Journalists yell for rewrite Media: Troubled by the mixing of entertainment and news, journalists are trying to define how their profession should function.

December 17, 1997|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN STAFF HTC

Marv Albert's interest in lingerie leads the TV evening news, and Princess Diana's funeral commands more front-page space than Mother Teresa's. Newspapers run articles repeating the gossip that appears first in the weekly tabloids. Network news programs lighten up with reports on celebrities.

Is this journalism?

Many reporters and editors think something has gone wrong.

"We're having a crisis of conviction," says Tom Rosenstiel, former Los Angeles Times press critic, now the director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"We're floundering, trying to sort out what audiences want and need. And what we've done so far isn't working."

Journalists love to argue about how they do their jobs. But Rosenstiel, along with other prominent journalists, have decided to stop the idle debate and to confront their craft's problems.

Around the country, several groups have organized to challenge reporters and editors on what they stand for and how they can improve their products.

Rosenstiel is vice chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, which is organizing forums in which reporters and editors debate values and responsibilities.

In College Park, the Project on the State of the American Newspaper will publish investigative articles on newspapers in the American Journalism Review.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors has launched a Journalism Credibility Project to try to find why so much of the public says it distrusts newspapers.

"We used to have confidence that we knew what we were," says Tom Kunkel, of the Project on the State of the American Newspaper. "Well, in a world where there are fewer newspapers than there were and fewer people are reading them, we're not so sure."

Readership is down. Newspapers have folded. Television news audiences are smaller. "Hard Copy" and "Inside Edition," bursting with gossip and scandal, appear each evening alongside the network news -- and the network news has dressed itself up in some of the celebrity glitz that seduces viewers to the infotainment shows.

Meanwhile, giant corporations are buying up news outlets. The Internet is zipping information around the world. Photographers are blamed for the death of a princess. And reporters have come to expect daily criticism from the public they believe they're serving.

The issue is credibility, says Sandy Rowe, editor of the Oregonian and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. And the debate should be separate, she says, from talk about circulation and readership.

"Newspapers need to face head-on the issue of whether they're believed and respected," Rowe says. "I would like to make things better -- whether it brings even one more reader to the table."

All these groups say they want to confront the problems by starting at the beginning -- by defining what journalism is and what its responsibilities are.

Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Fellowships for Journalists at Harvard University, organized the Committee of Concerned Journalists last summer -- before Princess Diana's death and the criticism of journalists it provoked.

The committee circulated a "statement of concern," a letter that begins: "This is a critical moment for journalism in America."

The committee has scheduled a series of at least eight forums around the country for journalists to discuss problems including neutrality, competence, sensationalism and responsibilities. At the end, the committee will produce a report.

In College Park, the Project on the State of the American Newspaper will be directed by Gene Roberts, former managing editor of the New York Times. The articles it produces will be "very long, heavily reported, in-depth reports," says Kunkel, who will edit the pieces.

Kunkel says events such as the death of Princess Diana, the trials of O. J. Simpson and the legal woes of sports announcer Marv Albert have focused attention -- among journalists as well as the public -- on problems that have grown as the lines between news and entertainment have blurred.

"Average people are saying, 'We're sick of some of this stuff,' " Kunkel says. "Now for the first time [journalists] are saying, 'We're partly responsible for it. Maybe the way we do our job is contributing to the sense of angst in the culture and society at large. Maybe we shouldn't have run that exploitative picture of Princess Di. Maybe we shouldn't have run that hundredth story about Marv Albert.'

"We are in the business of helping shape the culture and society. So we can't absolve ourselves from the obligations and responsibilities that go along with that."

How will a collection of articles in a journalism review improve the craft? "We want to hold a mirror up to this audience and say, 'This is how it looks to us,' " Kunkel says. "And what happens next is up to the industry."

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