover up stories that ought to be reported," more than half those interviewed in the poll say they agree.
In some striking ways, however, the complaints aired by the public are at variance with complaints repeatedly voiced by the growing corps of professional media critics. The media critics say that the major news media are biased and often inaccurate; relatively few people polled by The Post see the national press that way.
Media critics say the press is far too powerful. A good number of Americans feel that way too, but the majority do not. Despite an almost universal perception that the press has gained influence in recent years, most people want the news media to remain at least as influential in American life as they are today.
Media critics say the press tries to tear down the government in Washington. About one-quarter of the public feels that way, but four in every 10 people have exactly the opposite complaint: They feel the national news organizations are not critical enough of the government. Moreover, when there is a conflict in which government officials accuse the media of inaccuracies, the general public is more likely to believe the news media, not the government.
In politics and coverage of politicians, the public sees bias but perhaps not in the same terms as the critics. The press and TV networks were unfair to Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, but are treating Republican Ronald Reagan fairly, according to the survey.
Among those questioned in The Post poll, 42 percent say the major news media were too critical of Jimmy Carter while he was president -- a striking indictment -- while 43 percent say the media were generally balanced in their coverage of Carter and 11 percent maintain that the media were too favorable toward him. This sense that the media were unfair to Carter, one seldom if ever voiced by media critics, is shared in roughly the same degree by Democrats, Republicans and independents.
Many Americans also feel the media were unfair to Richard Nixon as well, with 32 percent saying coverage of him as president was too critical, 43 percent saying it was balanced and 18 percent saying it was too favorable. But for Nixon, unlike Carter, there is a sharp partisan split: almost half the Republicans but only one in five of the Democrats interviewed say Nixon was treated unfairly by the press.
There is comparatively little feeling that the news media have been unfair in their handling so far of Ronald Reagan. Seventy-four percent say coverage of him is balanced. Only 6 percent say the news media are too critical in their handling of Reagan, and 17 percent say the coverage is too favorable.
The Post's poll comes at a time when informed criticism of the news media has become a standard of American life. In recent years, some magazines, individuals and groups have become devoted to the single purpose of professional criticism of the news media. The poll was undertaken as a means of gauging how the general public, rather than the critics, sees the news media.
Interviewing was conducted by telephone from July 20 to 28 by Chilton Research Services of Radnor, Pa. A total of 1,507 people were contacted nationwide, and the focus in the poll was on the "major news media," which interviewers described as the three TV network news departments, some of the major newspapers such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the major weekly news magazines. Responses to the first few questions that were asked reveal just how deeply a great many Americans follow the news.
Despite the growth of one- and two-person households in recent years, more than half those interviewed say they have at least two working TV sets in their homes. Fifty-four percent say they watch "the national news report on TV" daily and another 30 percent say they watch a few times a week. Only 10 percent say they watch the national news less often than once a week.
Fifty-six percent say they read a newspaper every day, and 19 percent say they read a paper a few times a week. Fourteen percent say they read a paper less than once a week. One-third say they read a paper and watch the national news on TV every day.
This public, steeped as it is in anchormen and headlines, seems to regard the national news media as it might a member of the family: people find fault easily but they are also express strong overall praise.
Question: "Overall, would you say the major news media do a good job in reporting about the issues and problems in America, or not so good a job?"
The response is overwhelming. Eighty-five percent say the major media do a good job, 14 percent say not so good. Broken down on a finer scale, 16 percent say the news media do an excellent job, 69 percent a good job, 11 percent say not so good and 3 percent say poor. Two percent express no opinion.
Question: "What has been your experience -- in the things you have known a good deal about personally, how often have news stories in the major news media been accurate?"
Answer: Almost always or most of the time, 70 percent; some of the time, 22 percent; not very often or hardly ever, 6 percent.
Question: "From time to time, the major news media report stories that high government officials in Washington say are not true. In such instances, who do you usually think are more truthful?"
Answer: the major news media, 57 percent; high government officials, 17 percent. Six percent say neither are truthful, 12 percent say it depends on the situation, and 8 percent express no opinion.
A number of questions in the poll dealt with the relationship between the major news media and the government, exploring public perceptions of the watchdog role of the press. Four people in five give the major news media credit for having exposed corruption of public officials "a great deal" or "a fair amount." Nevertheless, from other questions in the survey, it seems clear that one major public complaint is that the news media do not scrutinize the government strongly enough.
Forty percent, for example, say the major news media are not critical enough of the government in Washington. Young people, blacks, those with less schooling and Democrats are particularly inclined to hold such views. It appears that those groups see the major news media as pro-establishment.
As one Falls Church, Va., man, a 63-year-old retired career naval officer, put it, "The major news media seem to become absorbed by the establishment. Consequently they don't always have a completely objective point of view. Both sides are not given equal weight, so the reader cannot make his own decisions."
On the other hand, 25 percent, led by Republicans and people who label themselves conservatives, say the major news media are too critical of the government. A substantial number of conservatives, however, feel the news media are not critical enough.
The question of whether the news media have become too powerful -- one of the main charges made by critics --seems closely tied to people's views on the relationship between the press and the government. The public generally agrees that the media have become more influential in recent years, with 64 percent taking that point of view, 25 percent saying there has not been much change, and only 7 percent saying that media influence has been decreasing.
The minority of the public that sees the media as being too critical of government strongly favors having the press lose some of that perceived influence. Six in 10 of that group say the news media should have less power than they do today. By contrast, however, seven in 10 of those who say the press is critical of government "in the right amount," or not critical enough, want the national press to remain at least as powerful as it is today.
One such person is a 36-year-old Yorktown, Va., housewife who says she watches TV news and reads a newspaper every day. She also gets Time and Newsweek magazines regularly, the Wall Street Journal and U.S. News and World Report occasionally.
Like many of those interviewed, this woman, a Republican, feels that the media often cover up stories and violate citizens' privacy. Nevertheless, she thinks the press is fair in its reporting, highly informative and almost always accurate. She does not want less influential news media.
"I am pleased with what I hear," she says, "and I think we hear more now than we did 10 years ago, 15 years ago."