Car chases and inanity aside, state of the media not so bad

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If you were looking for reasons to kick the media, you may have found a few good examples when flipping channels last week.

Even the most ardent followers of Fox News probably rolled their eyes last Tuesday when the 24-hour news channel devoted more than an hour to a garden-variety car chase in Los Angeles - seemingly unconcerned that its audience is national and not particularly impacted by a single L.A. auto theft. And even Larry King's biggest fan must have smirked when on April 3, during a roundtable discussion on Pope John Paul II's passing, Mr. King asked actor Jim Caviezel, who played Christ Jesus in Mel Gibson's "Passion": "Jim, you think he's with Jesus now? We only have 30 seconds."

It's hard to know what's worse, the fact that Mr. King reduced such a dramatic question to the time usually allotted to "So who do you like in the American League Central?" or the fact that the question was aimed not at a Catholic theologian but at an actor. Mr. Caviezel has also played golfer Bobby Jones. Perhaps King should have him back on to talk about the Masters.

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You can have all the discussions you like about bias in the press to the left or to the right, but when you get right down to it, the real challenge the press is facing today is more elemental. It's about how the news media are doing their job. When I'm not writing columns for the Monitor, I work for the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, which every year does the State of the American News Media. The report is available at www.stateofthemedia.com .

We look at major media sectors to evaluate what and how they're doing on content, audience, economics, ownership, investment in news gathering, and the public's attitudes toward the media. What we found wasn't all bad. Indeed the term "American news media" is so broad now, including everything from newspapers to blogs, it's nearly impossible to make any meaningful sweeping statement about it. There were some good signs. The great segmenting of the media into liberal and conservative - blue and red - outlets seems to have been overstated, at least at this point. People are getting news from a wide variety of sources, not just those they think are "on their side." And revenues were up for most news companies.

And press critics from both sides will find some support. In the nearly 17,000 stories examined, the campaign coverage of President Bush was three times as negative as coverage of John Kerry, though considering the bad news last year - from a weak economy to troubles in Iraq to rising oil prices - that may not be shocking. And yes, as it has been widely reported, the Project did find Fox News featured much more opinion than its cable brethren, but it also did a better job of identifying sources. The picture is considerably more complex than those on the right or the left would have you believe.

The larger question raised is about the future of reporting. The amount of money put into newsgathering - like reporters and news bureaus - is taking some hits even as the revenue picture improves for news outlets. The Internet, which is experiencing the fastest audience growth, isn't seeing big increases in resources; it's seeing cuts. More than 60 percent of Web newsroom workers say they've seen staff cuts in the past three years.

But the biggest question about the future of the news media may not really concern the media as much as it concerns you, the people whom we once called "news consumers." After a lot of talk, the brave new media world where people graze multiple outlets for news is becoming reality. With umpteen choices available on TV and the Internet, studies show you're beginning to pick and choose what you read and watch very selectively - some political news from this website, some sports from that cable channel, some gossip from the other blog. This is good: It's freedom. But with freedom, there's a tradeoff: responsibility.

The media explosion has made you all much more than consumers. The number of outlets available to you now is breathtaking. You have unprecedented control over what you see, hear, and read. You are your own personal editors and, in some cases (like blogs), even reporters.

Where is it all headed? That's not yet completely clear. But one thing is: It's easy to snicker at car chases and silly interviews; it can even be cathartic. But the options available to you now mean you can reach beyond all of it, if you really want to.

And editing your own personal news may have larger effects as well. It may even have an impact on what the news media publish, air, and post. What if news outlets saw that interviewing actors as experts didn't bring viewers? What if they threw a car chase and no one came to watch?

Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.

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