Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Restoring Trust in the News Media - Results From Two Forums

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. 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.

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. 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 among 48 percent of participants but the issue of tax money being used was a concern.

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

The idea of “getting citizens involved” with the news media was the most appealing to participants. 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."

In case you think I’m making these numbers up, a series of forums on the same topic done with 60 participants on Jan. 13, 2004 at the Classic Center in Athens, Georgia found similar results. The forums were conducted by students in a leadership program organized with assistance from the University of Georgia.

Here are the numbers from that forum.

Irresponsible journalists are eroding public trust in the media.
64 percent agreed or strongly agreed.

Broadcast journalists are more interested in improving their ratings than in serving the public.
80 percent agreed or strongly agreed.

The news media are more concerned with profits than with public service.
89 percent agreed or strongly agreed.

The ownership of too much of the media industry rests in a
handful of huge companies.

85 percent agreed or strongly agreed

Citizens should have more influence in setting standards for the news media.
64 percent agreed or strongly agreed.

Boycotts are an effective way for citizens to exert influence on the media
59 percent agreed or strongly agreed.

Journalists should develop a set of standards for news coverage that they would all be expected to follow.
87 percent agreed or strongly agreed.

Journalists should be licensed as other professionals, such and doctors and teachers, are.
41 percent favored or strongly favored.

We should increase government funding for public broadcasting.
59 percent favored or strongly favored.

The federal government should more strictly regulate the media industry.
23 percent favored or strongly favored.

Local media should initiate community discussions of civic issues in their communities.
86 percent agreed or strongly agreed.

Citizens should start their own news sources, such as Web sites or newsletters, to address issues their local media fail to address.
79 percent agreed or strongly agreed.
And, there you have it, some good food for thought and maybe even some action.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


If More Editors Admitted When They are Wrong, Public Opinion of the Media Might Improve

Over the past 10 years, study after study has found 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.

I’ve conducted a public issue forum, “News Media and Society,” over 15 times in the last three years and one of the things citizens complain about is the perceived “arrogance” of the news media. One of the factors contributing to that perception is that citizens don’t feel like media outlets admit when they are wrong.

That is why Amy Brant’s editorial, “The best of intentions can often prove to be a mistake,” in the weekly Republic Monitor newspaper (Republic, Missouri) was so refreshing this week. Here is an excerpt:

Last week, when I wrote my column and shared my feelings on the situation of
moving the cooperative program (at Republic R-II Schools) into mobile
classrooms, my heart was in the right place, but as I quickly found out, not all
of my information was accurate.

Before you say anything -- I know-a good journalist wouldn't have done that. …

The column was written Tuesday for Wednesday's paper, but by the time I found out at Tuesday night's school board meeting that I was wrong, it was too late -- the newspapers were already on the stands and in the mail.

Therefore, it is my intention this week to let you know of my mistake, and try to communicate the correct information …
Editors and reporters of all shapes and sizes -- both locally and nationally -- make mistakes of fact in stories. Some of those mistakes may be intentional (bias) and others may be unintentional (miscommunication).

The difference with the error outlined in this editorial is that the editor of the Republic Monitor had the guts to admit to the mistake publicly. She corrected the information in the same space she made the mistake one week before and she did it with the same zeal.

It takes big shoulders for an editor to openly say, "I was wrong."

She didn’t pass the blame to anyone else and she didn’t defend the error with fuzzy, situational ethics.

If the rest of the American media establishment was this honest -- and went this far to correct errors in a manner equal to the error itself -- I think public opinion about the news media would improve.

Kudos to Amy Brant for honestly admitting to making a mistake instead of demonstrating “arrogance” like others who make a habit of defending their work, no matter the facts.

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