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CPB-Commissioned National Opinion Polls

Public Perceptions of Public Broadcasting, December 2003

The Tarrance Group and Lake Snell Perry & Associates have conducted two nationwide public opinion surveys on behalf of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting during the last 12 months – one in July of this year and the other in November 2002. (i) The foremost objective of these research studies was to accurately measure the extent to which the American public believes there is bias embedded in the news and information programming on public television and public radio.

Upon completing the most recent survey, CPB commissioned both firms to conduct four focus groups (ii) to further explore the issue of bias, what exactly people perceive as bias, and whether or not bias is a significant concern.

The major findings from this latest survey are listed below in bold, with additional evidence outlined in the bulleted sub-points. When applicable, findings from the focus groups are referenced.

Both surveys confirm the same thing: The majority of the U.S. adult population does not believe that the news and information programming on public broadcasting is biased. The plurality of Americans indicate that there is no apparent bias one way or the other, while approximately one-in-five detect a liberal bias and approximately one-in-ten detect a conservative bias.

In the latest survey, 21% of respondents indicate that PBS news and information programming has a liberal bias, while 22% say the same thing for NPR.

Comparatively, the November 2002 survey revealed that no less than 31% of Americans indicate that the news and information programming on each of the major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) and CNN has a liberal bias.

The focus group research helped confirm a common hypothesis: There is a core segment of the population that will always contend that all news media is biased no matter what. In other words, many people are simply "jumping on the bandwagon" and saying PBS and/or NPR are biased only because they believe all news media are biased and they do not distinguish between specific news organizations and the news media in general.

Among those individuals who are "consumers" of news and information programming on PBS and/or NPR, only 22% feel there is a liberal bias in PBS's programming while 26% feel there is a liberal bias in NPR's programming.

The most recent survey finds that 41% of the adult population is a "consumer" of PBS news and information programming (defined as people who watch these programs at least once or twice a month). Only 7% of Americans say that they watch news and information programming on PBS every day. In contrast, 34% of the population can be categorized as a "consumer" of NPR news and information programming, with 12% indicating that they listen every day.

The sharpest bifurcation is between Republicans and Democrats. Approximately one-in-three Republicans (35%) indicate that PBS news and information programming has a liberal bias, while among Democrats this figure drops to 11%. NPR garners roughly the same numbers between these two groups.

Fifty-three percent (53%) of Republicans are "consumers" of PBS and/or NPR news and information programming as compared to 65% among Democrats. However, taking news and information programming out of the equation and looking at all areas of public broadcasting (e.g. educational programming, children's programming, etc.), this latest survey finds that public broadcasting usage levels between Republicans and Democrats are virtually identical (85% and 87%, respectively).

A small handful of Americans believe that the news and information programming on public broadcasting has a conservative bias (12% for PBS and 9% for NPR).

The plurality of the population feels that there is no apparent bias one way or the other on PBS and NPR (48% and 38%, respectively), and then there is yet another groups of individuals who simply say they are unsure when it comes to this issue.

The war in Iraq (and public broadcasting's coverage of the war) did not have a major impact on the public's perceptions of PBS and NPR. The "liberal bias" response for PBS stood three percentage points higher in the November 2002 survey (24% then as compared to 21% now), and for NPR the "liberal bias" response is the same now as it was in the pre-war survey (22%).

Fewer than 15% of Americans say that PBS and NPR coverage of the war and/or the Bush Administration is slanted.

The reality is that most people do not feel that they have enough insight on this matter to form an opinion.

Even among "consumers" of news and information programming on public broadcasting, anywhere from 43% to 58% of these "informed" individuals indicate that they have no opinion on whether PBS and NPR coverage of the war in Iraq and/or the Bush Administration is fair and balanced or slanted in one direction.

The bottom line is that there is only a small percentage of the adult population that believes PBS and NPR unfairly report about the war and the administration.

People trust public television to deliver honest and in-depth news and information programming. (iii)

Over 50% of Americans say that the news and information programming on PBS is more trustworthy than the news and information programming from other sources, like network television, Fox News Channel, and CNN. Fewer than 15% say that PBS news and information programming is less trustworthy.

Similar results are observed when respondents are asked if PBS news and information programming is more in-depth and analytical than the news and information programming on network television, Fox News Channel, and CNN.

PBS and NPR score high marks on a wide variety of performance indicators that stretch beyond news and information programming.

Despite whatever perceptions people may have regarding news and information programming on public broadcasting, the results from this latest survey would suggest that most adults in this country generally approve of the work PBS and NPR are doing. For example, 90% of respondents indicate that PBS provides high quality programming and 92% say that PBS is a safe place for children to watch television.

Survey respondents were presented with several different statements about PBS and NPR and then asked whether they agreed or disagreed with each statement. The following table highlights the results from this series and illustrates the strong performance ratings that both organizations garner. The "agree" ratings for NPR are consistently lower than those for PBS; however, this is because many people simply say they are "unsure" – not because they disagree. This disparity can be attributed to the fact that there are far more adults who never listen to NPR than there are adults who never watch PBS, and therefore a larger percentage of people who have no basis to form an opinion about NPR.

Do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements about PBS / NPR? PBS Agree PBS Disagree NPR Agree NPR Disagree
PBS is a safe place for children to watch television because of its non-violent, educational, commercial-free programming. 92% 4% N/A N/A
[PBS/NPR] provides high quality programming. 90% 6% 61% 9%
[PBS/NPR] is a valuable cultural resource. 89% 7% 62% 11%
[PBS/NPR] programs reflect the diversity and character of America. 80% 12% 54% 15%
[PBS/NPR] programming is fair and balanced. 80% 12% 55% 13%
It is important for the federal government to support [PBS/NPR] financially so that it can be offered to local communities free of charge. 78% 17% 70% 17%

Public broadcasting is something that most Americans feel good about and value.

The overwhelming majority of adults in this country (80%) say that they have a favorable impression of PBS and NPR as a whole.

Additionally, there are several indicators throughout the survey that demonstrate the extent to which the public values public broadcasting. For example, only one-in-ten Americans (10%) would say that a per capita expenditure of $1.30 in taxpayer funds is "too much" for the government to be spending on public broadcasting. Nearly half (48%) say the amount is "too little" and roughly one-third (35%) say the amount is "about right."

Even among those who believe that that PBS and/or NPR news and information programming has a liberal bias, a clear majority of this subgroup of the population (65% - 67%) still concedes that the current taxpayer expenditure on public broadcasting is "too little" or "about right."

Fewer than 20% of Republicans say that the amount of government funds that goes to public broadcasting is "too much," and among Democrats this figures stands at only 2%.

i. These key findings are drawn from two different surveys, each consisting of telephone interviews with N=1,000 adults 18+ throughout the United States. The margin of error associated with a sample of this type is ± 3.1%. The most recent survey was conducted June 29 – July 2, 2003. When applicable, results from this most recent survey are sometimes compared to a similar survey that was conducted last year (November 11-14, 2002).

ii. Two focus groups were conducted in Louisville, KY on September 15, 2003 and two focus groups were conducted in Salt Lake City, UT on September 16, 2003. To qualify for the focus groups, all participants believed that news and information programming on PBS and/or NPR had a liberal bias. The groups contained a mix of regular "consumers" public broadcasting news and information programming as well as "non-consumers."

iii. Similar types of questions were not asked about NPR.

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