Newspaper journalists should not be afraid

February 27, 2005|By Paul Moore

A FEW RECENT headlines tell the tale: "News is bad all around for journalists;" "The Forecast: Overheated, Gusty and Increasingly Bloggy;" and "Fear and Favor: Why is everyone mad at the mainstream media." They make the case that fear and self-loathing - R.I.P. Hunter S. Thompson - are rampant among journalists.

The stories describe constant challenges of the media's credibility and accuracy; note how judicial decisions are weakening media rights; and assess the public's increasingly negative view of newspapers and other media.

The trouble is real. More readers than before believe that fair news reporting and news presentation do not exist. For them, everything reflects a political, ideological or cultural perspective. Good journalists, who try to keep their personal views out of their work, are being scrutinized, challenged and, in some cases, demonized.

But the press has been angering and disappointing politicians and readers since our republic was born and some wonder if journalists are worrying a little too much about the static these days.

Are the media really in a crisis? Or does their continuing self-examination and repeated acknowledgments of "self-inflicted wounds" border on self-flagellation? Is this relentless self-analysis distracting the press from its real mission - to inform the public?

Reader Hal Willard, a former reporter and editor, called The Sun's Feb. 20 article documenting journalists' current problems well reported and well executed. "But it served no purpose other than to display the newspaper's willingness to bite itself on the wrist," Willard argued. "There indeed has been a spate of mistakes in execution and judgment, but the public knows this." Instead of sharing their angst with the public, "journalists should be trumpeting to themselves with staff memos and meetings," he said.

Reader Laura Singh said: "I'm amazed about how much The Sun and other newspapers ... feel they are under siege. I sense from recent stories and events that newspapers are on the defensive, believing they have to justify themselves to the public. It's like you are bending over backward to explain and confess."

Contributing to journalists' siege mentality are internal policies designed to contain costs and intense pressure to combat declining circulation or viewership.

The danger - as seen by some readers and journalists - is that too much worrying about criticism will make newspapers defensive and tentative. When reporting becomes less inquisitive and fails to challenge authority, readers are ill served.

Clearly, there are differences between journalists' self-perceptions and the views of some readers.

The Sun's Feb. 20 article noted that reporters were considered heroes in the Watergate era, when The Washington Post's Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward uncovered a scandal that led to President Richard Nixon's resignation.

Thirty years later, reader Russell Betts disagrees: "When you write something like this in an article about why the public does not trust the media, you need no better example. The media's handling of the Nixon-Watergate affair marks the start of the media's fall in favorable public perception, not as a shining example on the public's mind of media credibility."

He may have a partial point. Watergate made being an "investigative reporter" a highly desirable job and, in the years since the glory days of Woodward and Bernstein, pursuit of that status has fueled an unbridled craving in some.

The burning desire to uncover scandal can cloud the judgment of reporters and editors resulting in aggressively written "gotcha" stories where the passion of the writing far exceeds the value of the facts. Such stories annoy thoughtful readers.

Still, devotion to digging out the truth is vital and the importance of solid investigations, enterprise and beat reporting as a means of affirming a newspaper's relevance and credibility cannot be underestimated.

Compared with other media, newspapers still produce a much higher percentage of original reporting. "Opinion - the staple of the Internet, talk radio and cable television - is cheap, while real reporting is expensive," said Philip Meyer, newspaper analyst and author of The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age. "That's a good newspaper's advantage," he added.

And, newspapers have been working hard to improve.

The Sun and others are better at tracking factual errors and are committed to quickly publishing corrections. Computer-assisted reporting gives reporters better and more precise data with which to work.

Given the technological competition and continuing cultural changes, it is not surprising that newspaper journalists are wrestling with how the news should be covered in the 21st century. But they can also take pride in the quality and importance of the work they do to serve readers every day.

"I sincerely think that today's journalists on a daily basis are the best ever, despite glitches," Willard said. "The world is more complicated and the pressures are greater."

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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