Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Restoring Trust in the News Media

Over the past 10 years, study after study has found that American citizens are losing confidence in the news media.

The downward trend began in the 1980’s and gained steam in the 1990’s, long-before the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times gave the credibility of large newspapers a black eye.

Finding ways to restore the public's trust in the news media is the purpose of public issue forum materials developed by the Kettering Foundation and being delivered in southwest Missouri by University of Missouri Extension.

Free resources any individual or group can use to conduct an issue forum or study circle on “News Media and Society” can now be found at

A series of six news media issue forums were held in Springfield, Mo back in 2003. A total of 95 people attended and deliberated all sides of this issue before making choices and finding common ground.

It was apparent from the forum’s beginning that a majority of citizens no longer trust the news media.

Some citizens think the news media covers up real stories for the sake of owners or advertisers.

Others find liberal bias in much of what is written and said (or left out). Still others find the news sensationalized and hyped for the sole purpose of profit. Meanwhile, others say the news media is nothing but entertainment while the real hard issues of our culture get ignored.

Over 80 percent of participants agreed that irresponsible journalists are eroding public trust in the news media. The blame, however, was placed on owners, with 85 percent of participants saying the news media is "more concerned with profits than with public service."

There was also universal agreement that the “failure” of America’s news media is a serious challenge to the functioning of our democracy. However, there was some difference regarding the source of the news media’s failure and few solid solutions on how to fix it.

Only 15 percent of participants agreed with licensing journalists like lawyers and teachers.

"The ownership of too much of the media industry rests in a handful of huge companies," was agreed with by 85 percent of forum participants. There was support for public broadcasting, with 48 percent supporting more funding (although the issue of tax money being used was a concern).

There was support for making the media more accountable to the public interests, but no suggestions of how this could be accomplished without additional government involvement.

The idea of “getting citizens involved” with the news media was the most appealing to participants. However, it was not without concerns. There was agreement that citizens need to engage the news media more and take a more active role.

There was also agreement that the news media needs to do a better job of listening to the citizens of their community. In fact, 93 percent of forum participants agreed, "the local media should initiate community discussions of civic issues in their communities."

This issue of restoring the public trust is a serious one for the future of our nation's democracy. It is serious for the news media too, especially when you consider that 50 percent of participants agreed with giving the federal government power to “more strictly regulate the news media."

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Bringing the public back into politics

The chief problem, from the third perspective in the issue book on restoring American democracy, is neither the erosion of the nation’s moral foundation, nor its neglect of civic habits and skills. It is, rather, a serious flaw in a nation dedicated to government by the people. At a time when the country seems to be run by an oligarchy of insiders, there is a growing sense that politics is something they do—not something that involves us, and not something we the people can control.

Consequently, most Americans no longer see a role in politics for themselves. We are political consumers, not active citizens. Growing distrust of politics and politicians, and a widespread sense that the country is going in the wrong direction are symptoms of what has gone wrong. In a nation where the people are supposed to be sovereign, citizens have lost control of the government. As John W. Gardner remarks, “a prime ingredient in the citizen’s negative mood is a sense of disconnection. ‘We the people’ feel a long way from the centers of decision. It doesn’t seem like our venture any more.”

As this approach sees it, Americans did not retreat from civic life. They were shut out by elected officials more interested in poll numbers and lobbyists’ positions than in the genuine, complex thinking of citizens. There are few remaining occasions for most Americans to do what only citizens can do, which is to make judgments about what direction we should be headed and help set priorities for public action. As advocates of this perspective see it, until we fix the political system so citizens once again have a central place in it, none of the other efforts to bring the public back into the public square is likely to make a difference.

What do you have to say?

Thursday, December 07, 2006


Newspapers and democracy

Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who was a keen observer of American life, said some 170 years ago: "You can't have real newspapers without democracy, and you can't have democracy without newspapers."

While I am still reading the national report from the national issue forums on revitalizing democracy I am starting to see more discussion about the role of newspapers in our democracy.

One speech, the text of which is online, caught my eye: "The Role of Newspapers in Building Citizenship," by Jan Schaffer Executive Director Pew Center for Civic Journalism given in São Paulo, Brazil on September 13, 2004.

Here are a few comments from that speech worth sharing in the context of this important public issue.

"It's no longer enough for journalists themselves to think they are doing a good job. Readers have to agree that a free press plays an essential role in our democratic society for journalists to merit their special place."

Survey after survey shows that American citizens think the linebetweenn entertainment and news has become blurred (at best).

Journalists seem to be unable to "get it right." The news media are spending more time serving elites than ordinary citizens. People tell pollsters that the media is out of touch with the public. They also say that journalism is motivated by commercial interests, which are driving sensational coverage.

What is the state of U.S. journalism now? As a business it has become very profit driven. As a product many say journalism has become something to watch instead of believe. Adding to the difficulty are problems with reporters who ask loaded questions, expect fast answers, begin stories with a mission or pre-existing belief, along with some high profile ethical problems in the profession.

Do these factors impact civic engagement in America? People are not voting, not volunteering and not participating in our democracy. Is this because of problems in the news media? Or, is the source of the problem much deeper, even spiritual?

"The Pew Trust feared that democracy was broken. And they wondered, in part, if it was because journalism was broken, too. Among the questions civic journalists asked: Were we creating a nation of spectators watching a daily civic freak show instead of a nation of citizen participants engaged in the issues and the choices that must be made in a self-governing society?"

Jan Schaffer ended with the interesting thoughts on what civic journalists wanted to see. She asked:

"Is it possible to: retain the media’s watchdog role, spotlighting corruption and injustices; abandon the attack dog role that seemed to be just creating a lot of noise in a very noisy media environment; add the duties of a guide dog helping people figure out what kind of roles they could play in a democracy beyond simply casting a ballot. In other words, could you hold citizens accountable for doing their jobs as citizens, much as you would hold public officials accountable for their actions in public office?"

What do you think? Is our current state of journalism part of the problem in our democracy?

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?