Kovach: Newspaper Reporting Too Timid

By: Rich Vosepka, Associated Press Writer

(AP) Journalists are being far too timid in reporting the news, and the public is poorly informed about the media’s role in democracy, veteran journalist Bill Kovach told media ombudsmen on Tuesday.

Kovach, a former editor for The New York Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, addressed a conference of newspaper and broadcast ombudsmen discussing journalists’ role after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The conference of the Organization of News Ombudsmen opened Sunday and runs through Wednesday.

“Are you an American first, or are you a journalist?” Kovach asked the audience.

He said he does not think the role has changed, and he believes that ombudsmen should be teaching readers: “In a democratic society the journalist is, in fact, exercising the highest form of citizenship by monitoring the events in the community.”

Journalists are at their patriotic best when they are questioning the actions of those in authority, he said: “Journalism and self-government rise or fall together.”

Kovach suggested reporters are falling asleep at their posts.

“An awful lot of news organizations are far, far more timid than I would like them to be … far, far more timid than they have any right to be,” he said.

He called the use of CIA agents as combatants in Afghanistan a fundamental change in U.S. policy that will have far-reaching effects. “None of us have examined it. None of us have even discussed it,” he said.

One journalist suggested to Kovach that some things might best be left unsaid. Israel Rosenblatt of Tel Aviv’s Maariv said he fields complaints from readers who often do not want details of the Israeli military’s tactics published.

Kovach said that for the public to make meaningful decisions about whether to support or oppose a public policy, the media need to provide stories where the information — and its source — are laid bare.

Imagine, he said, if the media had publicized top military leaders’ private doubts about the Vietnam War in 1964 or ’65. “There’d be a hell of a lot fewer names on that wall in Washington,” he said.

Lillian Swanson, assistant managing editor and ombudsman for The Philadelphia Inquirer, asked how to make it clear that quality journalism leads to a financially successful newspaper.

Kovach said there is no simple answer.

“We just have to, in every way possible, educate the public just a little more about why we do what we do and why it’s important to them — and hope they are the ones who write the publisher,” he said.

On the Net: http://www.newsombudsmen.org

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