CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- America's highest-paid newspaper editors like to beat up on themselves, over and over again.
They gathered in the nation's capital a few weeks ago for their annual exercise in self-flagellation. The theme: Why don't people love us? Why don't they respect us? Why don't they believe us?
The American Society of Newspaper Editors actually scheduled what it called a "Credibility Day" during its convention to grapple with why the public ranks newspaper people somewhere down the list with used-car salesmen.
I was among the former or current editors who sat and listened to a recital of the newspaper industry's problems just as if I hadn't heard the same stuff drummed at me for years. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
Sandra Rowe of The Oregonian in Portland, ASNE president, announced that newspapers are held in "frighteningly low respect" by the public. Harvard philosopher Sisela Bok told the convention that "editors and reporters are looking into the abyss."
A troubled industry
Are things really that bad? Yes. The American press as an institution is in deep trouble, its circulation failing to keep up with population growth. But its biggest problem is its faltering reputation. There are many reasons for this, which most editors, except those in a state of terminal denial, understand and accept.
Ms. Bok charged, for example, that figures in the President Clinton/independent prosecutor story "are using the media" and the media "are losing their credibility by letting themselves be used." And, she added, "How easy it is over time for us to succumb to numbing and desensitization to sensationalism that we once would have deplored."
Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, pronounced a benediction: "The war for higher standards is over," he said.
There are solutions to the problems faced by newspapers -- none of them quick fixes, but solutions nevertheless. However, most of the editors and their publishers, prisoners of the bottom line, won't implement them.
One reason the public distrusts its newspapers is that most are no longer locally owned. The last family-controlled papers are falling into the hands of chains. That is not going to change. But changes can be made in other areas.
Here are the four biggest problems faced by newspapers, in my opinion, along with their causes and how to solve them:
Problem 1: The frequency of factual errors in our newspapers. Cause: The technology-driven elimination of proofreaders, and our failure to properly train, retain and employ enough skilled copy editors to do the job. Solution: Publishers must loosen the purse strings and spend some of that cash that gives American newspapers much higher profit margins than any other mature industry.
Problem 2: The use of anonymous sources. Cause: Mostly fTC laziness and a misplaced sense of urgency that convinces us it's more important to get something into print fast than to check it out and to find people and documents on the record. Solution: Editors must summon the integrity and the guts to draw the line -- right now -- and say: We will no longer publish information from people with their own agendas who want to make public statements while hiding their faces.
Problem 3: Sensationalism. Cause: Competition, real and perceived. Aping the behavior of television ("If it bleeds, it leads") and tabloidism in both print and TV, newspapers think they have to exploit similar stories of sex and crime on their front pages. Solution: Integrity and guts. Editors should look back at their front pages of 10 or 15 years ago and learn a lesson from the judgment and restraint they used in those days.
Problem 4: Liberal bias, real and perceived, in the news columns. Cause: Journalists are often drawn to their profession by their desire to right the wrongs of society. They see the world through lenses that naturally slant to the left, and this can affect their decisions on what to cover and where to display the resulting stories. Solution: This is a tough one, because most journalists are conscious of their biases and strive to be fair and balanced in print. The only answer: Examine each story and editorial decision with the knowledge that what seems fair to us may look skewed to many readers.
None of these "solutions" is easy. And considering how far we are leaning over the abyss, perhaps it is foolish to expect any of them to be adopted. As Ms. Rowe told her fellow editors in Washington, "The high road is there, if we will just take it."
Charles McCorkle Hauser retired in 1989 after 16 years as executive editor of the Providence Journal-Bulletin. He lives and writes in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Pub Date: 4/29/98