Out of Touch in the Media

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It is probably not surprising that the public's view of the news media is darker today than it was a decade ago. Americans say reporters are less believable, more likely to make errors-and more likely to cover them up-and less likely to care about the people they write about in their stories.

What might be surprising is that journalists' views of their own work has soured quite a bit as well. Credibility is a big problem, they say. And they admit they are out of touch with the public, too focused on "inside baseball" and not enough on information that people care about.

A new poll of national and local journalists by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press finds a profession in some serious turmoil. The survey questioned journalists from national news organizations-print, broadcast and online -as well as local reporters.

About half of the journalists (48 percent of the national group and 54 percent of the locals) say that the press lacks credibility with the public and that this is a major reason news audiences are declining. That's quite an admission from a profession that produces thousands of stories every day that it hopes audiences will listen to or read-and believe.

But the journalists' perceptions of their image are right: the portion of the public saying they believe most of what their local daily newspaper prints is down 17 percentage points since 1985. The believability rating of network news is down as well, an average of 11 percentage points, according to a June 1998 Pew survey.

One reason for this lack of credibility is the public's perception that journalists are out of step with the majority of their readers-and they admit it. Fifty-seven percent of the national newspeople and 51 percent of the locals admit that it is a valid criticism to say "journalists have lost touch with their audiences." A roughly similar percentage (58 percent of the national group and 65 percent of the local group) say journalists have become obsessed with impressing their colleagues and being first with the story-rather than with matters more important to the public, such as getting the facts straight.

Journalists are also increasingly concerned with their failure to draw a bright line between facts and opinion. This, as members of the news media are becoming more high profile as commentators on network television, cable channels, and online. Sixty-nine percent of the national journalists said the "distinction between reporting and commentary has seriously eroded," and that is up from 53 percent in 1995. Among local journalists, the concern has risen from 44 percent four years ago to 68 percent today.

It might come as no surprise, then, that a majority of the public (56 percent) says that news organizations are "politically biased" in their reporting, up from 45 percent in 1985.

But perhaps the most surprising misperception journalists hold is that the public is overwhelmed by news and information. With the explosion of cable news channels and the Internet, such a conclusion would seem a reasonable one. Fifty-two percent of the national journalists said information overload is a major reason that the audience for news seems to be shrinking.

But the public disagrees: 68 percent like having so many information sources. Fewer than one out of three say they suffer from information overload.

The interplay of the views of the media by the public and the practitioners provides a glimpse of the future fortunes of the press. Reporters depend on the day-in, day-out consumption of their product by the public. That public is increasingly unhappy with the daily menu being offered them, and the deliverers as well. Journalists seem to know that they have a problem. But so far, changes within various news operations to resolve these objections are not forthcoming.

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