tapes & transcripts

Not Too Focused On Wrong Doing

Two thirds of the public and comparable percentages of leaders think that journalists these days are too focused on the misdeeds and failings of public figures. But larger percentages of press respondents believe that newspeople are not pre-occupied with wrongdoing. A similar gap between public and press exists on the question of whether the national and local news media are more adversarial than they should be. Fully 60% of the public thinks they are, while 64% of the national media people interviewed think not, as do 66% of local media respondents.

Both the surveys, and a series of in-depth interviews that preceded the polling reveal how much the press and the rest of the world differ on the question of whether the press is an overzealous watchdog. The survey of the press found a majority of newspeople thinking that public anger with the press is, at least in part, justified. But journalists who believe public anger at the media stems from its negativity are much less likely to believe that anger is justified, than are those who feel the public is angry over sensationalism, bias or lack of relevance. More than inadequate coverage, some journalists do not believe good news has much of a place in the media. As one Washington editor put it in a background session that preceded the survey: "Our function in a democracy is to hold up to the public things that they have the ability to change, through their votes or pressures on their public officials. We don't need to tell people that their roads are okay, because they don't need to do anything about that. seat do people most need to know? Things that they can change through civic action ... People don't know the reality in a lot of the things they want to change. "

The media's view of its watchdog role is bolstered by its conviction that most reporters are more ethical than the public officeholders they cover. Close to two-thirds of the local media (63%) held this view, as did 54% of those employed by the national news organizations. Neither the public nor the leaders surveyed held such a lofty view of the press. Most thought the press was about as ethical as the politicians about whom they report. That was the opinion of 79% of the local politicians and 63% of members of Congress interviewed for this project.

Yes, Too Cynical

Although the press vigorously defends its adversarial posture, it does acknowledge that it is too cynical. Majorities of the newspeople interviewed believed that journalists are more cynical than people from similar backgrounds in different kinds of jobs, and that criticism of the news media on this score is valid. Journalists see their cynicism as a consequence of the work they do and a natural reaction to the kind of people they cover. "Talk about what makes reporters cynical, it's the company they keep, "joked a New York network executive. "They see people lie a lot. " Added a White House correspondent: "Clinton says, 'Stop taking money from lobbyists. But oh, I just remembered. I've been taking money from lobbyists for my own defense fund. Sorry about that.' I spend 90% of my time seeing the underside, the cynical parts of this town. "

Belatedly, most media respondents acknowledge that journalists think it is better to be seen as too tough on one's subjects than as too soft. Perhaps reflecting what one learns on the job, over time, the poll found younger news people less often saying that journalists are more cynical than people in other kinds of jobs, and more often saying that journalists worry about being seen as too tough on their subjects.

Besides cynicism, other criticisms of the media resonate with the press, and on many of these issues older journalists are more self critical than younger media people. The poll found large majorities of journalists thinking that the press pays too little attention to complex issues. Equally large percentages of the business, political and community leaders also subscribed to this view.

The Fact and Opinion Lines Blur

Although members of both the national and local media reject the idea that news accounts are increasingly full of factual errors and sloppy reporting, many of the journalists interviewed believe the distinction between reporting and commentary is eroding. Older journalists saw much more truth in this than did younger media people. Older news people, especially those 6O and

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

star struck | venality and the vanities | talkback | interviews | reactions | what's to be done? | a reporter who quit | polling america's views | explore frontline | pbs online | wgbh