Learning the news: News media as watchdog

The public’s view on the role of the news media depends not just on worldview or political party, but also on current events, writes Roger Plothow.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the content of any particular news story often has as much to do with one’s world view as it does with the story itself.

In fact, whether one believes it is important for journalists to serve as watchdogs of the government might depend on one’s politics or world view, and people views on the matter appear to change from time to time. I’m not talking about whether people trust journalists to get the story right – the question is whether someone agrees that “criticism from news organizations keeps political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done.”

That last part in quotation marks is from a question the Pew Research Center has been asking since 1985 as part of its routine research. Overall, about 70 percent of Americans currently agree with the notion that news organizations should serve as government watchdogs, about the same as it’s been for 30 years. What has changed is the divergence on the question between people of differing political points of view.

During the Clinton presidency, Republicans were more likely to support journalism’s watchdog role than Democrats, with a spread of about 25 percent. During the George W. Bush years, the perspective reversed, with a similar spread. Interestingly, during the Obama presidency the two sides came together, generally agreeing on the question at about 70 percent each.

Since the election of Donald Trump, that agreement has disappeared. In the latest survey, 89 percent of Democrats concur that journalists should be government watchdogs compared to 42 percent of Republicans, the widest separation in the history of the survey. Even more surprising, when the survey was done in January of this year, more Republicans supported the watchdog role than Democrats – 77 percent to 74 percent.

What’s changed? Little, it seems, except for two things: The press is aggressively covering the administration and the president is hitting back with claims of fake news and general disparagement of journalists.

The Pew study goes on.

“This partisan split is found in other attitudes about the news media, though none in so dramatic a fashion as with the watchdog role,” Pew wrote. “Compared with 2016, Democrats and Republicans are more divided on whether the press favors one side in its political coverage, on how much trust they have in national news media, and on how good a job national news organizations are doing in keeping them informed.”

It’s fair to ask whether the press has suddenly changed or there’s something else going on. It seems clear that perspectives on journalism depend a great deal on whose ox is being gored. During Bill Clinton’s impeachment, less than half of Democrats were fans of journalists as watchdogs while 70 percent of Republicans were all for the idea.

What’s at play here? It seems painfully obvious to me.

Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a yearlong series on media literacy.