Accuracy in Media

Public confidence in the news media is sinking again, a recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows. In the aftermath of 9/11, that confidence had shot up by nearly twenty percentage points on some polling questions. On the key questions of accuracy and balance, confidence went up by as much as ten points. But now, almost eight months after the last sounding, public confidence in the news media has plummeted back to levels at or below the pre-September 11 ratings. The media’s unwillingness to admit mistakes is particularly irksome to the public and, once again, nearly 60% of those polled think the media are biased.

Ironically, the Pew polling data show that the public still values the media as a watchdog, particularly on politicians and the military. The bad news on that front is that the media no longer devote the resources to monitor the federal agencies or even Capitol Hill as in the past. Even Washington’s company town newspaper, the Post, now emphasizes multi-part series, like its recent coverage of Enron, over the town’s primary business: how Congress allocates and bureaucrats spend taxpayers dollars. The Post’s national editor recently said that her staff just isn’t big enough to cover all the federal agencies and departments. A recent American Journalism Review (AJR) survey found that many newspapers and wire services have simply abandoned coverage of the federal bureaucracy and now rely mostly on the Associated Press or trade publications. But AP is also stretched thin and assigns its reporters to cover multiple agencies, none in depth. Bureaucrats used to worry about reading stories on the consequences of their decisions in the next morning’s Post, but that fear has largely subsided. They also know that even if the Post does such a story, its half-life would be two days or so before the media would move on. As AJR’s survey concluded, all this means “less public accountability by the government.”

All these polls and surveys have not occasioned much deep reflection from media reporters at the major newspapers. The Post’s Howard Kurtz simply reported the poll results and concluded, “our reputation is in the toilet again.” The Los Angeles Times ran a wire story quoting the Pew Center’s director as saying that the public was just shooting the messenger and unhappy that the news had become “more contentious.” Cable News Network, whose numbers looked pretty good, used the story mostly as promotional material.

But another survey, taken in January 2002, provides insight into why the public is losing confidence in the news media. Done by the Princeton Survey Research Association, this one showed that immediately after 9/11 the news media “took great care about not getting ahead of the facts” and mostly provided a “straightforward accounting of events ? here is what happened.” This trend continued for several months and, according to the survey, accounted for the first “measurable” improvement in public confidence in the media in 15 years.

But as time went on, the news media shifted back to its old habits of analysis, opinion and speculation, largely based on anonymous sources. The public much preferred the “on-the-record” reporting it had been doing; the survey also concludes that, as before, the public wants information and not interpretation, and it doesn’t like hype and sensationalism. The study’s focus was limited to coverage of terrorism and its consequences and cut off in mid-December.

Since then, the media’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has drawn much criticism and even boycotts by some Jewish organizations. This plus efforts to tar the Bush administration with the corporate scandals and the media’s favorable treatment of Bill Clinton’s effort to rewrite the history of his administration have likely combined to push confidence levels even lower.

There is one bright spot in the August Pew research poll. The public’s confidence in Bill Clinton’s credibility is at an all-time low. Forty-six percent of those polled “believe almost nothing” Bill Clinton says, a drop from his previous low in May 1998. Bad news, too, for Al Gore. Twice as many are inclined to disbelieve him as there are those who think he is highly credible.

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