Uncynical Reporters

STOP the presses: A new survey has found that journalists are not cynical -- or at least not as cynical as the public at large.

The major objective of the survey, by the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press, in Washington, was ''to get different perspectives on the burgeoning public discontent with the news media'' that has been reflected in public opinion polls.

The survey, perhaps unsurprisingly, showed the media giving themselves better grades than they got from the public on such things as coverage of the Clinton administration, or their performance in their larger ''watchdog role.''

A Washington editor put it this way: ''Our function in a democracy is to hold up to the public things they have the ability to change, through their votes or pressures on their public officials. We don't need to tell people that their roads are okay, because they don't need to do anything about that.''

This unfortunately translates into a notion that ''the media focus only on bad news,'' and perception gaps like these no doubt account for some of that ''burgeoning public discontent.''

Among the self-critiques of the media emerging from this survey were an acknowledgment that they do not report good news adequately, and that they don't cover complex stories well.

But it was remarkable to see the survey finding that newspeople are more likely than average citizens to think that politicians are honest and ethical. Moreover, average citizens are more distrusting than journalists of business executives, the military, and religious leaders.

And that's not all: Ordinary folks have a generally more cynical world view than members of Congress, business executives, and community leaders. ''Talk show hosts are the only group of influentials to match the cynicism expressed by the American public in this survey,'' the study said.

Now it's certainly true that journalists, who get a chance to meet a lot of public figures, warts and all, would have plenty of opportunity to be cynical. As a New York network executive told Times Mirror, reporters ''see people lie a lot.''

But journalists also get to see a lot of intelligence, hard work, and engaging humanity from politicians and other public figures. In a reverse of the proverb, such familiarity breeds not contempt but appreciation.

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