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RM Issue #030530


Big Media is losing credibility fight

ANTONIA ZERBISIAS Toronto Star May. 27, 2003

Probably the most depressing aspect of Jayson Blair scandal which continues to dominate journalistic conversations weeks after the story broke is how few of the subjects of his faked stories in The New York Times bothered to complain about factual errors or being quoted when they had never even spoken to the reporter.

"Are some readers so jaundiced about the press that they no longer expect us to get stuff right?" asked Newsweek's resident media critic Jonathan Alter last week. "Do they just assume we make it up?"

Well, yes.

In fact, 10 days ago, the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME), in association with 16 newspapers in the U.S., conducted an Internet survey, said to be the first of its kind, asking 3,000 people why "readers and sources (would) fail to alert a newspaper to reporting they recognize as clearly inaccurate."

The study, part of the APME's National Credibility Roundtables Project, compiled some pretty alarming answers.

Among them: "Why waste the time?" "What's the point?" "There are many times when I have not offered a correction since the prevailing belief is one of arrogant indifference to detail."

Add that perception of editorial indifference to the results of many other polls indicating that journalists are sinking lower and lower in the public's estimation and we got trouble in media city.

Understand that I think that those polls asked the wrong question and yes, I recognize that I could be wrong about this. In most cases, it's not journalists per se who are falling out of favour. It's the Capital T, capital M, The Media.

For example, the most recent survey I could find, a Canadian Press/ Leger Marketing poll conducted this year, asked which are the most "trusted professions."

Noting that all had dropped in esteem since 2002, even firefighters and nurses, the poll found that journalists had the trust of 46 per cent of respondents, down from 53 per cent. That put us behind lawyers but ahead of insurance brokers, real estate agents, unionists, publicists, car sales people and politicians, who brought up the rear at 14 per cent. Not a total fiasco.

I suspect that, had the pollsters asked about the trust level of The Media versus, say, The Government, we would have fared much worse. That's because Big Media is seen to be in bed with Big Government and Big Business. As a whole, we've become the voice of the establishment, the rich and the powerful.

The more eyeballs we deliver to those ads, the richer our shareholders become.

This explains the move to more and more sensationalist "news,'' or infotainment, which even a 10 year old can recognize as a cynical ratings or circulation ploy.

It doesn't help our cause that many individual journalists are considered part of that establishment, pulling down fat paycheques and hobnobbing with the folks they're supposed to be criticizing.

This sentiment is even more deeply felt among younger people, who have a greater disdain for authority and for Big Media than older generations not raised on The Simpsons and the Internet do. (Mind you, that disdain for Big Media seems to stop at the lineup for The Matrix: Reloaded, but I'll spare you that rant today.)

Whatever the reason, we in the news trade are doomed, like dinosaurs hurtling towards an extinction of our own creation.

That's because, individually or collectively, we're in the business of selling information and if our information can't be trusted, if we have no credibility and if we don't boast a commitment to accuracy, then all we offer is kitty litter liner (newspapers) or hot air (broadcasting).

Which is perhaps why so much Big Media is not even bothering, moving farther away from actually practising journalism in the public interest and deeper into purveying entertainment to interest the public long enough to stick around for the ads.

Anyway, according to the Times' own account of the Jayson Blair fiasco, some people did, in fact, complain.

But those complaints fell on deaf ears. Or got lost in the shuffle.

Some industry insiders hypothesize that the problem wouldn't have got so big had the Times employed an ombud. Perhaps. There are only 40 or so resident complaint-takers in North American media outlets, and only three in Canada one at the Star (our own Don Sellar) and two at CBC, one each for the French- and English-language services.

Even when corrections are made, they rarely get the time, space and attention the original gaffe did. In newspapers, they're often buried on the bottom of page 2. On TV, they tend to appear on, um, during, er ... well, they don't actually appear at all, do they?

Not that we journos are big on admitting our boo-boos. Talk about a thin-skinned bunch which loves to dish it out but hates to take it. And email hasn't helped.

While I try to reply to every missive I get, except for the really hateful ones (unless they're witty), there are times I wish I was writing about something uncontroversial such as 1,001 ways to mash a turnip.

This could explain why those Times editors ignored the complaints: They were perceived as annoying, irritating and time-consuming distractions. But there's something else at work here, and that's partisanship.

Thanks to the proliferation of blogs and other one-sided Web sites, as well as what has become known as the Fox effect, which has U.S. all- news channels moving further to the right to boost their ratings, stronger and stronger biases are affecting our credibility.

Take a very contentious subject such as the Middle East. If a paper or a pundit comes down, even ever so slightly, on one side or the other of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, accusations start flying, not only of bias but also of factual and historical error.

Even when no error has been made, credibility is still even further eroded. After being frustrated by a lack of attention, or an insistence that the point of view as published is correct, readers or viewers give up on the source and move elsewhere, often to media which confirm their political perspectives.

In other words, given so many media choices today, people are tending to gravitate to those that confirm their own biases and beliefs.

So society gets more and more polarized, or people just end up ignorant and apathetic, while the media are fragmented further and lower their standards to maintain their numbers.

No matter how you slice it, it's a recipe for disaster.



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