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Newspapers Try to Regain Credibility

By Christopher Johnson

APRIL 26, 1999:  I once met a guy who had no sense of self worth. As he drained cup after cup of designer coffee, he wailed, "I am the most vile, worthless, despicable, mindless good-for-nothing there is. Excrement is more valuable to society than I am. I am scum."

Having some idea as to who could possibly be that worthless, I made several guesses as to what he did in life.

"Are you a teacher's union official?" I asked. "A priest, social worker, poet, artist, creative writing teacher, gun control advocate, environmentalist or dance instructor?"

He shook his head "no," and I made a few more dozen guesses, all of which were wrong.

Frustrated, I slammed a bony fist into his temple and demanded, "What could you possibly be that makes you the scum of the earth?"

He lowered his head in shame and mumbled, "A newspaper editor."

Having worked in the news business for 20 years now, I know the guy was right.

And I know that it has been because of people like him that the news business, and newspapers in particular, have suffered for the past two decades. In that time, newspaper circulation has remained stagnant or has declined, and the credibility of newspapers and journalists has plunged dramatically.

Any barber, plumber, carpenter or other member of the working and middle class can tell you why: Newspapers and journalists no longer represent the working class and have contempt for their values. And newspapers, despite their protestations of objectivity, are hopelessly biased.

Walk into any newsroom in the nation and you will find contempt for gun owners, support for more taxes, a slavish and mindless adherence to political correctness and the smug feeling that those who write papers know what is best for those who read them.

Walk into any working-class home in the nation and you're likely to find the opposite views. That's why papers have been losing support and circulation.

Now, newspaper editors are finally figuring this out. A new three-year credibility study by the (ASNE) is telling editors and newspaper owners what they could have learned if they had only worked up enough guts to mingle with ordinary Americans:

  1. The public sees too many factual errors and spelling or grammar mistakes in newspapers.

  2. The public perceives that newspapers don't consistently demonstrate respect for, and knowledge of, their readers and their communities.

  3. The public suspects that the points of view and biases of journalists influence what stories are covered and how they are covered.

  4. The public feels that newspapers chase and over-cover sensational stories because they're exciting and they sell papers. They don't believe these stories deserve the attention and play they get.

  5. The public feels that newsroom values and practices are sometimes in conflict with their own priorities for their newspapers.

  6. Members of the public who have had actual experience with the news process are the most critical of media credibility.

The study doesn't appear to be a fluke. It used a combination of 30,000 random representative telephone interviews and 16 validation focus groups.

The key points of the study show just how rotten and biased the American news business has become. The study said that 78 percent of U.S. adults agree with the assessment that there's bias in the news media; that 77 percent of U.S. adults believe that newspapers pay lots more attention to stories that support their own point of view; and that 53 percent of American adults say the press is out of touch with mainstream Americans.

"These data also suggest that much of the public believes that there are internal axes that get ground (e.g.: favorite causes, tenacious beliefs, unstaunchable convictions of what's right, etc.) and attitudinal mindsets (e.g.: self-righteousness, socioeconomic bigotry, disdain for working-class values, skepticism-gone-bad to cynicism, etc.) in newsrooms that could inject bias into the news report," the study said.

It was in the focus groups that editors and the news business got the biggest jolt. When people in the groups were asked whether they felt newspapers should just report the facts or write stories to help improve society, they got responses like:

"Whose better society? I don't want the government interfering in my personal life. And I don't want the media interfering."

"Are you in the business of changing society or reporting the facts? Use your editorial page for opinions."

"Just report the news."

"They tell you who to vote for. It's insulting."

And this one that will horrify most modern day, advance-degreed, elitist journalists: "Report the facts, then let me make up my own mind and make my own conclusions. Distinguish fact from opinion."

The study also takes a shot a the new, corporate-style journalism that has become common in the past several years: Readers believe that papers print certain stories in order to sell papers. Seventy-eight percent of those polled believe that powerful people or organizations can influence to kill or spin a story a certain way.

Although those polled were split on the definition of bias, the study is an indictment of what has happened to newspapers in the past three decades.

It used to be that reporters came from the working classes and from the neighborhoods they would eventually cover. They didn't go to journalism schools. They started out as copy runners and such and worked their way up to the job of reporter. The worst that could be said about the old-timers was that they were drunks and bad dressers. They seemed more interested in getting and writing a good story than in changing the world. But in the 1960s and 1970s that all began to change. Schools of journalism popped up all over the place. And would-be reporters, rather than learning about life and their communities, learned about journalism. Many of the alleged finer schools of journalism were at the most expensive, private universities that cost a small fortune to attend. Working-class parents couldn't afford to send their kids to these schools, and the working class were eventually eased out of journalism.

The self-proclaimed elites took over. Most of them happened to be imbalanced in that they tilted dramatically to the left in politics.

Here's a local example of bias in the news media and contempt for working class values.

The newspaper I used to work for used to repeatedly refer in print to Gov. Gary Johnson as "the millionaire governor."

Never mind that Johnson was a working-class guy who formed a company out of college and built it into a financial success. The paper's political editor just hated Johnson. The phrase "the millionaire governor" was contemptuous of hard work, ambition, imagination, talent and success--values that the vast majority of Albuquerqueans undoubtedly stand for. By using it, The Albuquerque Tribune basically spit on all Albuquerqueans who dreamed that they too might form a company and make it a financial success.

That that phrase was allowed in news stories was a crime against traditional journalism. But the paper and its editors didn't care. No wonder The Trib's circulation continues to plunge.

ASNE says that the results of its survey will be tested in eight newspapers: The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Oregonian in Portland; the Austin American-Statesman; the San Jose Mercury News; the Sarasota Herald-Tribune; The Gazette in Colorado Springs; the Daily Press in Newport News, VA.; and Florida Today in Melbourne, Fla.

The ANSE credibility report can be found at: http://www.asne.org/works/jcp/executivesummary.htm

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