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GEORGE KENNEDY: Journalists' credibility on the decline, but why?

Friday, September 7, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:36 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 7, 2012

Today’s topic is journalism, and the news is not good.

(I’m not referring to the one-man effort I launched a few years ago to save the newspaper industry by buying shares of stock. That’s going well, thank you, especially since Warren Buffett joined in. I buy a few shares; he buys a few companies. I’m now the proud part owner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kansas City Star, Springfield News-Leader and New York Times. I just checked, and I made $144 yesterday.)

The news I want to examine comes from a recent poll of public attitudes toward news organizations.

The poll, done by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, shows that the public’s trust in journalism has taken another dip. Researchers asked how believable is each of 13 news providers. The average response was that only 56 percent have a positive attitude and 44 percent a negative one. When Pew first did that survey, in 2002, the positive rating was 71 percent.

The most trusted source is local TV news, at 65 percent positive. The least trusted is a tie between Fox News and USA Today, both with 51 percent negative. The “daily newspaper you know best” is rated positively by 57 percent, NPR positively by 52 percent, The New York Times by only 49 percent.

With the campaign season in full cry, and with good citizens largely dependent on journalism to tell us the ongoing story, those are worrisome numbers.

Especially striking is the sharp partisan divide in attitudes. Republicans are far less positive toward nearly all sources than are Democrats. In fact, the only source that Republicans believe more than Democrats do is, not surprisingly, Fox News (Republicans, 67 percent positive; Democrats 37 percent positive).

When it comes to newspapers, the divide is not quite as wide, but the numbers are reversed. Democrats are 16 points more positive than are Republicans about the "daily newspaper you know best" (65 to 49).

Earlier this year, Jay Rosen, a New York University professor of journalism, pondered in his blog, pressthink.org, several possible explanations for the overall decline of trust. He posited several suggested by professional journalists and advocates from right and left and added a couple of his own. Among them:

  • All institutions are less trusted, from religion to Congress. Journalism just follows the trend.
  • Journalism is unfairly lumped in with “the media” more broadly and therefore suffers in credibility from the excesses of talk radio, extremist bloggers and other sources far outside the main stream of news reporting.
  • Liberal bias is the favorite explanation of conservatives, who especially despise and distrust The New York Times.
  • Journalists have become too much a part of the established power structure they claim to cover objectively.
  • Rosen’s own vague notion is that somehow journalists have lost touch with the real concerns of real people as we’ve become more professional.

My own take is that there’s probably a little something to all those explanations. I have another possibility to add. I’ve offered in this space once before the Kennedy Theory of journalistic bias. Briefly, here it is again:

There are many biases in American journalism. We seldom admit it, but we’re biased toward conflict, toward sensation, toward celebrity, toward oddity. As evidence, consider coverage of the political campaigns so far. For example, we’ve reported and analyzed exhaustively what Todd Akin said about rape, but what have we learned about his policy positions and his record?

Journalists have another less obvious but more important bias, too. I suspect it accounts for a good deal of the partisan divide in attitudes. It’s hidden in plain sight in our very job description.

We describe ourselves as watchdogs of the powerful, voices of the voiceless, surrogates for ordinary citizens. Our most cherished cliché is that we intend to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We pride ourselves on our skepticism, our critical examination of institutions and individuals.

Does that summary strike you as more liberal or more conservative?

It is, it seems to me, a liberal bias that has little or nothing to do with partisan politics. It is also, it seems to me, a very good thing for the democracy. Suppose we didn’t try to fill those self-assigned roles. Would the country be better or worse off?

If we were more open about our definitions of news, more transparent about our methods, more honest about our shortcomings, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t silence our critics. I suspect, though, that we’d be at least a little more credible.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.


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Comments

frank christian September 7, 2012 | 11:57 a.m.

I read Mr. Rosen's given, PressThink.org, until I could take no more. I had to stop at KISS MY AD. The long, repetitive, boring piece, was about Fact Checking and A Presidential Campaign (Romney). I never saw the Word Democrat, much less any reference to the Democrat involvement in his subject.

Rosen's five reasons journalists are mistrusted,is a typical liberal con job.

I submit, as I have all over this blog, that the mistrust of our journalists, as well as our other problems, to the extent we now know it, began with the advent of liberalism into our country around 1960. About that time, I first read that our public schools were teaching the "Royalist" side of those 1770's not wanting a Revolutionary War. No one had bothered me with that from one end of my Columbia education, to the other. Before then our reporters (journalists?) were allowed to accompany our troops in combat, because our leaders were reasonably certain those journalists were on our side! The first Gulf War (to my knowledge) presented the first reporters, whose Neutrality was so deep that they would not allow debriefing by leaders of our forces. Were they not taught this? In the Reagan years, this Missourian's every article about him or his accomplishments was headlined with a derogatory statement. I noticed several times that only the last sentence might refer to the positive story that was supposed to be told. A Missourian official, criticized for this on KFRU, told that she knew that this was happening and they were hard at work to change it. Change it? Were they not teaching it?

"We describe ourselves as watchdogs of the powerful,...". Imo this is conservative only in the sense that it distinctly outlines the stated, positive duties (a foundation) of a good journalist.

Should not appear on the same page with Jay Rosen's, excuses and distortions. IMO.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams September 7, 2012 | 7:51 p.m.

George:

Of Rosen's 5 explanations, only 4 and 5 have significant merit in my opinion. One through 3 are just plain denial or, at best, a "I don't want to think about it, but it's not our fault whatever the answer might be" explanation.

Here's a few ideas of my own:

(1) Newspapers thrive on a really good "gotcha". We know it, you know it, but the media will not acknowledge it. I do commend you, tho; your comment, "We seldom admit it, but we’re biased toward conflict, toward sensation, toward celebrity, toward oddity" comes as close to an admission as I've ever seen. You should have gone into detail.

And "gotchas" make money, preserves jobs, and might even get a Pulitzer. Reporters are not immune from being human when it comes to acclaim.

(2) English is a complex language. A group of reporters will watch the same political event, yet when you read their reports it's as though they were all wearing lenses of a different color. You and I both know, unless great care is taken by the writer, that it is quite easy to read a missive and understand many underlying agendas and beliefs. It happens on a daily basis in this forum from me and everyone else. In this particular newspaper's case, I see it often in word choices (especially), grammar, paragraph development, and even in the things you choose to NOT cover (yeah, I just split an infinitive....again....but not covering some stories is the greater problem). This is a reporter problem and, mainly, an editorial problem....and possibly a teaching problem for this newspaper.

I have a question....Did the Missourian cover the Roger Wilson story to the extent they would have if John Ashcroft had done the same thing???????

I say no, you didn't. And THAT is one helluva good definition of "mistrust."

(3) Studies have been done on the voting patterns of news folks. Anything other than a 50:50 split +/- 1.96 standard deviation units is simply unacceptable when it comes to trust (simplified).

(4) Look....the Missourian, StL Post Dispatch, NY Times, KC Star, Columbia Tribune, Washington Post, ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, CNN, and a host of others are decidedly liberal in bias. This cannot be denied with a straight face. Similarly, Fox, Washington Times, and the like (why can't I think of others?) are decidedly conservative in bias.

Bias of ANY sort will always breed mistrust in someone.

Maybe news organizations of ALL stripes should get back to reporting news instead of making it or slanting it.

Except for opinion pages, of course.

PS: Who checks the "checkers?" How can I, a reader, check your truthfulness and intent? For example, did you or did you not mislead (intentionally or not) the public in the involvement of our police in the jello hor'dourves incident? Did you publish that anonymous letter yet now that it has been proven correct?

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin September 8, 2012 | 7:44 a.m.

It may be that journalism's self-descriptions -- "watchdogs of the powerful, voices of the voiceless, surrogates for ordinary citizens, afflictions of the comfortable" -- are so far from the mark people are skeptical of the whole enterprise.

Journalists here, especially in newspapers, are more cheerleaders of the powerful than watchdogs.

They tend to pooh pooh the afflicted and the voiceless rather than comfort them.

And they think so little of ordinary citizens that, at both newspapers, they staff their op-ed columns with ordinary citizens who are paid nothing for their written thoughts week after week, month after month, year after year, then have the audacity to charge readers for the content!

In an op-ed earlier this year entitled "Wichita Shocker," the Wall Street Journal took local journalism to task for hopping into bed with politicians and powerful developers in towns like Wichita, where voters, despite all the newspaper cheer-leading, turned down a big package of corporate welfare.

In Wichita as in Columbia and many other cities, journalism has fallen so far from its former perch that other voices, from alternative newsweeklies like mine, to bloggers and citizen journalists, are filling the gaps, e.g.:

http://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-govern...

Locally, here's what George Kennedy thought about my efforts to watchdog the powerful. Rather than seek a non-biased third party opinion to dispute what I wrote, he went to none other than the leader of the powerful organization I was criticizing to dispute it!

http://www.columbiamissourian.com/storie...

Some watch-dogging.

(Report Comment)

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