Build trust in the press

May 21, 2000|By C. Fraser Smith

SO, what'll it be? The good news first, or the bad?

This is a newspaper so, of course, we'll start with the bad.

Newspapers, news executives, columnists, editors and reporters have been guilty in recent months of corrupt and dishonest behavior.

Some of them have been guilty of trying to sell too many ads, too many papers to make money for owners of their newspaper's stock.

Not news, you say? Newspapers have always tried to hype sales by hyping something.

Sometimes. But some say intensified pressure to produce a 15 or 20 percent return on investment has blown down the wall between reporting and marketing.

Newsrooms and news executives may not have thought enough about the pressure profit-making puts on news gathering. They probably haven't written about it enough, either. No surprise there. Newspapers are the least covered story in the naked city. And we wonder why no one has much respect for us.

Our miscreants have acted a lot like human beings with foibles and lapses and criminal blind spots. Or is that redundant?

Probably not all of it.

People in the news biz have allowed themselves to be a bit mysterious, a bit removed, a bit above. A boss I had starting out did not permit corrections in his paper: he wanted, he said, to retain a sense of infallibility. People had great faith in anything printed, he said, and we ought not to challenge that confidence.

We've come a ways since then, but the vestiges of other-ness remain. We've started to de-mystify ourselves, but we need to move faster. Stories about corruption and self-dealing -- even faking the news -- help us in an odd way.

News of corruption and bad judgment in the newsroom comes to you, often, from the same sources that committed the crimes. Special reports, investigations and mea culpas flow from the offending publications as they scramble to reclaim credibility.

Credibility is earned in incremental steps, lost in huge gouts not easily recaptured.

But, yes, folks we are humans over here behind the faade on Calvert Street, doing the best we can with our ethical guidelines and professional standards. You should know we have them -- even when we fall short.

As the news environment becomes more and more crowded and competitive, traditional news organizations need to do a lot more reporting on themselves: their business deals, how they are run; who runs them; who writes their opinions; the role of the publisher and the business side.

This is so both for the benefit of the republic and the bottom line. Let's do filthy lucre first. If newspapers don't seem more accessible and connected to the communities they serve, if their coverage doesn't reflect a picture that resembles the community's view of itself, readers will depart in even larger numbers -- into blissful ignorance or toward the siren call of the Internet.

The only hope for professional journalism is to show readers why professionals are more trustworthy than net jockeys who don't operate under any set of standards, who can't distinguish between exciting fantasy and verifiable fact. We won't always make the separation distinct, but the point is we're trying.

Almost from the beginning, it has been axiomatic inside the business that busy readers don't much care how the story was gathered -- the difficulties encountered by the reporter, etc. Still true up to a point. But now it's important for people to see and know more so they will trust more. A few papers publish data used in compiling a story on the net for further examination by anyone who has more questions about the process.

Some editorial pages list the names of the opinion writers -- to suggest that the institution is, at bottom, a collection of individuals thinking and writing together and making it easier for readers to find them. One paper offers instruction on how to write for its opinion sections. Many open their pages to community columnists. Some conduct forums.

As for the republic, if the voters don't trust the press, they may be ready to trash First Amendment protections cherished by Americans for 200 years. Free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to petition one's government as well as freedom of the press are under assault.

A survey by the Freedom Forum discovers that 28 percent of Americans polled last year thought the First Amendment went too far; 42 percent thought there was too much press freedom; 32 percent favored restraints on the press; 57 percent would support a ban on "offensive" art; and 78 percent said speech that was regarded as offensive to various groups should be controlled.

Everyone should be appalled by these numbers -- particularly since members of the U.S. Congress and, perhaps, the U.S. Supreme Court are considering proposals to curtail basic freedoms for the first time in 200 years.

A more accessible, honest and open press can show how dangerous that course would be.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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