RM Issue #030928
Losing Faith in the Media
There's so much choice -- so why do readers feel starved for accuracy?
KIRK LAPOINTE - MacLeans Sept 29 2003
WE ARE IN A MEDIA PARADOX. Never have we consumed so much news but so mistrusted the journalists delivering it. Never have we had such diversity in coverage but heard so many complaints about narrow perspectives. Never have journalists been better trained but so criticized for unprofessional conduct. Never have we enjoyed as much scrutiny of public officials and finances but been so condemned for insensitivity and invasion of privacy. Never have we been offered so much choice but felt so starved for fairness and accuracy.
Research conducted by the Toronto polling firm Ipsos-Reid and Washington-based Pew Research Center for the People and the Press indicates that only about 30 per cent of the public trusts the media -- a figure that is likely to erode further. A small saving grace: the media is trusted more than politicians, lawyers and car salesmen. But if trust is at the heart of loyalty, then journalists face immense challenges in the years ahead to retain, much less develop, their audiences.
Pew's research also suggests that people are frustrated with sloppy mistakes appearing in print and broadcast media, and by the refusal to readily admit them. If the media don't confess errors, people hypothesize motives. And according to the survey, two-thirds believe special interests or a self-serving corporate-political agenda infect news coverage. Many are turning away from traditional outlets because they don't speak to peoples' values or practices. The disenfranchised include young people, women, and members of ethnic groups -- a vast population -- who are eagerly sampling alternatives. They are looking elsewhere -- to specialty channels, to E-zines and newsletters, even to late-night talk shows -- for a voice that resonates. For the first time in a period of crisis -- the invasion of Iraq -- many traditional news organizations didn't gain audiences.
Scandal at two influential media organizations could further deepen public suspicion. The New York Times is struggling to regain the public's confidence following revelations that one of its reporters made up significant elements of what he wrote. Jayson Blair was a rogue fabricator who easily navigated a permissive newsroom culture. The Times has since changed leadership, intends to create an ombudsman to police reporting standards, and is promising greater accountability. The BBC, meanwhile, is finding its credibility tested in an inquiry into the death of David Kelly, an adviser to the British government on weapons of mass destruction. Kelly committed suicide two weeks after it was revealed that he was the source of a BBC story by defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan, alleging the government "sexed up" security reports prior to the Iraq war. Last week Gilligan apologized, saying his story contained errors. It seems the BBC's journalism was also sexed up.
Even in the best of situations, traditional media would be finding life difficult in this era of fragmentation. In 1952, with the onset of cable, there were about a half-dozen television channels available. Today there are more than 230. True, a number of significant newspapers closed during that period -- the Montreal Star, Winnipeg Tribune and Ottawa Journal -- but there have been new papers launched, including the National Post and the Sun chain. All-news television arrived, local private-sector television news expanded, and all-news and all-sports radio were introduced. Then came the Internet, offering information largely free of charge. It's clear traditional media are among the least innovative at harnessing the Internet's potential. Mostly, they're offering the same commodity in a different format, failing to recognize that their treatment of stories was the problem in the first place.
Many of the media's problems are of their own making. In particular, journalists spend far too much time covering, and far too little time uncovering. They devote astounding resources to events staged for publicity purposes -- press conferences, product announcements and political posturings. Few pursue their own ideas. They have sacrificed originality for stenography -- the gathering of relevant news for easy digestion.
Most journalists believe they resist external forces aiming to control content. But an informal survey I did of staff-written material at 12 leading Canadian newspapers and three national newscasts during three weeks in the spring and summer found that less than five per cent of the stories resulted from a journalist's own initiative. About half the time, reporters went to events and chronicled the proceedings -- a very expensive form of transcription -- while another 45 per cent of the time they were responding to fires, crimes and accidents. The survey also found few signs of investigative journalism, with little or no use of freedom-of-information laws and precious little courage in tone and style. It's as if a public relations cabal had pumped anaesthetic into the drinking water.
At the very least, journalists should try to add value to basic news by giving it context. But reporters aren't even taking time to reflect on the relevance of what they cover. That may be due to their workloads, which has led to another negative effect in recent years: the growth in the number of stories with only one source of information. The single-source story demonstrates a simplistic notion of how complex issues should be explained. More dangerous is the single-source, off-the-record story, which appears because there is competition to be first, but which allows reporters to evade the discipline of verification. One person's agenda is given free and anonymous rein.
It is ironic that even though media companies press for accountability in the institutions they cover, they do not reveal much about their own decision-making. An examination last year of newsrooms by the Readership Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., found them to be overwhelmingly defensive. The media are guilty of exactly what they find to be at fault in others.
Newspapers and broadcasters don't realize how they're eroding credibility by failing to admit mistakes. My informal survey only found 70 corrections - - about three or four a day -- among the hundreds of stories published or broadcast. News organizations don't admit errors except under pressure, mainly due to the belief that it is a form of weakness to concede mistakes. When they do admit one, they don't deliver an account of what was wrong and what will be done to correct it. The odd part of this paradox is that the media are livelier than ever. More attention is being paid to lifestyle, culture and accomplishment. But when this isn't accompanied with a robust commitment to investigation, or to making the significant seem important, it disappoints those who savour knowledge and insight.
For the media to build greater trust, they will have to direct more of their resources to doing enterprising reporting. They will need to stray from their comfort zones to find stories for different generations, ethnicities and orientations. They will have to develop a new covenant with their audiences based on the premise that when journalists err, they admit it. They will have to take a deep breath in the heat of competitive pressure to lend context to stories and strip away the editorializing too often found in the news. The future will belong to media companies that view trust as their most valuable currency.
Kirk LaPointe is the former senior vice-president of news for CTV and former executive editor of the National Post