Publics want unbiased news coverage, but are divided on whether their media deliver

Publics around the world overwhelmingly agree that the news media should be unbiased in their coverage of political issues, according to a new Pew Research Center report based on a survey of 38 countries.

Yet, when asked how their news media are doing on reporting different political issues fairly, people are far more mixed in their sentiments, with many saying their media do not deliver. And, in many countries, there are sharp political differences in views of the media – with the largest gap among Americans.

This new cross-national report builds on Pew Research Center’s earlier findings about U.S news media habits and attitudes by examining these dynamics globally. The survey was conducted among 41,953 respondents in 38 countries from Feb. 16 to May 8, 2017.

A median of 75% across the nations polled say it is never acceptable for a news organization to favor one political party over others when reporting the news. Just 20% say this is sometimes acceptable. People in Europe show the greatest opposition to political bias in their news, including 89% in Spain and 88% in Greece who think it is unacceptable. In the United States, 78% say the news media should never favor one political party over another. In only five countries – Israel, India, Philippines, South Korea and Colombia – do three-in-ten or more believe it is acceptable to favor one side.

“Despite vast differences around the globe in government, political and media structures, there is a wide and strong consensus that the role of the news media is not to take sides on political matters, but rather to report all sides fairly,” Director of Journalism Research Amy Mitchell said.

While publics around the globe place a premium on politically unbiased news media, this is precisely the performance area, among four asked about, where publics are least likely to say their news media are doing well. A median of only 52% across the 38 countries say the news media in their country do a good job of reporting on political issues fairly, while 44% say they do not. Broad majorities, meanwhile, say their news media do a good job of covering the most important stories (median of 73%), reporting the news accurately (62%) and reporting news about government leaders and officials (59%). People in sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific are more satisfied with their news media, while Latin Americans are the most critical. The U.S. public tends to fall roughly in the middle across the different areas asked about in the survey.

Other key findings from the report include:

Within countries, political identification tends to be the strongest divider of media attitudes, more so than education, age or gender. 

Political party systems vary considerably across countries, but one consistent measure for comparing political divides is support for the governing party or parties. In the survey, large gaps in ratings of the media emerge between governing party supporters and nonsupporters. On the question of whether their news media cover political issues fairly, for example, partisan differences appear in 20 of the 38 countries surveyed. In most of these countries, people who support the political party currently in power are more satisfied with the performance of their news media than those who do not support the governing party.

“The data show that, in general, satisfaction with the news media is less about a specific ideological position and more tied to happiness with current national conditions, including who the ruling party is and how the economy is doing,” said Associate Director of Research Katie Simmons.

The U.S. is one of only a few countries where governing party supporters are less satisfied with their news media than are nonsupporters. 

The U.S. also shows the largest partisan gap by far, at 34 percentage points.

Digital technology is influencing news habits across the globe, though its use is still far from universal. 

Overall, a median of 42% among the 38 countries surveyed say they get news on the Internet at least once a day. In 14 countries, half or more of adults get news online daily. The survey also asked a separate question on how often people get news specifically on social media sites. Overall, a global median of 35% get news daily through social media, with the highest levels in South Korea (57%), Lebanon (52%) and Argentina (51%). People in wealthier countries are more likely to use the internet to get news on a daily basis than people in poorer nations, but this cross-national pattern does not hold for people who get news via social media. The median percentages of people who get news at least once a day through social media are about the same in emerging and developing economies as in advanced ones (33% and 36%, respectively).

Publics are highly engaged with news, but more so with news that’s close to home. 

Large majorities around the world follow national and local news closely (global medians of 86% and 78% respectively). People are much less interested in news about other countries (global median of 57%). People outside of the U.S. express a similarly low level of interest in news specifically about the U.S. (48%).

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