THE newspaper editors of the United States are meeting in Washington this week for their annual convention, and again this year a key topic for discussion will be the credibility of the press. At last year's convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), the organization presented a research report on credibility. It was initiated because readers of newspapers and viewers of television news had become very critical. The men and women who direct the country's news operations wanted to know the extent of the problem, and wanted to know what to do about it.
The survey results were pretty gloomy. Polling some 1,600 adult newspaper readers, professional researchers found widespread criticism that the press exploits people, rather than serving as watchdog for the people. Many of those polled felt the press invades the privacy of ordinary people -- particularly in depicting the grief of those overtaken by tragedy or disaster. There was also widespread feeling that there is political bias in newspapers and skepticism as to whether papers are fair to other candidates after they've endorsed one candidate on the editorial page.
Many editors took the findings seriously and started looking for ways to improve credibility. ASNE had a number of suggestions. Some of them sounded like stricter adherence to good old-fashioned journalistic principles. ``Be fair, unbiased, accurate, complete, factual, professional, aggressive and compassionate,'' the ASNE report exhorted. It urged editors to be accessible to readers, to treat people in the news with empathy, and to make greater efforts to explain a newspaper's role, problems, and methods of presenting news, editorials, and opinion.
All this is very good. But now comes a complication. The respected Times Mirror Company, publishers of the Los Angeles Times, commissioned its own poll. Excerpts from it, and comments upon it, have lately been appearing as advertisements in papers.
The poll's primary finding is this: ``There is no credibility crisis for the nation's news media. If credibility is defined as believability, then credibility is, in fact, one of the media's strongest suits.''
Contrast this with the ASNE report's conclusion that ``three-fourths of all adults have some problem with the credibility of the media, and they question newspapers just as much as they question television. Results from the national survey indicate that one-fifth of all adults deeply distrust the news media.''
Both polls were conducted by experts. The ASNE poll was undertaken by MORI Research Inc. and cost $100,000. The Times Mirror poll was conducted by the Gallup Organization and cost $250,000.
In a thoughtful discussion of all this in the current issue of Editor & Publisher, Robert P. Clark, the outgoing president of ASNE, suggests that the Times Mirror survey has confused credibility with believability. Mr. Clark writes: ``People have a favorable impression of the media, Gallup says. Despite the media's failings, people believe in the press and appreciate its watchdog role. . . . So they can overlook our faults of performance and the outside influences on us.'' Clark says this is where he has trouble with the Gallup findings. There is, he says, ``danger in the `no crisis' spin taken by Gallup and Times Mirror.''
So ASNE at its convention this week will issue a handbook to its members on ways to improve press credibility. It is working on a videotape on the same subject. There will be workshop sessions at the convention on improving credibility.
Clark says ASNE's leadership remains concerned about credibility as a problem. Yes, the public may have warm feelings toward the media. Yes, it may find the news media ``believable.'' But, says Clark, there are obviously many things wrong -- things the press can fix.
If, says Mr. Clark, the press looks at itself with realism as well as optimism, it will improve the performance, standards, and quality of our newspapers.
That is not bad counsel as the country's newspaper editors gather.