Message to media: use, but don't abuse, First Amendment

If America's media aren't getting the message loud and clear, it's not because critics haven't been speaking up. The reaction to press coverage, especially of sensitive issues, has been coming from across the board - the private sector, government, the general public, and even from the media's own leaders.

Their message: clean up your act; use more restraint and good taste in print and on the airwaves; be selective in what you put on the tube; balance a right to know with a need to know.

And the warning has an ominous ring: If the media don't control themselves, somebody (probably legislators and the courts) will do it for them.

Some of this is already happening. For instance, there have been federal and state efforts to tighten the screws on freedom of information and limit press access to classified or confidential government and industry data; attempts at prior restraint (preventing publication and broadcasting of material some party deems sensitive); megabuck libel verdicts which sometimes chill the ardor of news organizations in pursuit of certain kinds of stories; and jailing of reporters who refuse to divulge confidential sources.

All bad business which endangers vital press freedoms. But it's no longer sufficient to just wave the American flag or the First Amendment and lament tattered liberties. Enlightened response is needed - and it must be measured and studied.

What form should it take? Stopping the presses, muffling the mikes, and cutting the kliegs?

By no means. Nothing so drastic.

How about licensing reporters - as some suggest? Or appointing ''watchdog'' press councils to slap the wrists of wrongdoers?

Inappropriate stuff. The First Amendment will do quite nicely, thank you. It needs no help from new regulations or restrictions. But it must be used wisely - not abused with abandon.

Actually, the idea of employing constitutionally guaranteed freedoms with restraint comes not from press-baiters but from within the fraternity. Louis D. Boccardi, executive vice-president of the Associated Press, recently raised the following question with colleagues at the AP's annual meeting: ''Have we reached a point where we must recognize an obligation not to do some things the First Amendment gives us every right to do? Have we acquired some habits that need to be broken?'' Mr. Boccardi answered yes to both questions.

He added that it's no longer enough for the media to busy themselves with ''defenses of the status quo.'' In his view, there are clear press rights, such as attendance in the courtroom for reportorial purposes. But there are also questionable press practices, such as publication of grand jury minutes or leaked indictments.

Another example Boccardi cites is a need for responsible judgment and perhaps restraint on the part of media officials: ''When American mothers and fathers learn of the death of their Marine son, their grief is part of the story. It's part of the nation's agony, and we must tell it. But must we be at their side with our camera when the Marine major breaks the news? I think not, but we are.''

These remarks speak to public concerns. A recent survey by the Roper Organization indicated that two out of every three people feel that the press should stop interviewing people ''immediately after they have lost someone in an accident or a violent crime and asking them how they feel about it.'' The same poll reported that nearly half of those interviewed felt that the news media ''should stop publishing evidence against someone accused of a crime before the trial takes place.'' But only one-third felt that ''the press should stop reporting personal information on public figures - the drinking habits of a senator or the sexual behavior of a congressman.''

These are the kinds of questions editors and news directors face daily. The ethics committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) has compiled a booklet on how 31 news-room chiefs have solved their toughest ethical dilemmas. The sagas range from issues raised in crime reporting to whether to run data on politicians' personal lives and vivid descriptions of suffering. ''Do we report it?'' ''When do we report it?'' ''How do we report it?'' These were the key questions asked by most of the editors. The impact on those involved as well as on innocent parties was often a major consideration.

''Newspapers obviously are not always right and are not always compassionate, '' points out William B. Ketter, editor of the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass. ''But one thing is certain. We are always burdened by the very real consequences of our decisions.''

It is sometimes suggested that press guidelines, whether national or at another level, would help the media toe the line. However, many editors would oppose a specific set of rules. They would prefer to look at sensitive issues on a case-by-case basis.

Frank McCulloch, executive editor of McClatchy Newspapers and editor of the ASNE compilation, states the issue well: ''The cost of restraint is sometimes as high as the cost of publication: loss of revenue, frustration, and low morale. But one test of an ethical newspaper is whether it must act, on occasion, against its obvious or convenient self-interest for some high purpose.

''In the long run, readers will respect and support a publication that can be both aggressive in the pursuit of truth and responsible in its handling of sensitive information,'' he concludes.

Amen. The voice of truth doesn't have to be strident and ruthless. Soft and sensitive goes well with integrity.

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