Why Do So Many People Distrust the Press? Television's One Reason

New polls show an increasing public distrust of the press. In fact, one study indicates that two-thirds of the American people feel we are biased. Why this growing credibility problem for those who need, above all, to be believed if they are to get their job of communicating done?

Some critics of the press say a better educated public is a more skeptical audience. But most observers who keep a close eye on the news media are concluding that too many reporters these days are allowing their own points of view to be a part of what they are writing.

Well, I've got my own "angle" on this credibility decline: I'm convinced we lost a substantial amount of our ability to persuade readers that we were impartial conveyors of information when so many of us become actors by appearing on television.

Some print journalists carefully guard their words against bias when they're on TV. But whether they admit it or not, they have become entertainers in a medium that makes journalistic claims but is so much a stage.

Television is seductive for even the best and most honorable of reporters. Under the TV lights the journalist inevitably feels the need to make a good impression. Soon, his point of view - what many onlookers will view as bias - will be out there for all to see.

I recall how seductive those TV cameras used to be when over the years I popped up to ask questions of several presidents. I made up my mind to keep my questions professionally short and to the point. But it was always tempting to ask a follow-up question and thereby stay on camera.

Have you noticed at presidential press conferences how often reporters sound more like prosecutors than journalists when they ask questions? They likely are showing off for the television audience - demonstrating how tough and important they are by indicating they can "take on" the president. Yet by doing so, they don't endear themselves to the audience.

TALK shows, where newsmen and newswomen who are affiliated with highly regarded print publications yell for attention and try to outshout the others, have really damaged journalistic credibility. One friend of mine who appeared on these shows likened them to mud wrestling. And I don't know how many times I've heard fellow journalists refer to what goes on in these programs - even those where the participants keep their voices down - as show business.

The results often are entertaining. And the journalists who participate find their appearances profitable: They pick up fat lecture fees. But the shouters demean and taint our profession. And all participants invariably reveal their biases. It is so difficult to otherwise express a strong point of view.

Should a print journalist refuse to appear on TV panel programs, or even provide political assessments on television where there is, again, a big temptation to express personal bias? About half a century ago, when television was just breaking onto the scene, I might have advised that course.

But TV has been around a long time and is here to stay, widening, if not necessarily improving, the world of journalism. So today I can merely observe that the print journalist must realize that he's risking his reputation for objectivity when entering the TV arena. Melding old-time journalism with entertainment-driven television has contributed greatly to the public's growing feeling that the press is biased.

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