October 5, 2021

Americans overwhelmingly value the First Amendment — but don’t value all parts of it equally, the Freedom Forum’s recently released “Where America Stands” survey found. Of more than 3,000 people surveyed in fall 2020, 94% feel the First Amendment is vital.

But the strong overall reverence for the First Amendment does not carry over to the press — whether we’re using that term as one of the five freedoms mentioned in the First Amendment or as an institution. Just 4% said freedom of the press is the most essential First Amendment freedom. That trails 41% who said all the freedoms are essential and lags behind speech (33%), religion (14%) and petition (5%), beating only assembly (3%).

Even worse: Only 14% trust journalists, and 41% say journalists are a threat to the First Amendment.

It is no surprise that Americans remain skeptical of journalism. As Wanda S. Lloyd, journalist and author of “Coming Full Circle: From Jim Crow to Journalism,” said in response to the survey: “This validates all we suspect and know about how Americans feel about freedom of the press.”

But another finding shows Americans don’t want to be so skeptical, as 58% of those surveyed agree the news media should act as a watchdog on government. A study by the Media Insight Project, a collaboration between the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-National Organization for Research Center (NORC) for Public Affairs Research, similarly found that slightly less than half of Americans fully support the press’s watchdog role.

Where’s the disconnect?

Our survey — and some that came before — might offer some insight. What Americans want are facts delivered by people they know and trust. Two-thirds of those surveyed by the Media Insight Project believe the more facts people have, the closer they will get to the truth. This corresponds with what we heard in talking to Americans about the First Amendment. Facts do not equal truth in their eyes. Americans want to be given facts, not “the truth,” then decide for themselves.

But how will they identify facts or attach credibility to those the media delivers? Fixing the disconnect might lie — coincidentally enough — in reconnecting. After completing our 200-plus question survey, we asked some of our respondents to tell us more.

We spoke to Rise Briggs from Roseburg, Oregon, who told us, “A lot of the media is very irresponsible when they distort the truth as fact.” This concern was echoed by another respondent, Patsy Credit of Tyler, Texas, who said, “Sometimes they stretch the truth, and I don’t think that’s right.”

Note the wording there: “the media” and “they.”

According to the Pew Center on the States in 2019: Most Americans (63%) say their local journalists are generally in touch with the community, which is something they value. Freedom Forum survey respondents ranked their local paper third when asked about their trusted news sources, behind PBS and the major television network news programs (ABC/CBS/NBC) but ahead of nationally focused newspapers and cable news channels.

This confirms something many have known — or at least suspected — for a long time: People now see most journalists as part of a faceless entity, but they want them to be part of their community. This means being present to understand and cover issues that matter — an exceedingly difficult task when resources are already stretched thin, leaving state legislatures, city councils and local courts often uncovered.

But it also means investing in your community of journalists. Journalists already doing this community-based work tend to be most overlooked and under resourced. When a reporter recently tweeted kudos to a major digital outlet for launching a local newsletter to rectify a dearth of “quality local news” in Washington, D.C, the community responded with a firestorm of other options that eventually topped twenty local and hyper-local publications.

It’s not great when those in this business are blind to their brethren in the local community. Even worse, it might be a lost opportunity to plug your own gaps via strategic partnerships that benefit both media entities, raise the profile of all media in your community and beyond and ultimately — and most importantly — benefit the public at large. This, in turn, will go a long way in raising that 14% trust in the press.

Kevin Goldberg is the First Amendment specialist at the Freedom Forum. Before joining the Freedom Forum, he practiced media law for more than 25 years, during which time he served as legal counsel to, among others, the News Leaders Association and Association of Alternative Newsmedia.

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