Press Gets Blame for Public Cynicism
Trust in public figures falls; some say journalists are too negative
(Page 2 of 2)
Hume agrees. ''Reporters' assumption is that they are being lied to and that the motives of the person in question are evil motives. Democracy can't function if literally every move is assumed to be against the public interest and only serving private interest.''Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But others say there has always been negative reporting. ''I defy anyone who studies history to read coverage of Franklin Roosevelt, Wilson, Lincoln, or Jefferson, and find a time when there wasn't an enormous amount of negative coverage of political figures,'' says Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalists at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and former editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Mr. Kovach says he doesn't think the press as a whole is intentionally being cynical.
''Part of what's happening is that the press has been awkward and kind of careless in how it produces its work. Material is presented is an way that suggests everything [the reporters] have found is wrong or a matter of serious concern.''
Kovach also notes that while negative stories have always been a part of press coverage, the difference today is that more areas -- such as politicians' sexual morality -- are reported on ''and there are hundreds of channels where the public can get this material.''
MARVIN KALB, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard and a former CBS and NBC News correspondent, agrees that cynicism is a problem: ''The press doesn't take the people seriously and the people don't take the press seriously.'' But he rejects the notion that the public is losing faith in its institutions because of negative reporting.
''That assumes that if the press reported only good things it would be doing its job, which it would not, and that people would immediately become optimistic,'' he says. ''It doesn't follow.''
Public cynicism about politicians has been around for a long time, says Herbert Gans, a sociologist at Columbia University in New York. He says that according to polling data, the current decline in public trust of politicians and institutions dates to 1964, before Watergate and Vietnam became issues. ''Why they started to go down is not real clear.... Some economic indices show that's when real wages stopped climbing.''
Dr. Sabato, whose 1991 book ''Feeding Frenzy'' recounted press treatment of several recent scandals, says that reporting's impact on Americans is overrated, since the public often isn't paying much attention to it. ''Press cynicism reflects public cynicism,'' he says. ''The press may be deepening public cynicism, but the public is not an empty vessel into which the press is pouring all this cynicism.''
Observers suggest several solutions to press negativity. ''I think what it takes is a little bit of reflection and perspective,'' Patterson says. To tell the story of a bag of mail hidden under a Chicago bridge is one thing, he says, but to suggest that this is an example of the general ineptness of a bascially efficient United States Postal Service is something else.''
Mr. Kalb says the press has become ''much too intrusive in the private lives of public officials.'' He says it ''ought to be distinctive about itself, be clear about what it means to be in the news business as opposed to what it means to be entertainers.''
Journalists need to spend more time explaining to the public ''in union, school, and civic meetings,'' what they do and why, Kovach says. 'He also says the media must provide more context so that the public better understands the significance of a story.
''Journalists are starting to get it,'' Ms. Hume says. She says the press must involve the public in discussion of the issues before government, and ''not just cover it as a sporting event'' with journalists ''just keeping the score.'' Hume cites the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, where reporters solicit questions from the public and then put them to officials and candidates. ''Some very creative work is being done attempting to cover politics and government and what matters,'' she says.