In November, a survey by the Pew Research Center indicated that the public's traditionally jaundiced view of the news media had warmed significantly. Compared with just a few months earlier, the proportion of people who felt journalists ''stand up for America'' grew from 43 percent to 69 percent while those inclined to believe the press ''protects democracy'' rose from 46 percent to 60 percent.
Now, a new Project for Excellence in Journalism survey examining coverage of the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism offers a possible reason for this refurbished patriotic image. Despite the media's reputation for naysaying and adversarial relationships with the government, the stories monitored were much more likely - by nearly an 8-to-1 ratio - to reflect support for US actions than to give voice to critics and dissenters.
What's surprising here is not that the coverage is pro-US, but that as citizens there is a lot of information we're not getting because we're getting such a limited range of points of view. The press may be cheating us.
''The coverage has been demonstrably pro-administration or pro-US policy in the viewpoints it has reflected,'' the report concludes. ''Overall, any suggestion that the media are by nature anti-administration or anti-American is simply not borne out.''
''What's surprising here is not that the coverage is pro-US, but that as citizens there is a lot of information we're not getting because we're getting such a limited range of points of view,'' says project director Tom Rosenstiel. ''The press may be cheating us.''
The survey examined almost 2,500 print and television stories for three different periods: Sept. 13-15, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks; Nov. 13-15, when the Northern Alliance was taking Kabul from the Taliban; and Dec. 10-12, when US forces were hunting Al Qaeda fighters. It evaluated The New York Times, Washington Post, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Fresno Bee, as well as Time and Newsweek. The study looked at nightly newscasts on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS as well as nightly Fox News Channel and CNN news shows. It examined the three major network morning shows, four Sunday talk shows, three weeknight talk shows, three network news magazines, and ABC's ''Nightline.''
The project evaluated ''statements'' and ''assertions'' in each story to determine to what degree they supported or diverged from the official US view. Sixty-two percent of all the stories examined were either completely or predominantly pro-US while less than 10 percent were mostly or completely at odds with US policy. Thirty percent provided a mix.
In a related finding, the survey concluded that television was consistently more pro-American than print. In December, for example, 40 percent of newspaper stories were mostly or completely supportive of the government while 51 percent provided a mix of views. In the same period, 63 percent of television stories favored the US perspective while 31 percent offered a mixed bag. The project did cite one program, ''Nightline,'' that offered an unusually diverse range of views.
Rosenstiel said several factors may contribute to coverage that admirers might call patriotic, and detractors might call jingoistic. ''We're Americans ... we're winning the war, and there isn't much of a policy debate,'' he says. ''On the other hand, why is there such a difference between media here?''
Marvin Kalb, director of the Washington office of Harvard's Shorenstein Center, said, ''I've always said that when the US goes off to war, so does the press.''
S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, has one concern with project's methodology, stating that ''the sample of dates is too small to be considered a reliable indicator of the whole period.'' Despite that, he says, ''their findings seem dead on.''
Since Sept. 11, Lichter adds, the question isn't whether opposing views should get an equal hearing, ''but whether the critics should get a hearing at all.''
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