Wednesday, July 29, 2009

An ongoing crisis in confidence

A version of this was originally published in the Post Register.

Only about half of Americans have confidence in print and broadcast journalists. That compares to a historical high of 69 percent during the Watergate era.

There is, however, some good news for local newspapers. Three-quarters of Americans believe that newspapers provide "vital information about the community," which means that most Americans still view the local newspaper as the most credible source of news. One of the issues facing newspapers is to help information consumers differentiate between us and other, less credible media.

Of course, public confidence in other institutions vital to a healthy democracy are faring much worse. Fewer than one in four Americans has confidence in Congress, for example.

That’s cold comfort to journalists, whose stock-in-trade is their credibility. When less than half of news consumers find journalists in general credible, we have a crisis.

This tumble in confidence is almost entirely self-inflicted. Yes, some of it can be traced to media fragmentation or to bloggers, talk radio personalities and cable TV talking heads, who characterize the mainstream media as biased, liberal, and even conspiratorial. The real cause is less interesting – too many journalists have gotten sloppy, lazy, or both.

Too many editors don’t establish and enforce strict reporting standards. Too many reporters are willing to take shortcuts. Too many columnists are more interested in a compelling story than a truthful one. And, in this age of consolidated media ownership, there’s too little legitimate shoe-leather investigative journalism going on.

In a world full of Internet blogs, quasi-news television shows, vitriolic radio talk shows and a general public showing less and less interest in basic journalism, reporters and editors are under increasing pressure to spice up the coverage.

The result is a confused news consumer who has an increasingly difficult time determining what information is factual and what is not. When columnists take money from the government to espouse a particular point of view or reporters invent information to make a story more compelling, it just adds to the crisis in confidence.

What to do? Journalists should:

• Eliminate or severely restrict anonymous source reporting, particularly involving single sources. Sloppy sourcing is what got Newsweek in trouble recently with its story about abuse of the Koran, and there are myriad other examples. Compare that to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s meticulous use of both named and anonymous sources during Watergate and you can see how far we’ve fallen. Most stories can be verified using on-the-record sources if we’re willing to dig deep enough.

• Establish and enforce stronger fact-checking standards before stories are printed or aired. Too many newsrooms are not challenging their reporters, which results in stories that stretch the truth, borrow quotations from other media without verification, or contain outright fabrications. Tighter standards can put a stop to this.

• Create a greater sense of transparency between the news-gathering process and the news consumer. You deserve to know how we go about our work and what standards we adhere to. We need to remove the shroud of mystery from the process.

• Embrace good old-fashioned investigative journalism.

• Correct errors quickly and unambiguously. The news-gathering process involves human beings, which means errors will inevitably occur. When they do, we owe you a clear, clean, timely correction that sets the record straight.

These are the ideals to which journalists must aspire to differentiate ourselves from blogs and other information sources that are little more than the inventions of the writers' imagiation. You should demand no less.

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