A sweeping study released this March on the state of U.S. journalism offers more bad news for mainstream media outlets and the people who write, edit and produce them.
"The State of the News Media 2004," prepared by The Project for Excellence in Journalism, an institute affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, captures traditional news outlets in a state of decline-even as they continue to make plenty of money. National and local television viewership and newspaper readership are down; cable and radio audiences are flat; investment in news and the people who produce it is declining; and, perhaps most alarmingly, faith of the audience in the integrity and believability of the news continues to drop.
"How long can the profession of journalism endure if people increasingly don't believe it?" the study's authors ask. "To reverse the slide in audience and trust will probably take a major change in press behavior, one that will make the news more relevant and customizable and at the same time suggest to the public...that the news industry is more concerned with the public good than Americans suspect."
Improving quality and trust, however, won't prove easy in an industry that's apparently more interested in being first and paying less to do so than in being original, authoritative or independent. As the study's authors described it, the current climate of news is one in which there is "more pressure to run with stories more quickly...and to cover ad nauseam a few big blockbuster stories since it is cost efficient."
The starting point for rebuilding audience trust, I'd argue, is to re-energize the standards of fairness that came to epitomize the best of American journalism during the latter part of the last century. Back then, I was taught, fairness never meant "tit-for-tat" journalism. It wasn't fair-or acceptable-for American news outlets to report the specious and destructive charges of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy that cast hundreds as communist sympathizers and then to "balance" those headline-producing stories with the less-prominent denials of the accused. But until McCarthy took on the Army in the early 1950s, he thrived by convincing reporters to print his hollow charges-charges that often ruined careers and lives.
Nor, I was taught, was "fairness" a synonym for mindlessness. It didn't mean that reporters were without bias. Who is? What it did mean was that reporters were expected to test their biases, to seek out facts-not just "sources" spouting opinions. The best reporters, I learned, guarded against their biases by making an extra effort to find facts that challenged them, by placing the news in context, by measuring what people said against what their record and past actions showed.
Fairness furthermore meant not only balancing but broadening the sources of news, not settling, for example, for a shouting match between a Democrat and a Republican about Medicare, but talking to experts who've studied the issue and regular folks who must live with the results of government actions.
Finally, fairness surely did not mean boosterism, or promoting "the American way"-or our government's spin on it.
As I look at the news today, in this lickety-split, breathless world of constant developments, I find it veering closer to the meek and potentially dangerous days of so-called "objectivity" of the Joseph McCarthy era, when the press played the passive role of scribe, than to the more aggressive definition of fairness I was taught. Fairness seems too often to be interpreted by too many in today's press as reporting one side's view and then the other's rebuttal or denial. The facts, after all, take a lot more time to dig out.
Admitting my own bias, I'll draw a few examples from the left.
Remember why we went to war in Iraq? It was ostensibly to prevent it from using weapons of mass destruction. None were ever found. Now, in a scathing new book, journalist Amy Goodman (host of the radio show Democracy Now!) chastises none other than The New York Times for repeatedly acting as a conduit of the administration's "evidence" of WMDs (all of which later proved false) without significant independent reporting.
That charge is particularly troubling because it is the Times that typically sets the standard for what's best about U.S. journalism. While countless news reports across the media have cast much more heat than light on both the charges of Richard Clarke, former head of counter-terrorism for the Bush and Clinton administrations, and the countercharges of Bush Administration minions seeking to discredit him, the Times often has done better. For example, on the eve of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice's testimony before the 9/11 Commission, the Times used facts to cast doubt on Administration assertions that it had indeed heeded warnings that Al Qaeda was a major threat to U.S. security.
It wrote: "But a review of the record, from testimony and interviews, suggests that Ms. Rice faces a daunting challenge because her own focus until Sept. 11 was usually fixed on matters other than terrorism, for reasons that had to do with her own background, her management style and the unusually close, personal nature of her relationship with Mr. Bush.... The reality is that Ms. Rice has virtually no public utterance about Al Qaeda to point to as evidence that she was engaged in the issue as she has in Mr. Bush's other foreign policy agendas."
A few sentences like these, carefully constructed and placed, can convey a fairness in coverage that goes far beyond the simplistic notion that "balance" means merely giving both sides their say and the truth none.
But that requires both independent reporting and a willingness to swim against the prevailing current.
As cable news networks, for example, were waving the U.S. flag as a backdrop to their coverage of the Iraq war, Seymour Hersh, in the March 31, 2003, issue of the New Yorker, was breaking news by casting serious doubts on our government's assertion that the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction-even though this was the basis of the war. None have been found in the year since he broke his story, that revealed that a key intelligence document used to help justify our invasion was forged and untrue. Yet his well-documented article-debunking the report that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger to build nuclear weapons-got little notice in the mainstream daily news media for months until former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson made the same case in an opinion piece. (The government later had to investigate whether a desire for retribution led someone in the White House to illegally blow Wilson's wife's cover as a CIA operative.)
And when the Atlantic Monthly gave considerable insight into the failure of planning that contributed to the prolonged and bloody "peace" continuing in Iraq to this day, the mainstream press again ignored the story. (The Atlantic reported that the Bush administration had dismissed exhaustive-and, in hindsight, accurate- advice from experts within our government of what to expect when Saddam's government toppled.)
One reason, I suspect, for the press's long-muted criticism of the Bush administration over the War on Terrorism and the war on Iraq was that reporters were waiting for weak-kneed Democrats to raise questions. Until Howard Dean made anger fashionable again, few did. But as two men named Woodward and Bernstein taught us during Watergate, it is always fair reporting to find the facts and the truth behind events-even if no one on the opposition side happens to be speaking publicly about them. In other words, if the story is of public importance, the facts are verified, and one side will not comment, that should not affect the news media's responsibility to publish. The public in fact admires independent reporting when they get it; never during my lifetime was public appreciation of the news media higher than right after Watergate.
Of course, all examples aren't from one side of the political spectrum. The right, for years, has railed against what it considers the liberal-in this instance, anti-war-bias of the news media (though I saw no networks during the Iraq war waving the French flag). Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler provided one excellent example by challenging this description in his newspaper of Katherine Harris, the Republican secretary of state of Florida during the Bush-Gore recount in 2000:
At this moment that so desperately needs diplomacy, understatement and calm," the reporter had written, "one wonders how this Republican woman, who can't even use restraint when she's wielding a mascara wand, will manage to use it and make sound decisions in this game of partisan one-upmanship.
Wrote Getler later, "I would paraphrase that sentence: 'At this moment that so desperately needs diplomacy, understatement and calm, one wonders how The Post could publish such a slashing attack on the personal appearance of a woman who has been an important figure in the electoral stalemate...' [the reporter's] treatment of Ms. Harris, in the view of many Post readers-including the ombudsman-was a classic example of the arrogance of journalists that undermines people's confidence in the media."
Ultimately, however, I suspect most weaknesses in coverage today can be traced not to overt bias, but to lack of time, budget and motivation in a news era that mistakes the buzz over an issue for its end point instead of the starting point for independent investigation of facts that can determine who is telling the truth and who is not.
Without better-grounded reporting, I'm convinced that the public's trust will continue to diminish, a course the Project for Excellence in Journalism report shows unmistakably. Comparing studies made in 1985 and 2002, researchers found that:
* Those who considered their daily newspapers highly believable had dropped from 80 to 59 percent. Only slightly less drastic drops were measured for the TV national networks and local news stations.
* The percentage of those who believe news organizations care about the people they report on dropped from 41 to 30 percent.
* The percentage of those who consider news organizations "immoral" rose from 13 to 36 percent.
* The percentage of those who believe news organizations are biased politically rose from 45 to 59 percent.
The news media undoubtedly will continue studying what the public wants and why it doesn't like the news business any more. But while it invests in more studies, it better also invest both more time and more resources in stories that make a difference.
As Amy Goodman concludes:
The media can be a platform for the most important debates of our day: war and peace, freedom and tyranny. The debate must be wide-ranging-not just a narrow discussion between Democrats and Republicans embedded in the establishment. We need to break open the box, tear down the boundaries that currently define acceptable discussion.
And if the mainstream press doesn't widen these boundaries and work harder to chase down the facts, it's a safe bet news consumers will vote with their feet, continuing the trend noted in "The State of the News Media 2004" of turning elsewhere. Even more disturbing, the number of citizens who trust the news also will drop, with potentially far-reaching negative consequences.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2004 (15:2), pp. 3,14-15.