To public, the press too often gets it wrong

Major newspaper survey reveals growing discontent over errors and sensationalism.

Dan Brown doesn't read the newspaper as often as he used to. He's been busy opening a new business. More important, he doesn't think it's worth his time.

"There's so much garbage in there that's not worth reading," says Mr. Brown, co-owner of the Capital Cat Clinic in Arlington, Va. "You don't see enough stories about small businesses or some of the good things that are going on in the city."

Millions of Americans share Brown's frustration, and that's taken its toll on the fourth estate. Newspapers' credibility has been declining steadily, along with circulation, during the last 10 years.

But the nation's editors and publishers are determined to win back the public's respect.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) released Dec. 15 the findings of the first major national survey designed to probe more deeply the "underlying causes" of journalists' disconnect with the public. It's part of a three-year effort to understand the print media's credibility problem - and design experimental programs to address it.

What the study found was not surprising to many in the industry. In an effort to "get it first, get it fast, and get it right," too often, reporters are getting it wrong.

"Too many factual errors and spelling and grammar mistakes" top the list of major reasons for the public's distrust of the media. Others include:

A belief that newspapers don't show enough respect for, and knowledge of, their readers and communities.

A suspicion that bias influences which stories are covered and how they're reported.

Concern that sensational stories are covered only in an effort to sell newspapers.

"Previous surveys have given us an idea of what the symptoms were," says Michele McClellan, public editor of The Oregonian, in Portland. "This goes a lot further, adding considerable depth to our understanding of the problem."

The Oregonian is one of eight newspapers across the country that will be "testsites" to address the problems. Ms. McClellan is optimistic, in part, because of her firsthand experience.

A year ago, the paper began an aggressive, internal accuracy program. It set up a database, recorded all errors, and looked for trends. It found, for instance, it had a problem with phone-number accuracy. So extra emphasis was put on double- and triple-checking numbers. The paper's error rate dropped between 10 and 15 percent last year.

"In journalism, we tend to [take for granted] these things are important, so they're at risk of fading into the background," says McClellan. "You have to have the will at the top to keep emphasizing their importance."

Reporters, in general, are open about the fact that small errors sometimes slip into their copy, but they usually attribute them to being rushed on deadline or short staffed. The survey found that, "essentially, readers don't care" about such excuses and that even "seemingly small errors" feed the public's skepticism.

THE study found 73 percent of adults have become more skeptical of accuracy, and 68 percent believe newspapers "run a lot of stories without checking them" just because they appeared in other papers.

A full 80 percent of those surveyed believed sensational stories get covered because "they're exciting" and "sell newspapers," not because they're important. To address that, The Oregonian is designing a program to communicate better with readers. The paper will explain why it chooses to cover certain stories and elicit comments from readers about what they think constitutes important news.

The paper is also in the process of reevaluating its crime coverage, and hopes to cover it in the context of the overall community in a way that is "sensitive and aggressive."

Media experts believe the print press can reestablish its credibility with the American public, and exercises such as this ASNE project will be a key to success.

"When they give the public the sense that they take this stuff seriously, I think there is an opportunity to regain that trust," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington. "But it will take time and a different news environment. We're in an extremely sensational news environment right now."

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