Panel addresses lack of media trust
Claire Reising | Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Public confidence in the media and decline in readership are two of the major problems facing journalists today, Professor Robert Schmuhl said at the forum “Confidence in Journalism: Regaining Public Trust” Monday.
The panel featured journalists on the advisory committee of Notre Dame’s John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy.
Schmuhl, director of the Gallivan program, introduced the forum yesterday in McKenna Hall by contrasting the respect that news media formerly had, with today’s attacks on the media.
“[Journalist Walter Lippman said] the newspaper is in all literalness the Bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determines its conduct,” Schmuhl said. “Today with many more journalism outlets than just the newspaper, we hear much more about media malpractice and much less about the sacred and priestly role of journalism.”
Recent statistics illustrated the decline in public confidence. Schmuhl said that in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken a few weeks ago, only 18 percent of Americans reported “having high confidence in the national media,” almost a 20 percent decline from the 1991 poll results.
Some speakers attributed this lack of trust to the rise of polarized talk shows and debates on cable news channels, as well as the desire to hear individual political views in the media, instead of consulting unbiased news.
“We have so confused the viewer to the point that they don’t know what’s opinion and what’s fact,” NBC News correspondent Anne Thompson said. “You have people who come on the air and say outrageous things to simply be outrageous, so they can get on the next talk show.”
In addition to partisan television programs, unprofessional “citizen journalism” has become more widespread, as untrained journalists report and comment on news through online blogs or chat rooms, Thompson said.
Several professional journalists feel that this is not a credible reporting method, since “bloggers” often infuse opinion into their stories.
“When I approach a story, I don’t have an axe to grind,” Dan LeDuc, the deputy national editor for The Washington Post said. “It actually does take training and practice to go out and cover a story and get it right.”
The media industry also faces growing financial programs due to the transition from print to online media, Bill Mitchell, editor of Poynter Online said.
“Print revenue fell precipitously and online revenue is still growing slowly,” Mitchell said. “I just don’t have confidence that if we do what we’ve always done well, that we’re going to figure out a way to raise the capital it takes to do high quality journalism [online].”
Despite these dilemmas, speakers at the panel have not lost faith in the media’s power and influence, and they recommended ways for journalists to overcome their problems.
“We forget we have incredible power to reach people every day, and we should use it wisely,” Monica Yant Kinney, a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer said. “Just like Superman or Wonder Woman, we should do right with our power.”
John McMeel, president of Universal Press Syndicate, suggested that local newspapers should strive for more relevance for readers and that the media should teach youth about the value of unbiased news.
“Every newspaper may also, in conjunction with the local TV stations, adopt a program for schools to explain why news is important to a democracy and to each individual,” McMeel said. “It should be ‘uncool’ to not keep up with what’s going on and ‘uncool’ to rely on just one source for information.”
Even with new innovations, Bill Dwyre, a sports columnist, and former sports editor, for The Los Angeles Times said that regaining public confidence will be a slow process.
“I think it’s going to take 20 years of slowly working back to newspaper journalism being newspaper journalism,” he said.