Three-fourths of American adults question the credibility of newspapers and television news and a fifth of them deeply distrust the media, partly because they perceive the press as arrogant, aloof and more sympathetic to the rich than to ordinary people, according to a study by the nation's newspaper editors.
A widely voiced complaint was that "most news reporters are just concerned about getting a good story and they don't worry about hurting people."
Nearly two-thirds of the respondents agreed that "the press often takes advantage of victims of circumstance who are ordinary people" -- particularly by invading the privacy of victims of tragedy or disaster.
The report urged newspapers to "enhance their role as a populist institution" so that people see it as " 'my paper' instead of 'that paper' " and to regain their franchise as a "people's advocate."
The poll was commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), which wound up its annual convention here yesterday. A national sample of about 1,600 people was polled by telephone last December and January; about 1,000 of them later completed a questionnaire and a second telephone interview.
David Lawrence Jr., publisher of the Detroit Free Press and chairman of the ASNE credibility committee, told the editors that "some good journalists would argue that all this talk about credibility does our craft no good and maybe some damage." But he said it is necessary to "face up to the perceptions as well as the truth."
Lawrence said the major consequences of diminished credibility are reduced public support for the rights of a free press and declining newspaper readership.
One reason for the public's skepticism is what the report terms "the media explosion," in which people get conflicting reports from newspapers, television, radio and magazines. It said a major cause for concern by newspaper editors is that when people have to choose among conflicting reports, about half opt for television, but only about a fourth believe newspapers, with 14 percent trusting magazines and about 10 percent radio.
The report said people are more inclined to believe film reports, in which they can see events and participants, rather than having to read about them.
However, the report noted that regular newspaper readers say they think that newspapers are more credible than television news reports, and that television's credibility tends to decline among viewers as their education levels increase.
Lawrence said that one way to improve credibility is to make the media more accessible.
People who said their newspapers have corrections columns and ombudsmen were more likely to give them high credibility ratings -- 41 percent compared with 32 percent among all those interviewed -- and to say they believe that the papers care for common people rather than the rich. They also are more likely to support freedom of the press, the study found.
The groups that are less likely to believe the media are blacks, the young, people in the highest and lowest education and income groups and residents of large cities.
Blacks are more likely to think that the press is biased, particularly in favor of whites, but are the most supportive of freedom of the press. People between ages 18 and 24, however, tend to think that the press has too much freedom and that it gets in the way of public officials trying to do their jobs.
Those in the bottom quarter of the population in terms of education and income tend to be alienated and indifferent to the news, the study said. Those people said they think that the press favors the rich and are more inclined to believe that the media mixes its bias into its news reports.
The affluent and educated, who are disproportionately conservative and Republican, prefer print to electronic media, but they believe that all the media put too much emphasis on what's wrong with America, according to the survey.
Asked to rate the honesty and ethical standards of leaders of 10 professions, the respondents listed the clergy, doctors and police highest, then television anchor men and women, public schoolteachers, television reporters, newspaper editors, newspaper reporters, advertising executives and used-car salemen.
A three-member panel on libel -- Mike Wallace of CBS, John Walsh, an attorney for former Mobil Corp. president William Tavoulareas, and Anthony Lewis of The New York Times -- also told the editors that the media should offer the public better ways to express its dissatisfaction in an effort to reduce the number of libel suits.
Walsh, whose client won a libel judgment against The Washington Post that was reinstated by an appeals court panel this week, said that making space or time available for rebuttal "can do a lot to defuse the feeling of one who believes he's been defamed and is consulting a lawyer." Lewis agreed that libel suits apparently have replaced "the tradition of answering back."