Changing roles of journalism examined

The media today is fragmenting and converging all at once, the report says.
Monday, March 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:22 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, billowing clouds of smoke and ash rose above New York, then fell on silent streets like dark-gray snow. Across the nation, people gathered around televisions and read newspapers as they attempted to make sense of the chaos.

But by 2002, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s first State of the News Media report, released this morning, the outcry for credible journalism had subsided. The high degree of public trust in journalism inspired by news coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks fell to normal, lower levels, which had begun to decline in 1986 and continue to decline today, the report states.

The report is touted as the most comprehensive and broad study of news media conducted to date. It brings together accumulated older data with new data.

The report, which was overseen by former journalist Tom Rosenstiel, was conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and funded by Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Everyone that was involved with the project, which includes the team at Missouri, really began in earnest last summer,” Rosenstiel said.

In its major statement, the report states: “What we are witnessing are the dichotomous trends of fragmentation and convergence simultaneously.”

“It means that things are moving not in one direction,” Rosenstiel said. “In some ways journalism is getting worse, but at the same time, technology makes it possible to get information from more sources.”

The public “wants a more entertainment-infused, more sensationalized, more interpretative style of news,” the media report states, and journalists have given it to them. Either the public distrusts news because it’s become used to sensational reporting or people are less trusting of all institutions in general.

Esther Thorson, associate dean of graduate studies at the Missouri School of Journalism, was the technical consultant for the report’s study of news content.

She said that since 1985, the number of people who say they believe newspapers are “very believable” has fallen 25 percent.

Thorson said network and local news networks have had similar drops in their believability.

“Research shows a disconnect between what news professionals think and what they are doing,” she said.

The report states that while reporters think they are providing information so people can participate in political debates, news consumers think reporters are out of touch and want to sensationalize news to make more money.

Newsmakers are also under great financial pressure, the report states.

“Although news, both print and television, is highly profitable, there is constant pressure to increase profits,” Thorson said.

To increase profits, the report states that experienced journalists are being replaced with cheaper and less-experienced professionals. International bureaus are also being closed.

Because fewer reporters are being asked to fill more space in less time, there is a significant reduction in journalists’ investment in the collection of news, the report states. Thorson said she worries that profit pressure is eroding news quality.

“Given the credibility gap and news profit pressures, it was critical to take a wide-ranging look at the news media in this country,” Thorson said.

What are the realities of news today? Is it truly threatened? Thorson said the State of the News Media report attempts to address these questions.

The report examined different forms of media such as newspapers, on-line news, television, radio and ethnic press. It considered their content, audience, economics, ownership, news investment, and public opinion to arrive at its conclusions.

Relationships between the different forms of media, such as interplay and competition, were also examined to develop a picture of the state of the media as a whole.

“Those who would manipulate the press and public appear to be gaining leverage over the journalists who cover them,” the report concludes.

“Our evidence for this is more based on logic than on data,” Rosenstiel said.

He said people select their news the same way they would a new house: It’s a seller’s market with new houses being built all the time. With an increase in the number of outlets chasing stories, varying standards for the different outlets, and a more sophisticated industry knowledge of what readers want, it’s a seller’s market for news, Rosenstiel said.

Thorson said the report’s overall message is that while lots of high-quality news is still available, there’s also more bias, thinner reporting, and more sensationalizing in the media of the new millennium than there was in the later half of the previous one.

“There’s more of both the good and the bad out there,” Rosenstiel said.

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