News Industry Anguish Over Crumbling Credibility p.8

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By: Joe Nicholson Latest survey finds that a majority of the public doesn't trust the media's reporting anymore

A majority of Americans profess to losing faith in news media accuracy following recent confessions of incorrect and fabricated reporting, according to a poll on July 9 and 10. And pollsters said media credibility may have slumped to an all-time low.
By a lopsided 62%-to-30%, Americans told Princeton Survey Research Associates that recent media sins make them less likely to trust reporting. The 30% minority dismissed the scandals as "isolated incidents."
Media credibility has declined "across the board," said Larry Hugick, director of the polling firm's media and political surveys. "To some degree it will rise and fall. But there is also a cumulative factor here."
The poll was commissioned by Newsweek, which published the results in the July 20 issue. Additional information shows that since the firm's first poll on media credibility in 1985, Americans who believe "all or most" of local newspaper content has eroded to 21%, from 28%.
Local TV news credibility declined over the same period to 25%, from 34%, as network TV news believability skidded to 22%, from 32%, and average faith in Newsweek and Time dropped to 17.5%, from 25%. Of those polled, 16% put high faith in radio news. But the least faith was accorded to online media. Just 6% believe most of what they find online ? a medium not measured in earlier Princeton polls.
The poll was taken after four recent media scandals: CNN and Time magazine retracted an erroneous joint report about nerve gas in Vietnam; a New Republic magazine writer was fired for fabricating stories; a Boston Globe columnist was forced out after inventing sources in several columns; and the Cincinnati Enquirer fired a reporter and withdrew a major series found to be based on stolen voice mail.
Whether credibility rebounds or continues downward may depend on future media missteps, said Hugick.
Coverage of White House intern Monica Lewinsky also has contributed to distrust: 56% of Americans said the media "seriously mishandled" her story. The poll also reflects the perception that the news media are moving toward entertainment and are influenced by competition and pressure for higher ratings and profit. The poll found Americans, by a 76-20 margin, agree the news media have gone "too far in the direction of entertainment and away from traditional reporting."
Seven in 10 Americans believe journalists now are more affected by the desire to be celebrities orto profit from personal fame, and 77% believe journalists are under greater pressure from the top to boost ratings or profits.
Only one in three Americans discerns a greater desire among journalists to report fairly and accurately, while 35% said journalists are less inclined to report fairly and accurately.
The survey found media credibility even lower than was reported several months ago by the nonprofit Pew Research Center For The People & The Press. Pew pollsters found 29% of the public rated daily newspapers highly credible, compared with 34% for local TV news and 25.5% for newsmagazines. The supermarket tabloid National Enquirer has few believers: 3%.
Declining trust in media is "new to the '90s," said Pew poll director Molly Sonner, marking a shift from the mid '80s, when "people were much more likely to give the media the benefit of the doubt." The rise of news options such as cable TV and the Internet drives consumers to choose information sources based on credibility, she said.
Network news anchors are more credible than their networks, the poll found, with Dan Rather rated highly credible by 36%, and Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw 37%. Among famous Americans, only Colin Powell's 41% beat the anchors, while TV host Oprah Winfrey rated 27%, President Clinton 17%, talk radio host Rush Limbaugh 8%, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich 6% ? lowest among those surveyed.
The news media have themselves to blame, according to James Gentry, dean of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas. "You've got the major TV networks and major 'prestige' newspapers looking to the tabloid press and tabloid TV shows for 'news' leads," said Gentry, who worked on newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s. "I can't recall anybody in those days taking their story leads from the Star and Enquirer."
Gentry also expressed concern about the role of media bosses and the pressures they exert "to maintain the profit margin. It could be a part of this."
Newspapers with annual subscriber churns of 50% to 70% may opt for "splashier stuff" over expensive investigative work, he suggested, adding, "There is a lot of lightweight stuff that passes as journalism now. We're headed in the wrong direction. I'm pessimistic."
Gentry, who gets besieged with questions whenever he socializes with people from other fields, confessed, "You almost want to identify yourself as an IRS agent so you don't have to talk about these ethical issues all the time."
At the University of Colorado in Boulder, j-school dean Willard Rowland recalled the days of the partisan press. The current media debate is based largely on the bogus premise of a "golden age" of newspaper objectivity, he argued, adding, "There never was such a moment."Instead of wringing their hands about public perception, journalists ought to rededicate themselves "to report accurately and to consider all relevant dimensions of a story," Rowland said.
The American Society of Newspaper Editors has commissioned a newspaper credibility survey scheduled for release in October. Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of the Oregonian in Portland and former ASNE president, spearheaded the effort.
In an interview, Rowe said the public has a right to hold media organizations accountable for ethical lapses, but "what's troubling is if underneath that they just don't trust us."
Rowe fears credibility problems are rooted in doubts about the character of newspapers, what they choose to cover and how. If that is so, she said, credibility issues may mask deeper dissatisfaction with the product.
Reporters and editors can't assume they're doing the best job possible by maintaining they've "got to be the bulldogs, and go out and get it, and slam it in the paper."
Rowe sees no trend emerging over the last 20 years and remains "proud of the work we do in daily newspapers." She rejected the idea of a "single cause" for the credibility drop and warned, "There is not going to be any easy way out of this."
?( Credibility Ebb
Where do you get most of your news about current events?
61% Television
24% Newspapers
8% Radio
1% Magazines
2% Internet or online services

How much of what you see, hear or read in the news media do you think you can believe?
11% Almost all of it
35% Most of it
42% Only some
11% Very little

In competition for ratings and profits, have the news media gone too far in the direction of entertainment and away from traditional reporting?
76% Yes, gone too far
20% No, not too far
People who believe "all or most" of what's in media
Compared with the past, is journalists' reporting today more likely, less likely or about as likely to be influenced by: (percent saying more likely)
71% Competitive pressure from other journalists for a story
77% Pressure from media owners and news executives for higher ratings and profits
70% A desire to become a celebrity or make money from personal fame
33% A desire to report the news fairly and accurately

Are recent cases of media inaccuracy isolated incidents, or do they make you less likely to trust the media's reporting?
30% Isolated incidents
62% Less likely to trust media ) [Caption]

?(Source: Newsweek/Princeton Survey Research Associates) [Caption]

?( Editor & Publisher Web Site: http://www.mediainfo. com) [Caption]
?(copyrigh: Editor & Publisher July 18, 1998) [Caption]

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