When I go out into our community, I find people rubbed raw by newspapers. Actually, they are rubbed raw by the media in general, but I am a newspaper editor and I am talking about newspapers.
Part of this is not entirely our fault. It is the bruising collision between time and the implosion of too much information in people's heads. Newspapers compete, not only against other media, but increasingly against time itself. People are being subjected to a devastating assault on their senses from information sources-newspapers, television, radio, citizens band, records, computer banks, the mail, trade and professional journalism, hand calculators, magazines, movies, TV games. And so on. More competition is on the way-video discs, digital recordings, the home computer revolution.
In my conversations with citizens here in Dayton, I find that often they are not entirely sure where they saw or heard anything. They lump it all together under the handy catch-all term "media," particularly when they don't like what they're receiving. People very often say "media" when they mean newspapers. Interesting.
The other problem people have with newspapers is not one that editors and reporters can evade. It's the problem of tone. Readers do not seem to understand the tone, the language, we use in addressing them. They have awful problems understanding what we think we are saying.
A newspaper apparently gives off strong, negative resonances rather than the well-intentioned ones we think we are delivering. The impressions of readers, to put it mildly, are skeptical, suspicious, even hostile. They think newspapers have no sense of community, that newspapers are wrong about the small authenticating details, that they gloat over local problems. Readers get this message reading the paper. I think, by the way, the impression is at least significantly accurate.
I am not posing here as a new expert on American newspapers. I know my own city of Dayton and the attitudes here because for the last three years I have held regular public meetings with our readers. My own vivid impressions match up precisely with a remarkable study of newspaper readers, done by Ruth Clark of the Yankelovich research organization for the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the American Newspaper Publishers Association.
The news is bad for newspapers, according to Clark. People feel that newspapers are distant and unresponsive to human contact. They feel shunted aside, insulted, ignored turned off.
Right At the very first meeting I held with readers in the basement of an East Dayton boys club, the first complaint was about our new telephone system. The readers didn't know where to take their complaints and felt they were getting short shrift, when they finally arrived, exhausted, at a human voice.
What emerges, time after time, in our Dayton neighborhood meetings is that too many readers apparently do not trust us. They want to know a great deal more about us before they will pledge their allegiance. "How can I trust you," they ask, "if I don't know who you are?" They feel our semianonymous staffers come and go and have no genuine interest in the community.
A lot of that may be unfair, but that is what they believe. And we do little to deal with it, sometimes pridefully insisting that one of our true strengths is that we hardly ever write about or explain ourselves.
I have found considerable tolerance for our explanations. Even when our explanations are lame, readers are reasonable and good-humored. Newspapers are much more hesitant, groping processes than they appear to be when read. Readers are frequently surprised to hear that newspapers can be human institutions. Why is that?
In the absence of explanation, however, readers assume the diabolical is at work. Do we assume any less from the silence of our own news sources? We may have trained our readers too well in lifelong skepticism.
Interestingly, people think they know and can relate to television news personalities, people who we print journalists think do a pretty lame job of news gathering.
They think, for example, that these television people are genuinely sorry when something awful happens.
Let's say three members of a local family are killed in car crash in the northern part of your county.
"I'm terribly sorry to report that three members of a Centerville family were killed in a tragic car crash in northern Smith County."
We would handle the same item in this manner.
3DIE IN FLAMING CRASH
"Three members of a Centerville family died late Friday in a flaming car crash in northern Smith County."
The informations is very nearly the same, but the approaches are enormously different. One the viewers sees, complete with the professionally saddened visage of the newscaster, a friendly, likeable fellow, as a natural human response to tragedy. The other is seen as a cold-hearted attempt to retail death.
I asked one of my staff members what he thought of this comparison. He said he thought the word "tragic" was gratuitous. Everyone, he said, knows that three people dying in a car crash is tragic.
Of course. Everyone knows it. But what I think the reader often looks for in a newspaper is the acknowledgement of the tragic or the gratitous, if you like. He wants to know we know it, that the newspaper shares feelings of humanity, in much the same way a dedicated sports fan wants to read about a game he saw yesterday. Are we above such simple human communications?
MUCH OF THIS, I think, can be corrected by intelligently opening up some of our processes to public view and reconsidering our techniques and how they come across when read by real people.
A short time ago a colleague told me a troubling story. He had been talking to his mother shortly after our newspaper had been through a period of energetic and useful coverage of local governmental problems.
"I wouldn't live in Dayton," his mother told him. "It's too corrupt."
We were shaken by her reaction. Neither of us feels that way at all about the city. We think Dayton is a very fine place. We like living here.
That, nevertheless, was the final message of the coverage, coverage which we feel was useful and necessary. We never meant to say anything like that about Dayton.
I am terribly concerned that, as our standards are elevated and refined, newspapers draw even further away from the readers for whom all of this journalistic goodness is actually done. Some of us - editors and reporters - lead completely encapsulated journalistic lives. We know a very great deal about the latest fascinating newsroom sensation out there somewhere, the latest hot stuff form the pages of the Columbia Journalism Review or Editor & Publisher, but good deal less about the lives of a turret lathe operator in a working class neighborhood, a day laborer in a poor black neighborhood McDonald's.
Our codes of behavior have become increasingly journalistic. Our dearest friends are other journalists. We write in journalese, not the language of the people. I do no exempt myself.
Our journalism seems too often depriced of a purpose larger than journalism, and we are forbidden by the rules to consider a larger purpose.
The unstated center of so much of our journalism is like an 18th century Hogarthian engraving entitled "Trust Betrayed." The Pulitzer prizes annually reward those who bring down and mount the largest betrayals. Some day someone ought to commission a study of the effects - both good and bad - of journalistic awards.
Well, Hogarth was very good, but he was not all art. Hogarthian journlism is a singularly narrow theme on which to be judged. Or to see life. And we become vulnerable to the next question from the well trained reader: "And what about you?"
We see ourselves as driven professionals, informed by good intentions and purposes. Readers see us as moral vigilantes, driven only by the desire to sell newspapers. We protest our meritorious intentions. But the public does not understand. We protest that we bear no respobsibility for the consequences of our journalism. It is a world, many of us feel, we never made. We only report.
Baloney. As human beings, editors and reporters ought to be terribly burdened, haunted, by the very real consequences of our decision to publish. We ought to live uncomfortably with the fact that our journalism does damage. It can only be redeemed by the knowledge that, on balance, it helped more than it hurt.
An editor once told me he did not care whether a public official stole 50 cents or $130. The thieving public official could only blame himself. It was all the same to the editor.
I do not think the reader, that turret lathe operator, believes in his plain common sense that it is all the same.
He just sees a newspaper without a sense of dimension, pity or understanding.
BEFORE I become the darling of every creep who wants to muzzle honest journalism, I must insist I am not talking here about giving up our role of watchdog. I am talking about how to preserve it - of using the right words, of being understood by our readers. Being understood may not be our largest responsibility, but is the one on which all the others rest.
Our private views of ourselves inevitably shape how we are perceived. Newspapers need to stand back and take a long look, as professional communicators, as to what our messages might actually be as against how we see them when we write them.
All of this terribly difficult.It is important to retain initiative and enterprise and courage in our journalism - to dig deeply, to retain a healthy, if not prideful, skepticism.
But it is becoming increasingly important to consider deeply the voice we use in expressing our journalism. It does not need to be the voice of asperity and sterile detachment. I am not sure that enough of us in journalism have remained an organic part of the community, rather than a brooding presence towering above it in judgement. Newspapers need to be alert to community needs and failures, yet also be seen asinstitutions of fundamental good will, sharing pride as well as problems.
Our voice is often seen as strident for the sake of stridency. What appears to be our central ethic, "We catch crooks," is seen as the journalistic equivalent of Bonnie and Clyde's "We rob banks." And if we are perceived this way by our readers, is it really much different from being it?
I think some of what we are doing is simply seen as crazy. Some of us have begun to describe a journalism performed, more a less, for it own sake. Life lived as journalism, its ethics defined by journalism, in the service of journalism, seeking no greater goal than acheiving a rectitude described by journalism. The perfect circle.
Journalism is not life. It is not religion. It is observation and commentary, sometimes skilled. As I get older I have less and less a desire to live life as a journalistic ideologue. I am more interested in doing right than in following the rigid constraints of some journalistic code that shields me from choice. I am interested, at least, in trying. CAPTION: Illustration 1, "It does say, 'Press,' doesn't it?" By Michael Crawford for The Washington Post; Illustration 2, no caption, By Geoffrey Moss for The Washington Post