News Media Seek Credibility

Journalistic groups hope to redeem views of the press in projects launched this fall.

Lynele Jones used to force herself to keep up with the news. A single mother in Colorado, she sees it as an important part of being a citizen. But now she doesn't make so much of an effort. Not because she's any less civic-minded. It's the news that's changed.

"I just don't think very much of what's covered is worth bringing up in conversations with my friends," says Ms. Jones.

She is not alone. The American media are in the midst of a credibility crisis. Buffeted by the bottom line and fierce competition, newsmakers have become more desperate than ever to keep the public's attention. The result: more grab-you-by-lapels, sensational coverage of crime and malfeasance, delivered with just a hint of cynicism. The public's response? Newspaper circulation continues to decline or stay flat. Network news audiences are still plummeting.

Alarms about the deteriorating state of the press have been raised for more than a decade. And journalists around the country have nodded in agreement. Nonetheless, the problem is only getting worse.

But that may be about to change.

"I operate on the theory that the situation is bad, but redeemable," says Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy. "It has to be. Otherwise, in one way or another, the government is going to begin to move in on the problem."

That concern has finally struck at the heart of the industry. This fall, at least four journalistic organizations are launching major studies and projects designed to redeem the press in the eyes of the public. Their goal: to find out why reporters are drifting more and more from their core values of reporting fairly, accurately, and succinctly. They also want to open a dialogue between the press and the people.

Such efforts are not new, but the breadth and depth of the projects, most undertaken by journalists themselves, mark a turning point. "The sense of concern, and maybe even lost purpose, within journalism has reached a critical mass," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a joint effort by Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and the Pew Center for Civic Journalism.

The project is aimed at giving journalists tangible tools to regain their essential mission - giving the public the information it needs to navigate in a democratic society.

Mr. Rosenstiel admits that with the current economic and competitive pressures, it will be a challenge. But he's concerned that the media may be in the process of self-destructing. "If we become a kind of entertainment we will perish, because genuine entertainment is always going to be more entertaining."

THE project has six components. But the primary goal is to involve as many journalists as possible in forums across the country about the profession's core values and responsibilities. The hope is that more and more will be motivated, if not shamed, into doing a better job.

"Many of us in the industry now think we have to take a serious look at the issue," says Bob Giles, the former publisher of The Detroit News who is now the executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center.

The center has just launched a $1 million study to examine the perceived lack of fairness in the media.

In 1989, 34 percent of Americans thought the press dealt fairly with all sides in political and social issues. Today, the number is down to 27 percent, with 67 percent believing the media tend to favor one side or the other, according to the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit media research group in Washington.

"Journalists sometimes use language which indicts the political leaders for their motives, fair or unfair, true or untrue," says Mr. Giles. "It's just one of the things we're going to be looking at."

Americans also believe the press too often invades people's privacy and the coverage of personal and ethical behavior by political leaders is excessive. That's coupled with an increasing lack of trust in the media's reliability. In 1985, 55 percent of Americans believed the media got their facts straight most of the time. Today, that's down to 37 percent.

"There are more errors, more stories being missed," says Ed Fouhy, executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. "There's too much emphasis on the obvious, rather than a road map that citizens need to have some sort of access to public life."

The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) has launched a review of all research on why the media appear to be failing in their essential mission. It's also put together a "credibility think tank."

"There's a disturbing prediction that by 2010, fewer than half of all Americans will read a newspaper," says Edward Seaton, the next ASNE president and the editor in chief of the Manhattan Mercury in Manhattan, Kan.

The New Yorker's Ken Auletta calls most of journalism's problems "self-inflicted wounds." But, he contends, the media are quick to blame others, from the Wall Street watchers focused on profits to the competitive tabloids that some say erode standards.

"The issue of peer pressure is much more subtle and complicated," says Mr. Auletta. "There's part of journalism that's like a gang culture: 'I stuck my finger in the guy's eye, did you?' There's too much attitude, and that needs to be changed. But it can only come from within."

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