Newspaper editors found out yesterday that a whole lot of people don't particularly trust their work. Few of them were surprised.
"I think it verifies a lot of what many of us have expected for a long time," said John Johnson, publisher and editor of the Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times, at the American Society of Newspaper Editors dinner last night.
Earlier in the day, ASNE had released a report that found three-quarters of American adults have reservations about the credibility of newspapers and television news. The report said 20 percent of the respondents felt reporters are arrogant and that 51 percent believed the news media give more coverage to stories that support their own opinions than those that do not.
"One of the interesting things they found -- they want us to be a little more friendly with people when they call on the phone," said Johnson. "We've always tried to do that, but I guess with age we've gotten more brittle."
Johnson and about 600 other editors and publishers were milling around at the Sheraton Washington at the end of four days of meetings and Theater Nights and banquets and assorted other parties.
The credibility report was, for many of the editors, the somewhat painful highlight of the ASNE convention, which ended yesterday. They pointed to the finding that young people tended to rate television more trustworthy than newspapers as especially worthy of attention.
"It bothers me because a person who gets his news from the TV and not a newspaper or a news magazine is very ill informed," said Frank Johnson, executive editor of the Arizona Daily Star. "They get a headline service. It's a visual age. It's easier to sit and watch the 6 o'clock news and not go out of your way to read the paper."
But there were those who defied the general trend, such as Robert Rhodes, executive editor of the Corpus Christi (Tex.) Times, who said he had been most interested in the meeting on the business of newspapers.
"I think maybe it's time for us to start putting out a newspaper again and recognize the fact that the press is not the teddy bear America takes to bed at night," said Rhodes.
"I think self-flagellation is fine to a point, and maybe we've come to that point. Many institutions are less respected than they used to be. We don't revere our schoolteachers as we used to. We don't revere our politicians as we used to. We don't revere our lawyers as we used to. We're in a time when the public feels some basic distrust of government, the services it gets and the media."
For others, it came down to a very simple question.
"Are we in a popularity contest?" asked David Hennigan, editor of the Lancaster (Pa.) Sunday News.
"We're not really supposed to be the popular guys," he said. "You're always in an adversary role. When we write about the guy who's arrested for drunk driving and he happens to be your neighbor -- that happens all the time in small towns. It happens in Small Town, U.S.A., with our mayors and our city councils. Focus on anybody and you start getting unpopular."