Money seen as driving the news

Study says public ever more skeptical

Media

March 15, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

A new, comprehensive study to be released today argues that the media's credibility with the public has been sapped not by ideological concerns but by the bottom-line imperatives driving news coverage.

"The public increasingly believes that the press does what it does to make money or to advance the concerns of individual journalists," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which conducted the study. "For more than 15 years now, the public has become more skeptical - less trusting - less believing in journalism."

The study's authors contend that a broader news agenda, based on greater investment in news reporting, could attract greater interest from the public. The Project for Excellence in Journalism study is to be released publicly this morning but a copy was provided to The Sun and several other media outlets in advance.

The journalism study did not indict all forms of media. Nightly newscasts on television broadcast networks have become markedly more serious in recent years, according to a content analysis included in the survey. And so has the first hour of the often-derided but highly rated network morning news shows, the survey found.

"Americans, generally speaking, have felt the world come to their front doors" since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, said Paul Slavin, senior vice president at ABC News. "The news media is reflecting their increased interest."

But media outlets have widely cut back news bureaus abroad and nationally, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism study. Even when they have added profits, media outlets have allowed serious coverage to wane. In one example cited by the study, the nation's three most prominent news magazines - Newsweek, Time and U.S. News and World Report - enjoyed a 9 percent rise in the number of pages they devoted to editorial content from 1982 to 2003. But that rise in space has been accompanied by a 25 percent drop in the coverage of national news by those same newsweeklies.

"What's increasing is coverage of lifestyle, celebrity, entertainment, hobbies," said Rosenstiel, a former correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek. "You're trying to get eyeballs. You're doing it for business reasons." And that impulse may account, he contends, for the decline in circulation at many news magazines and newspapers and in viewing levels for broadcast and even some cable news programs.

Some of the organizations he critiques have been critical in return. Nicholas P. Schiavone, a former senior vice president for research at NBC who is now a consultant for Fox News, disputed the study's findings, particularly on ratings.

"They're arriving at a series of suggestions that cannot be justified by the data," said Schiavone, who obtained a copy of the portion of the study that addresses cable news. "We've got free-floating anxieties driving their conclusions."

Although the center is a not-for-profit, nonpartisan group, the study's findings reflect the preference of its researchers for more textured, richly reported stories about substantive issues - whatever medium is involved. Such taste runs in favor of coverage of international affairs, social issues, politics, the economy and the environment, for example, rather than celebrity profiles or "true crime" stories.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism is affiliated with Columbia University's journalism school. The study was sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and involved researchers from respected institutions, such as the Poynter Institute, a media think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the University of Missouri's journalism school. It also drew on past research from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Perhaps the most provocative new data lies in the project's content analysis of 24-hour cable news channels, which the researchers contend offers "weak" news coverage.

"The report does not make television cable news look very attractive to a citizen who wants to be well informed about the world," said Andrew Tyndall, a media consultant and publisher of an industry newsletter who conducted much of the study's television content analysis.

Among the study's key conclusions about cable:

The talk and debate-heavy formats of prime-time cable news programs are almost devoid of true reporting, serving instead as a visual form of talk radio;

Except for war-driven spikes in viewership, cable news ratings are leveling off or even suffering a slow decline;

Ideological tone aside, there is little to distinguish the range of topics and treatment given actual stories by the three primary cable news channels - CNN, Fox and MSNBC;

Financial concerns have led to the abandonment of strongly reported, written and edited stories in favor of quicker and rougher "live" updates from correspondents tethered to their satellite trucks. And those live reports, often presented as involving "breaking news," typically advance the story little.

The study reviewed 16 hours of footage on each of the three 24-hour stations for five days, accumulating roughly 5,570 separate story segments in all.

"With all this time to fill on cable, what you're getting is newsgathering in the raw," Rosenstiel said.

Officials at CNN and Fox News took issue with his conclusions.

The talk component of CNN's programming provides context for previously reported news, said Christa Robinson, a spokeswoman for CNN. And, she argued, it is unfair "to criticize the genre for being live 24 hours a day. We all know the reality: We don't make the news, we report it."

The study will be posted online today at www.stateof thenewsmedia.org

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