Wanted: better coverage of Obama policies

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director

  • Survey summary
  • Full results

    When it comes to news coverage about the Obama administration and major issues facing the nation, a Gallup survey commissioned by the First Amendment Center and the Newseum released today shows the public wants “better” — especially about the economy.

    The national survey of more than 1,000 adults — conducted Jan. 20-21, exactly a year after President Barack Obama was sworn in and spent his first full day in office — asked respondents about the job the news media have done in reporting on Obama’s first year, and where they hoped the news media would do a better job ahead.

    In the survey, 40% said the administration’s policies and practices on the economy are their pick for news priority, with 30% saying health care as their first selection. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and “terror” were relatively distant selections from the list of four areas, at 12% and 11% respectively.

    The survey also shows the public overall wants better reporting in all four areas when it comes to the Obama administration: Two thirds of those responding — 64% — rated the job the news media have done in its First Amendment “watchdog on government” role in his first year as either “fair" or "poor,” while 26% rated it “good” and just 8% said “excellent.”

    Asked in which area the news media did a good job of reporting on the president's policies and practices, 30% of those responding — the largest single group — said “none.”

    For journalists, there’s a bit of good news in the results — but just a bit. It would appear the public wants more of what, at its best and in its free-press role, the news media do: Report in detail and independently on what the president is doing on the most important issues of the day.

    But an important message to take from the survey is that, at least in Obama’s first year, a large portion of the public still doesn’t believe it’s getting that kind of reporting.

    The First Amendment Center and the Newseum have been sampling public opinion and knowledge about the First Amendment and the news media since 1997.  Periodically in those State of the First Amendment surveys, the public shows strong support for the watchdog role that the nation’s Founders envisioned in setting up First Amendment protections for a free and independent press.

    In 2009, for example, about seven in 10 Americans said it's important for our democracy that the news media act as a watchdog on government.

    But at the same time, the news media have gotten low marks when the public was asked whether the news media report without bias, and whether or not the press falsifies or makes up stories.

    After a Republican win in Massachusetts to fill the U.S. Senate seat held by the late Ted Kennedy, and amid increasing skepticism that health-care reform will break through the congressional stalemate, news reports increasingly say the administration will focus on the economy and job creation, beginning with tonight’s State of the Union address — President Obama’s first.

    Economic challenges for the nation’s news media remain. New technologies provide alternative ways for the public to get information. Traditional sources of news — while still the main sources for a majority of Americans — face a double-whammy of staff cutbacks audience shrinkage. There's also a multitude of theories on how traditional and innovative news media operations can win readers, viewers and users.

    But this latest edition of the State of the First Amendment survey provides what seems a very good road map to matching up good, responsible journalism with what appears a priority for public.

    Even a watchdog should be able to read that map.