Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz painted misleading portrait of Pew report on journalists' views


Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wrote a May 24 "Media Notes" column about the opinions of media professionals that was, in several cases, not supported by the report issued by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press upon which his article was based.

Kurtz claimed, "The survey confirmed that national journalists are to the left of the public on social issues." But Kurtz did not note that the Pew report included commentary by Bill Kovach, Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell (of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and the Project for Excellence in Journalism) that specifically warned against drawing such conclusions:

Journalists' own politics are also harder to analyze than people might think. The fact that journalists -- especially national journalists -- are more likely than in the past to describe themselves as liberal reinforces the findings of the major academic study on this question... But what does liberal mean to journalists? We would be reluctant to infer too much here. The survey includes just four questions probing journalists' political attitudes, yet the answers to these questions suggest journalists have in mind something other than a classic big government liberalism and something more along the lines of libertarianism. More journalists said they think it is more important for people to be free to pursue their goals without government interference than it is for government to ensure that no one is in need. [Emphasis added]

Kurtz wrote of the Pew report, "The 55 percent of national journalists, and 37 percent of local ones, who see the media as soft on Bush may well be reflecting their own views of the president." This may be true, of course -- just about anything may be true -- but Kurtz's speculation was his own, driven by little in the Pew report itself. Indeed, by making this suggestion -- and thus implying that the media was not too soft on Bush -- Kurtz may well have been reflecting his own view of the president. But of course, we don't know that.

Kurtz also used Pew's findings to imply that the national media is elitist: "31 percent of national journalists now have a great deal of confidence in the public's election choices, compared with 52 percent at the end of the Clinton administration. The clear implication is that many media people feel superior to their customers." While the Pew report summary did note that "national news people ... express considerably less confidence in the political judgment of the American public than they did five years ago," the report also noted, "Nonetheless, journalists have at least as much confidence in the public's electoral judgments as does the public itself." According to Pew, only 20 percent of the general public has "a great deal" of confidence in the public's election choices.

Kurtz wasn't alone in making curious choices about which results to emphasize. The Pew report itself, for example, noted that "Self-described moderates [in the media] offer a mixed judgment of the Bush coverage -- about the same percentages say it has not been critical enough (44%) and fair (43%)." Left out of the report text -- but shown in an accompanying chart -- is that only 12 percent of moderates in the media think the media has been too critical of Bush. The "mixed judgment" Pew described could alternately be described as a near-consensus that the media has not been too critical of Bush.

Pew made another interesting choice in titling a chart that showed that a majority of national print and television media professionals, as well as a plurality of local print journalists, think the media has been too easy on Bush. Pew titled the chart "Local TV Reporters: Press Not Too Easy on Bush" rather than using a title that conveyed the fact that three of the four groups shown said (by at least a plurality) that the media has been too easy on Bush.

Kurtz did not describe Pew's methodology, and Pew said the survey is based on "interviews with 547 national and local reporters, producers, editors and executives across the country." It is worth noting -- as Pew indicated later in the report -- that the survey included only 232 "working journalists and editors" -- 127 in the national media, and 105 in local media. The rest were "executives" and "senior editors and producers."

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