Distrust of press can cripple reporters

As indispensable as journalism is to society and to the strength of our political system, it remains one of the most maligned of all institutions. In public opinion surveys, journalists continue to accompany personal injury lawyers and tax collectors at the bottom of the respect index.
This probably doesn’t bother most journalists. They have grown accustomed to having their work smeared and to being the butt of jokes. But if journalists don’t pay attention to the current anti-press sentiment, which has grown more intense in the past few years, they might lose more than just the respect of their audiences. They could lose much of the freedom they currently have to gather and report the news.
The American public’s hostility toward the press has grown more intense in the two decades since Watergate. In the wake of that scandal, which continues to be viewed as one of journalism’s great triumphs, 28 percent of people surveyed by the Roper Center said they had a “great deal” of confidence in the press. Ten years later, in 1986, the number had dropped to 18 percent, and in 1996, to just 11 percent. At the same time, the number of people saying they had “hardly any” confidence in the press went from 18 percent in 1976 to 39 percent two decades later.
The causes of this decline are hard to pinpoint. Every person has his or her own pet concern. According to a 1997 Harris Poll, 80 percent of the public believes the news media ignore people’s privacy, 75 percent said the news media are too biased, and 51 percent said the news media fail their most fundamental obligation to be accurate.
Not only do people distrust the news media’s accuracy, many are even convinced that they routinely commit journalism’s cardinal sin — making up stories or quotes and passing them off as real.
One of the greatest journalism scandals of the last half-century involved a story by a young Washington Post reporter named Janet Cooke whose feature of an 8-year-old drug addict named Jimmy won her the Pulitzer Prize. Her story turned out to be fiction — Jimmy did not exist — and Cooke was forced to give back her Pulitzer. She was also effectively blacklisted from journalism and has scarcely been heard from since.
The Washington Post is still stinging from the Cooke debacle, and the evils of Cooke’s tactics are often taught to new journalism students. Still, according to a 1998 survey by the Media Studies Center, 76 percent of people believe journalists often or sometimes “copy the words and ideas of others in a story and pass them off as their own,” and 66 percent believe journalists often or sometimes “make up stories and pass them off as real.”
All of these figures suggest that Americans have a deep-seated skepticism, bordering on cynicism, about the virtue of journalists and the integrity of their work, and that the press-public divide is growing.
It is probably no coincidence that the news media’s declining credibility corresponds with the decline in both newspaper circulation and ratings for network news programs. Public sentiment appears to be affecting the bottom line for news organizations, but it is also creating the ideal environment for the imposition of regulations targeting the media.
The biggest threat to press freedom has always been bad journalism. As much as the First Amendment is needed in order to protect unpopular journalists and the purveyors of unpopular ideas, it is most endangered by some of those same people. Those at the periphery of the profession, who operate without ethics or professionalism are the ones who inevitably provoke lawmakers into crafting legislative remedies.
The excesses of the paparazzi, made so evident in the death of Princess Diana, led to passage of broad anti-paparazzi legislation, which now limits the mainstream news media as well. There are many other examples of this, both recently (particularly involving the Internet) and throughout our history. The transgressions of society’s scoundrels often inspire legislative responses that limit the rights of the innocent.
We can expect more of this in the near future. The behavior of the news media, both mainstream and alternative, has led not only to a deepening crisis of credibility but to a startling indifference among the public toward the rights of the press.
A study just released by the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University shows that 53 percent of the public believes the press currently has “too much freedom.” This is up 15 points from just two years ago. Even more startling is that only 38 percent of respondents strongly agreed with the statement, “newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of a story.” This is down 18 points from two years ago.
Journalists should be afraid. When the majority of the public is not committed to even the most basic principle of press freedom — that the government must not censor those who are supposed to be its watchdogs — then the press is truly vulnerable.
The problem today is not an absence of good reporting; it is that there is dramatically more bad reporting. Upstart news organizations are entering the market every day, and the Internet has made it possible for anyone with a modem and a computer to claim the title “news editor.”
In the face of this new competition, many mainstream journalists are succumbing to their least healthy competitive instincts. Poorly sourced stories are rushed into print or on the air in an effort to stay ahead of abundant rivals, and claims made in the second- and third-tier media — many of which eventually turn out to be false — are too often picked up and repeated by the major media.
Despite these occasional journalistic lapses, there still is a great deal of fair, balanced and thorough reporting being done by the mainstream news media. But the bad overwhelms the good. And members of the public, and particularly members of Congress, have not been made to appreciate those distinctions.
If the mainstream news media are not able to do this — to find ways to distinguish themselves, in practice and in appearance, from their less professional counterparts — they can expect less respect for their freedom and more attempts at government control.
Erik Ugland is the Daily’s Readers’ Representative. His column normally runs alternate Mondays. He welcomes comments about the Daily or his column at [email protected]