While discussing his goals for the coming year, incoming president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Robert H. Giles of the Detroit News, pointed both to continuation of programs that were begun by his predecessors and to undertaking new projects.
The principle program, already underway, is the Journalism Values Institute, which will continue, he said. The institute is designed to bring newspeople together with the public to discuss readers' concerns and other such issues.
"Out of this will come a set of thoughts about the values of newspapers and the values readers perceive about newspapers," Giles said.
In addition, the Institute for Journalism Excellence also will continue its work of bringing journalism educators to work at newspapers.
"This is particularly significant because of the need for journalism teachers to be more familiar with contemporary practices in our newsrooms," he said.
But simply continuing the work of his predecessors is not going to be the hallmark of Giles' presidency. He already has two specific ? and ambitious ? projects on the table.
The first is the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act, in which ASNE will take the lead, Giles said.
"We're going to be having a symposium in Washington in September at the Freedom Forum," Giles said. "We're going to be making an effort to advance some ideas about updating the Freedom of Information Act to make it more effective."
Further, he continued, ASNE plans "to develop a long-term education program to help the public understand more clearly the critical importance of freedom of information in our democratic society."
The other new development is the creation of a Newspaper Content committee.
"It represents my thought that the Society needs to be engaged in assessing the content of newspapers with the idea of helping editors understand the relationship between quality of content and the value that newspapers represent to our readers," Giles explained.
The committee, whose first meeting will take place during the April convention, plans to "examine coverage of five or six major stories during the year by the news organizations that serve newspapers, such as the Associated Press, Reuters, New York Times News Service, the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service, Gannett News Service, Knight-Ridder, Tribune.
"I feel very strongly that newspapers can best recapture or raise their credibility with readers by becoming the most reliable sources of information," Giles continued, adding that will be helped by this "assessment of how we cover the news."
Giles explained that, "One of the things that troubles me about newspapers' performance, I think, is that reporters and editors need to know more about the issues we cover, the complex stories that are in our newspapers every day.
"We need to be smarter about how we report on some of these complex stories," he said. "I think too often we are vulnerable to manipulation by special-interest groups who put a very sophisticated spin on stories that don't stand up to rigorous review.
"I hope newspapers can help readers get a realistic picture of controversial issues at an earlier stage," he said.
"Eventually, the truth comes out, often many months after the story has been presented, perhaps in a skewed way, because people presenting the information understand the issue better than reporters."
As examples, Giles cited coverage of Alar, asbestos in schools, and the changing version of the silicone breast-implant story.
"I think in all those cases, newspapers could've done a better job ferreting our the facts in the beginning, rather than waiting months, or in some cases years, for a more balanced version of events to emerge," he said.
Giles stressed that this is "not really an effort to tell people what to put in their papers, but rather to help editors understand, in the aftermath, what elements they may have considered, how they looked at stories, how to play them, what might have been missing, where to have gone to make it a more balanced report.
"Clearly this is a learning process. It's not an effort to rate stories, giving them grades, ranking news services, or anything of the kind," he added.
Agreeing that those are ambitious projects, Giles said he hopes "to make a good start on it this year and that the succeeding generation of ASNE leaders can develop the idea."
Outgoing president William Ketter of the Quincy, Mass., Patriot Ledger also had his pet projects and, like Giles, pointed to the importance of continuity.
Discussing the importance of the Journalism Values Institute, Ketter said he believes "that we face no greater challenges today than trying to understand what the public expects from us."
"After we determine what those expectations are, we are trying to meet them without endangering the essential, special role that the press holds in this country," he added.
Ketter noted, however, that he does not think "newspapers should be warm and fuzzy, like the family pet. They do not even have to be popular. But they should seek respect as credible providers of news and opinion."
From the symposia already held, Ketter said ASNE learned that "the public agrees with our core principles of fairness, balance, accuracy, access and community leadership, but they don't think we practice them much."
Journalism's own "inability to explain ourselves to the public" and "trash journalism," for which even non-offenders get blamed, were cited by Ketter as the source of the public's mistrust."
Ketter urged his successor "to look at how ASNE can develop a program that will distinguish the media targets by breed and purpose.
"We're not the National Enquirer, we're not Sally Jesse Raphael, we're not Geraldo. We're mainstream newspapers with a public purpose: to provide information to allow people to conduct their lives, make political choices and to serve as guardians against abuses of power," he said.
Another area Ketter concentrated on during his term was identifying young readers and determining what they want in newspapers.A major study, to be released at the convention, found that people aged 16-29 are not using newspapers as information sources, but that the tide can be turned if newspapers treat them differently.
For example, Ketter said, the study found that these potential readers "don't like to be patronized in special sections and ignored in the main news sections" and they do not like to be portrayed in the newspaper as either devils or angels.
"They don't want us to generalize about them and they don't want us to talk down to them," Ketter said. "They want us to show concern for what they know, what they think and what they are striving to learn."
A third area of concentration for Ketter was fighting challenges to the First Amendment, including the defeated proposal for an amendment banning desecration of the American flag, which is expected to be reintroduced in the next Congress; and the lawsuit challenging speech restrictions in the Computer Decency Act in the telecommunications law. Ketter said he was deliberately proactive because he believed ASNE "had become too passive on our primary mission. One of our core things is to be a guardian of the First Amendment.
With all that he was able to accomplish, there were inevitably some things that simply could not be done. Ketter counted among them studying the issue of change in newsrooms, and how newspapers are making and adjusting to it; making more connections between journalism schools and newsrooms, beyond the program for journalism educators; new media; and focusing on community journalism and small newspapers.
But there are only so many hours in a day, and even though he racked up more than 100,000 miles during the year, Ketter noted that he still had to balance ASNE leadership with his regular duties at the Patriot Ledger, which went through a tough year itself, and with his first year on the Pulitzer Prize board.
"I guess the biggest unexpected thing was that it [the ASNE presidency] took more time and energy than I thought would be necessary," Ketter said.
?("It represents my thought that the
Society needs to be engaged in assessing the content of
newspapers with the idea of helping editors understand
between quality of content and the value that newspapers
represent to our readers.") [Caption]
?( ? Robert Giles, incoming American Society of Newspaper Editors president, and editor and publisher of the Detroit News) [Photo & Caption]
?("We're not the National Enquirer, we're not Sally Jesse Raphael, we're not Geraldo. We're mainstream newspapers with a public purpose: to provide information to allow people to conduct their lives, make political choices and to serve as guardians against abuses of power.") [Caption]
?( ? William Ketter, outgoing American Society of Newspaper Editors president, and editor of the Quincy, Mass., Patriot Ledger) [Caption & Photo]
By: Debra Gersh Hernandez AS WITH MOST peaceful transitions of power, some initiatives begun under earlier administrations continue and new ones are proposed.