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Where do you get your news?

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Gene Policinski
October 1, 2011

When it comes to a free press, Americans seem—more than ever—to be of at least two minds.


In several surveys, a majority of us say the press is biased, often inaccurate and too likely to be influenced by powerful people or groups—except for the news sources we use the most, trust the most and turn to most often for essential news.


Logic tells us we can’t have it both ways. But the good news—thanks to the First Amendment, a diverse traditional press and growing cable and online news outlets—is that in a practical sense, we can.


Surveys, most notably reports by two Pew Research Center projects, set out the numbers behind the conflicting views.


A worrisome 66 percent of Americans say that “in general” news organizations report facts incorrectly, according to a just-released survey by Pew’s Center for People and the Press. But 62 percent of those surveyed defend the accuracy of news operations they use most.


Then there are 69 percent of us who say we have “a lot or some” trust in local news outlets. That’s 10 percentage points higher than those who say they trust national news sources.


The image of how we feel collectively about our free press gets even more complicated when you consider the latest report from Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and Internet & American Life Project, produced in association with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


The report says most Americans, including adults younger than 40 presumed to be more adept at using new online tools and mobile devices, mainly use a blend of both new and traditional sources to get their information.


Interestingly, while television is a source for specific kinds of news—weather, traffic information and such—newspapers still figure much more in the daily news menu than commonly expected. Print and to a lesser degree online newspapers still are a major source of news about communities, events, government actions, taxes and a host of other goings-on where we live.


The best news for journalists is that the studies show that “traditional news”—facts, data and information about government and community, not talking heads or mindless entertainment “exclusives”—remains big. Even better news for a free press is that variety, the diversity of sources the First Amendment was set out to protect, is exactly the kind of media world that Americans shape on their own.


Back to the Pew-Knight study: 64 percent of American adults use at least three different types of media every week to get news and information about their local communities. And 15 percent rely on at least six different kinds of media weekly.


Add in a growing use of social media (think Facebook) to get news, used on occasion by about 27 percent of all adults and 38 percent of those younger than age 39, and the opportunities are even larger for individuals to use a variety of sources to check and cross-check information.


News organizations of all kinds have long maintained they are more accurate and less biased than critics charge. What better time than now for the public, with more access to more information than any time in history, to test those criticisms?


Thus far, thanks to staunch First Amendment defenders and an independent judiciary inclined to agree with them, we have retained a vibrant First Amendment for news media despite steep financial losses by news companies, downsized newsrooms and well-meaning but ill-advised ideas about how government can “help” sustain an independent, diverse press.


Now is the perfect time for a free, independent press to demonstrate its value to all of us—through a commitment to fair, accurate and complete reporting, across an unparalleled range of media, to an audience that seems ever more willing to accept both.


Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn., 37212. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.

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