THERE are those who would like to think that the press in the United States has turned the corner on ethics - and is significantly more responsible now than in the past in its reporting and its conduct of business.
Flagrant instances of abuse notwithstanding, there are some good reasons for this optimism.
But before there are any shouts of congratulation, it might be well to consult the general public to see if confidence in the media is on the rise among readers, viewers, and listeners. Many surveys indicate that it is not. In fact, in some respects it may be on the decline.
The situation adds up to what Rodgers and Hammerstein's King of Siam refers to musically as a ''puzzlement.'' If the press is behaving itself better, why the continued public mistrust?
An Ohio University journalism professor, Ralph S. Izard, may have part of the answer. He says that the ''decline in public respect for the media runs hand-in-hand with decline in respect for all major institutions - government, schools, big business, churches.'' Mr. Izard is conducting a series of surveys on media ethics under the aegis of the Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi.
But general skepticism can't be the whole reason. If it were, then the press might just bite the bullet and say: We'll do the best we can. The public will just have to work things out for itself.
Fortunately, some of the media are looking in the mirror and pulling up their socks. Among other things, they are penning ethics guidelines for their staffs, conducting workshops on reportorial conduct and libel, and making tough editorial decisions to avoid anything that remotely smacks of conflict of interest.
More broadly, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) is embarking on a national research study to look for ways to help editors and media managers grapple with their eroding credibility. David Lawrence, editor of the Detroit Free Press and chairman of the ASNE's credibility committee, is quoted in Editor & Publisher, the trade weekly, as saying that ''the biggest discussion going on in journalism today is credibility.''
The American Press Institute (API) recently held a first-of-its-kind seminar for writers and editors on ''The Public Perception of Newspapers.'' Participants pinpointed these public assessments, including criticisms, of the print media:
* Reporters and editors don't always understand the complex situations they are required to report.
* Because newspapers report controversy, readers think they are enamored of bad news.
* Readers often see reporters as arrogant, insensitive people. And they are sometimes offended by what they feel is poor taste, bad manners, and uncaring feelings in story content.
* Readers say they are at the mercy of the media. And they demand higher standards than they have in the past.
* Minorities and other special-interest groups feel greatly underrepresented in the news mix.
Interestingly, participants in the seminar concluded that newspapers ''may have become too timid in the face of reader criticism.'' And they warned that there is risk of excessive self-flagellation on the part of the media.
Further, they protested that newspapers may be doing a better job of explaining themselves to readers - but that the audience doesn't like the explanations.
Recommendations to bolster public confidence include better reader access through letters to the editor, guest editorial page columns, community forums, and availability of editors, newspaper ombudsmen, or both; stronger staff orientation to ''beats,'' including a better grasp of history and culture in relation to social problems; inclusion of more minorities and women in staff mix; and a pinpointing of neglected areas or gaps in coverage.
Professor Izard says his research indicates that ''journalists are demonstrating a greater willingness to be compassionate.'' And he adds that there is significant progress in shoring up ethical standards by both the electronic and print media. The researcher enumerates examples of how the press is increasingly using restraint in reporting sensitive stories involving rape victims, suicides, victims of crime, bomb threats, and the family problems of public figures. There are no formulas, and decisions are almost always made on a case-by-case basis. He stresses, however, that there is often little consensus among media managers on how to handle these problems.
In the face of an increase in libel suits against the media and continued public and private criticism, Izard and others predict further moves toward ethical responsibility. The API seminar participants defined the problem on the broadest scale - in terms of survival of the media in a free society.
''Credibility is interrelated with freedom of the press,'' they concluded. ''Public perception of newspapers will affect the degree of the public's support of that freedom.''