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    What America Thinks
    What's Dumbing Down Journalism?

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, April 5, 1999

    Reporters don't keep personal opinions out of stories. News reports are increasingly riddled with errors. And when it comes to covering political scandals, journalists gleefully drive the controversy rather than merely report the facts.

    Strong criticisms, to be sure. This time they don't come from self-appointed media critics, but from reporters and editors themselves who raise growing concerns about the way they cover and report the news.

    A new and important survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reveals increasing disquiet within the profession over eroding standards of professional conduct.

    "Something important has changed in journalism," write Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, both former award-winning reporters, and Amy Mitchell, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, in a commentary on the survey results. "Not only is the public increasingly disaffected from the press. Journalists now agree that something is wrong with their profession."

    Indeed. Interviews with 552 working journalists and news executives found growing dissatisfaction in the ranks compared with a similar Pew survey conducted in 1995. In both polls, the sample included journalists who worked for national as well as local newspapers, and from network and local television and radio news operations.

    The proportion of national journalists who say it is true that the "distinction between reporting and commentary has seriously eroded" has increased from 53 percent to 69 percent in just over three years. The increase was even larger among local journalists. Today, two in three — 68 percent — say the line is being erased between commentary and reporting. In 1995, fewer than half — 44 percent — expressed a similar view.

    The news media are getting increasingly careless with the news, the survey found. Four in 10 national journalists and more than half of all local reporters and editors agree that "news reports are increasingly full of factual errors and sloppy reporting" — both double-digit increases from 1995.

    And in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal, nearly half of all national reporters and editors and a majority of local journalists agree that in covering personal and ethical behaviors, journalists "drive the controversy" rather than "only report the facts." The increase was particularly sharp among local reporters and editors, where the proportion that said criticism about scandal coverage was valid rose from 33 percent in 1995 to 56 percent in the latest poll.

    "The impact of these shortcomings is not lost on the press," Pew analysts wrote. "Lack of credibility is the single issue most often cited by the news media as the most important problem facing journalism today. Alarm about faltering credibility is far more prevalent in the current survey than in a comparable 1989 Center survey. Moreover, the press itself says that the loss of public trust is a leading cause of declining news audiences."

    The proportion of journalists that named loss of credibility as the top problem facing the press increased from 17 percent in 1989 to 30 percent among national reporters and 34 percent among local journalists in the latest Pew poll. "The print media are particularly concerned about the public's attitude towards the press," Pew analysts wrote. "More than four in 10 print journalists and executives cite this as a major problem for journalism, compared to roughly 20 percent of those in television news."

    What's dumbing down American journalism? Journalists say the problem isn't in the newsroom but in the boardroom, where they say growing financial and business pressures are taking a toll on newsgathering. "At both the local and the national levels, majorities of working journalists say that increased bottom-line pressure is hurting the quality of coverage. This view is more common than it was just four years ago, although it is less often shared by media executives."

    The problem is particularly acute among journalists who work for the big network news operations. A majority of reporters and executives who work for national television news operations said that "pressure to make a profit is hurting the quality of coverage rather than just changing the way things are done."

    The survey project, which includes a national sampling of the general public, also found that journalists value their watchdog role far more than the public does. Nearly nine out of 10 journalists — 87 percent — say that media criticism of politicians keeps them "from doing things they shouldn't do," a view shared by 58 percent of all Americans.

    "The press and the public are more in sync in their criticism of how the media carries out its watchdog role," Pew analysts wrote. While about half of journalists and media executives say news organizations often drive controversies rather than merely report them, "fully 72 percent of Americans say such reporting perpetuates scandal."

    Journalism has arrived at a crossroads, argue Kovach, Rosenstiel and Mitchell. Reporters and editors clearly are growing more uncomfortable with the way they and their colleagues report the news. "Such shifts in self-awareness usually precede even larger change. For journalism, it could either alter the current direction of the industry or simply persuade more people to abandon the profession. Whether the result will be professional reform or retreat is not yet clear."

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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