February 26, 2020

Most say journalists should be watchdogs, but views of how well they fill this role vary by party, media diet

Americans largely agree on the value of media’s watchdog role ...Nearly three out of four U.S. adults (73%) say that, in general, it’s important for journalists to function as watchdogs over elected officials. But that broad consensus shatters when the public is asked how journalists are currently performing that watchdog role: 35% say they are going too far as watchdogs, 32% say they are not going far enough and 30% say they are getting it about right, according to a new analysis of data from Pew Research Center’s Election News Pathways project. Media diet and partisanship strongly factor into those assessments.

While clear majorities of both parties support the idea of the watchdog function, a substantial partisan gap exists, according to this analysis based on a survey of 12,043 U.S. adults who are members of the Center’s American Trends Panel conducted Oct. 29 to Nov. 11, 2019. When asked to think beyond the current political environment, about six-in-ten Republicans and independents who lean to the Republican Party (61%) say it is important for journalists to function as watchdogs. That compares with about eight-in-ten Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (83%).

The gap widens further when people are asked to evaluate journalists’ current performance, during the Trump administration. Republicans are about four times as likely as Democrats to say journalists are going too far in the watchdog role (59% vs. 14%). Democrats, on the other hand, are more than twice as likely as Republicans to say journalists are getting it about right (43% vs. 16%).

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To analyze these survey questions by additional media habits and demographic characteristics, visit the interactive tool and access the dataset.

Aside from partisanship, Americans’ news diets also connect to their views of how journalists are doing as watchdogs. For example, Republicans and Republican leaners who don’t get news from any outlets with right-leaning audiences (as identified in an earlier report on this data) are about six times as likely to say journalists are getting it about right as Republicans who get news only from outlets with right-leaning audiences.

Differences also emerge based on the outlets that people name as their main source for political news. About two-thirds of U.S. adults who cite Fox News as their main source (66%) say journalists are currently going too far as watchdogs. But among those whose main source is MSNBC, just 6% say the media are too aggressive.

Most Republicans see today’s watchdogs as too aggressive; Democrats far more inclined to approve of their work

Majorities in each party value media’s watchdog roleOver the years, the Center has regularly asked a survey question, worded slightly differently, about the watchdog function of journalism.1 Generally, the responses revealed broad support for the concept of media scrutiny of those in power, with some partisan differences depending on which party holds the White House.

But after the 2016 election, those traditional partisan differences widened dramatically – and in 2017, there was a whopping 44 percentage point gap between Democrats who said media criticism of political leaders keeps them from doing things they shouldn’t (82%) and Republicans who felt the same way (38%).2

The Election News Pathways survey added a layer of nuance to this question. It first asked people to think beyond the current political environment and indicate if, in general, they feel it is important or not important for journalists to serve as watchdogs over elected officials. A notable partisan gap still emerges, though it is far smaller, with majorities of both parties agreeing that role is important: 83% of Democrats and Democratic leaners and 61% of Republicans and Republican leaners.

Next, the survey asked people to assess how journalists are fulfilling that function today. And here, there are widely divergent partisan evaluations.

A majority of Republicans and Republican leaners (59%) say journalists are currently going too far as watchdogs, with 22% saying they are not going far enough and the smallest percentage (16%) saying they are getting things about right.

On the other side of the aisle, 43% of Democrats and Democratic leaners say journalists are getting things about right. About as many (41%) say journalists are not going far enough as watchdogs. And only 14% of Democrats, by far the smallest portion, say journalists are going too far.

Assessment of journalists’ performance as watchdogs varies based on news diet

The news diets of Democrats and Republicans – that is, the sources they turn to for political and election news – tie into views about the news media’s watchdog role.

In addition to these watchdog questions, respondents were asked about their use of 30 different news outlets for political and election news in the past week. Based on this data, researchers analyzed the mix of sources people turned to for news, as well as the political composition of each source’s audience. (See the box below for details on the study design.)

Among Republicans who get their political news only from media outlets with right-leaning audiences, 70% say journalists are going too far in their role as watchdogs. That share decreases to 61% among Republicans who get news from a combination of outlet types – some with right-leaning audiences and some with mixed and/or left-leaning audiences. And among Republicans who get news from no outlets with right-leaning audiences, about half (47%) say journalists have gone too far.

Partisans with different media diets assess the media’s watchdog role differentlyThe share of Republicans who say journalists are getting it right also shifts with news diet. Just 5% of those getting political news only from outlets with right-leaning audiences feel this way. That increases to 13% among Republicans who get news from a mix of outlets with right-leaning and other types of audiences. Of those who do not get news from any sources with right-leaning audiences, 29% believe journalists are getting it about right.

Assessments among Democrats also differ based on news diets. Of the Democrats who get political news only from outlets with left-leaning audiences, 10% say that journalists are going too far. But among Democrats who don’t get news from any outlets with left-leaning audiences, that percentage roughly doubles to 24%.

The percentage of Democrats who believe that journalists are not going far enough also fluctuates by news diet. While about half (51%) of Democrats who get political news only from outlets with left-leaning audiences say that journalists are not going far enough as watchdogs, that share falls to 40% among Democrats who get news from a mix of outlets with left-leaning and other types of audiences. And only about a third (32%) of Democrats who don’t get any news from outlets with left-leaning audiences say journalists need to be more aggressive as watchdogs.

Those who rely mostly on MSNBC and Fox News have very different opinions about how journalists are doing at the watchdog role

A more granular level of media diet can be measured by the single source people name – in an open-ended question – as the one they turn to most for political and election news. About two-thirds (66%) of those who name Fox News as their main source of political news (16% of U.S. adults overall) say journalists are going too far in their role as watchdogs during the Trump presidency. About two-in-ten (21%) say they are not going far enough, and 9% think journalists are getting it about right.

Those who name MSNBC as their main source (4% of U.S. adults overall) have a very different view. A mere 6% think journalists are going too far, while 46% say they don’t go far enough and virtually the same percentage (47%) express satisfaction that they’re getting things about right.

Party identity lines up closely with these main sources. About nine-in-ten (93%) of those who name Fox News as their main source are Republican or lean Republican, while a similar portion (95%) of those who name MSNBC are Democratic or lean Democratic. (Additionally, a large portion (70%) of Republicans who only get news from outlets with right-leaning audiences, the group discussed above, name Fox News as their main source for political news.)

Those who name NPR and The New York Times are similarly Democratic, and they are also far more likely to say that journalists aren’t going far enough as watchdogs (48% and 51%, respectively) than to say they have gone too far in shining a spotlight on elected leaders (8% and 7%).

These measures and more can be explored further in the Election News Pathways data tool, where all of the data associated with this project is available for public use.

See the survey questions and methodology for this analysis, or access the dataset.

Acknowledgments: The Election News Pathways project was made possible by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Pew Research Center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder. This initiative is a collaborative effort based on the input and analysis of a number of individuals and experts at Pew Research Center.

  1. The older version of the question read, “Some people think that by criticizing leaders, news organizations keep political leaders from doing their job. Others think that such criticism is worth it because it keeps political leaders from doing things that should not be done. Which position is closer to your opinion?”
  2. This earlier data does not include independents who lean to one party or the other, though the figures change very little if they are added in: 84% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said media criticism of political leaders keeps them from doing things they shouldn’t, and 42% of Republicans and Republican leaners said the same.