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Gallivan panel examines bias in the media

Katie Perry | Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Though media bias is thriving in an environment of reader distrust, growing partisanship and a contested presidential race, a panel of prominent journalists concluded Monday that these biases can be counteracted and prevented.

The advisory committee of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy – comprised of Notre Dame alumni who are working in the media – gathered at a public forum to air their beliefs on “Media Trust and Bias in 50/50 America.”

Gallivan program director Bob Schmuhl launched the discussion by sharing statistics indicative of the current issues faced by the American press.

A June study by the Pew Research Center indicated that 53 percent of Americans distrust news organizations, Schmuhl said, adding that another survey conducted by Gallup revealed that just 44 percent of Americans are confident in the accuracy of the press – the lowest percentage since the poll’s induction in 1972.

“Trust in a news institution is something that is hard-won and something that can be very easily dissipated,” said Don Wycliff, public editor of the Chicago Tribune.

Anne Thompson, a national correspondent for NBC News, said she was “not surprised” by the faltering confidence of the American people and attributed the public’s current skepticism of the press to the average reader’s inability to differentiate news from opinion. In broadcast journalism, anchormen like NBC’s Tom Brokaw and opinion-makers like Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly are presented in much the same way, Thompson said.

Public wariness extends beyond the television set, however. Bill Mitchell, the online editor and marketing director at The Poynter Institute, argued that the current climate is reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s because people are inclined to immediately assume what they read in various facets of the press to be false. Journalists must know that the trust of the reader is minimal and that he or she will readily presume bias, Mitchell said.

Wycliff expanded on Mitchell’s argument, pointing to the vast partisanship of the contemporary political climate.

“It seems as if you write about one candidate, you are automatically bashing his opponent and vice-versa,” Wycliff said.

According to Wycliff, newspaper readers of today are quick to blame writers and editors for bias in their delivery of news, rather than affording journalists the benefit of the doubt.

Kelley Tuthill, an anchor at WCVB Boston, likened this to an “us versus them” mentality that, ironically, is provoked by the news organizations themselves.

This partisan style needs to be mitigated – not motivated – by the mainstream press, Tuthill said.

Monica Yant-Kinney, a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, agreed that the media must share the blame.

“We’re playing a role in all of this ourselves,” she said, holding up a USA Today advertisement that played up the concept of red state vs. blue state America. “[Journalists] are not hapless victims.”

Panelists agreed that public trust can be restored if a distinct policy of honesty and openness is implemented by members of the press.

“The watch-word is transparency,” Wycliff said.

In order to eliminate ambiguity and mystery in the media, Mitchell suggested that journalists use anonymous sources sparingly, adopt clear standards to abide by and correct errors in reporting more quickly. For journalists like Mitchell, the future credibility of the media hinges on these ideals.

“Until transparency is demonstrated, we are going to be in trouble,” Mitchell said.