A new Gallup poll shows more Americans – 55% – turn to television for news than any other medium. The internet was a distant second, with only 21% of those polled saying it was their primary news source, followed by print and radio at 9% and 6%, respectively. Television was the main source across all age groups, although it was most heavily preferred by those age 65 and older, at 68%. Although that appears to be good news for TV, just two years ago, Pew Research found that 66% of Americans got most of their news from TV.
Though viewers still tune in, they don’t really trust what they’re hearing. According to a Public Policy Polling poll from February of this year, of eight TV news channels, only PBS had a higher percentage of people saying they trust it,compared to those saying they don’t. When Americans were asked which outlet they trust the least, Fox News was the overwhelming “winner,” at 39%. Oddly enough, the same poll also showed it to be the single most trusted network, at 34%. And on top of it all, still other data show that public trust in TV news has declined steadily for 20 years, hitting a new low last year, with only 21% of Americans saying they had a “great deal” of trust in TV news.
What is behind this apparent contradiction? One explanation is that viewers are watching out of habit; after all, older people are bigger consumers of TV news. But another explanation is that, with the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, networks have had to fight for viewers. It is no coincidence that the decline in trust coincides with the rise of “infotainment” as a replacement for hard news. Viewers are drawn to dynamic personalities, partisan viewpoints, and dramatic stories, not straightforward, unsexy analysis of the day’s events. This is a style of programming that Fox News has mastered. Though it is the most distrusted network for some, it also has the largest and most loyal viewer base. For example, the Gallup data showed that while Democrats and independents get their news from a variety of TV outlets, many Republicans watch Fox to the exclusion of other outlets.
One has to wonder if there is a future for hard news coverage on television – even important breaking news. Last week's news coverage demonstrates the point. Egypt's fledgling democracy disintegrated, bringing yet more chaos and death to the Middle East. Meanwhile, cable news channels ran wall-to-wall coverage of the George Zimmerman trial, only managing to squeeze other stories in during lunch breaks at the courthouse. The television networks' obsession with emotionally charged, sensational stories may be good for ratings in the short term, but it is not sustainable in the long run.