Media responsibility

Keith S. Collins is executive director of Citizen's Choice National Commission on Free and Responsible Media.

KNOCK the news media, and you'll almost certainly spark applause. Increasingly, you'll also draw nods of agreement from the news media.

Public resentment toward the media is no secret. The National Opinion Research Center recently found that only 13.7 percent of the American public has ''a great deal of confidence'' in the American press. A dramatic illustration of the low standing of the press came when the public apparently gleefully rejected the media's contention that their representatives should have been allowed to land on Grenada with the first marines.

A number of groups have sprung up to protest media ''irresponsibility.'' Accuracy in Media (AIM), take a contentious, ideological approach. AIM fires off letters to editors and producers on what it sees as inaccurate reporting; introduces resolutions on responsiblity at shareholder meetings; and sees a left-wing bias in almost every major network and news organization. Other groups take a quieter approach to media criticism. The Social Leadership Project of George Washington University, headed by Linda and Robert Lichter, has publicized widely its findings of a liberal bias in the personal views of ''the media elite'' - the ''leading figures'' in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, and the news departments of CBS, NBC, ABC, and PBS. Press executives have sometimes accused the Lichters of antimedia bias, but the Lichters say their rigorous methodology precludes bias from influencing their results. The study, of course, is of only a few East Coast institutions and not the media as a whole, which are decidedly more conservative. The Lichters are now trying to determine if the personal views of these ''elite'' media people influence the way news is reported.

Many other organizations conduct studies of media performance, including the Citizen's Choice National Commission on Free and Responsible Media, which plans to publish a report this year detailing the views of media, business, government , and academic leaders on the media today. Some groups are more strident than others, but almost all share a common goal: to strengthen the First Amendment by encouraging the media to undergo self-examination and correct their own faults before the people - and worse, the government - feel forced to do so.

The media are responding. They are waking up, if slowly, to the danger of ignoring public dissatisfaction with the press. Some examples:

* Thirty or so newspapers have established ombudsmen and media critics to monitor their papers - and the press in general - in their own columns. One of the best is David Shaw, media writer for the Los Angeles Times. ''For too many years,'' he says, ''the press was a powerful institution dedicated to the critical examination of every other powerful instutition in society - except itself.'' Mr. Shaw covers ethical issues such as invasion of privacy and reporters who lie, analyzes his own paper's news coverage as well as that of the media as a whole, and generally opens up what to many is a world of mystery - the newspaper and its people.

* Some news organizations have looked inward. Gannett Corporation, publisher of some 85 daily newspapers, creates an extremely well edited insert for its in-house magazine called Editorially Speaking. It challenges Gannett employees to think carefully about issues of credibility, responsibility, and morality.

* Groups and individuals closely involved with the media have set up dialogues between members of the press and their critics. Fred Friendly, former CBS News president, brings media people together with other members of the public in his Media and Society seminars to untangle ethically complex, hypothetical cases so that each side can learn how the other views the issues.

It is true, as many supporters of the media have said, that the First Amendment requires the press only to be free, not responsible. But that freedom is hollow if the press is so distrusted by the people that the freedom is in danger of being curtailed. The First Amendment is only as powerful as the will of the people to support it.

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