The media confront a credibility gap

Press poll: Reporters and editors should take criticism seriously and work to shore up flagging credibility.

May 19, 1999

AS AN institution, the news business always wants to be its own judge and jury.

How, then, will it react to a poll showing that working reporters and editors often agree with their critics?

A basic summary of the survey: News-gathering organizations often don't deserve the public's confidence.

Turning professionally critical eyes on their own performance, 552 newspapers, magazines, radio and television journalists offered up a grim assessment of their work product.

Stories were often error-ridden, sloppy and careless, they said. Writers strayed from factual presentation of the news into opinion and commentary. Editors were "driving" the news rather than simply covering it. Hard news was increasingly indistinguishable from entertainment.

More than half of respondents thought consumers were turning away because they've lost faith in the product -- from one-third who thought credibility was the problem in 1989.

"People don't like us, don't trust us, don't believe us," said a national news service editor who participated in the poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in conjunction with the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

A fair number of respondents worried that pressure to achieve levels of profitability were robbing newsrooms of resources -- reporting positions, money for travel and time to do ambitious projects.

Respondents were a bit conflicted, not surprisingly, when asked if "business" or "public service" was the more accurate definition of journalism, suggesting a that considerable tension exists in the minds of many reporters and editors.

Old and insular reactions against such findings are silly in a media world as competitive as the one we live in today.

We in the media would be well-advised to take these criticisms seriously -- to cover ourselves more, for example, so that readers had a better understanding of how we operate.

What are the standards of journalism? How can the reader distinguish between news and opinion?

An honest stock-taking could help to preserve both professional standards and customers.

Pub Date: 5/19/99

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