On August 4, the Pew Research Center released the results of a survey of 1,365 adults conducted in the last two weeks of July. It found that the public’s opinion of the news media has fallen sharply from the levels attained in November in the wake of the media’s excellent coverage of 9/11. The Center’s press release said, “As the media’s focus has shifted away from terrorism, Americans regard news organizations with the same degree of skepticism as they did in the 1990s.”
For anyone interested in accuracy, the most shocking finding was that 56 percent of those surveyed said the media usually report inaccurately, and only 35 percent thought the media usually get the facts straight. What was even worse was that two-thirds of those polled said that the media try to cover up their mistakes, and slightly less than a quarter believed they were willing to admit their errors. These numbers closely tracked those opinions about bias, with 59 percent saying the media are politically biased and only 26 percent saying they were careful to avoid bias.
Numbers like these should have been very disturbing to editors and producers around the country. They are in a business that claims to provide its customers with reliable, accurate information. When a survey finds that only a little over a third of the public believe they usually get the facts straight and two-thirds of the consumers of their product think that they try to cover up any mistakes, an alarm should go off in newsrooms around the country. Meetings should be called to discuss what they were doing wrong and to figure out what they might do to correct it.
But if the publishers and editors relied on news sources such as the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times news services for their information, they would not even have learned about these disturbing numbers. The AP and the L.A. Times reported that six out of ten of those polled said the news media were biased, but they said nothing about the large number of those who thought they were inaccurate and tried to cover up their errors.
Refusing to report those embarrassing numbers is one way of being inaccurate?omitting information that many consumers of the news would consider quite important. The editors and producers don’t suppress it because they think that it would be of little interest to anyone. They omit it because it is embarrassing to them and they fear its publication might be damaging to their business. They might argue that the public’s perception of the accuracy of their reporting and their handling of mistakes is so far off base that it doesn’t merit mention.
None of these excuses are sound, ethical reasons for a news provider to withhold information from the public. The media devote a lot of resources to sampling public opinion. The polls they take to predict the outcome of elections are frequently wrong, but they don’t refuse to report them because of that. Their decision not to report the Pew findings that were most unfavorable to them was a mistake, and it is a mistake that they will neither admit nor correct. This adds to the evidence that has caused so many people to say they tend to be inaccurate and to cover up their mistakes. The Washington Times, which is looked down upon by the establishment media, published a good story about the survey, giving the numbers the others could not bring themselves to mention.
The Washington Post recently published a good article by Prof. Amitai Etzioni, who exposed the failure of the graduate schools of business to teach their students ethics. He showed that the education they got at Harvard and other respected business schools diminished rather than increased their respect for ethics, citing a study that found that the students in 13 top business schools had less respect for ethics at the end of their first year than they had when they entered the program.
A similar study of the role ethics plays in the training of journalists is needed. What is needed in journalists is a burning desire to get the truth and a willingness to make corrections if they get it wrong. Too many journalists tend to accept without question what they are told by “authorities.” That is a lot easier than studying the evidence and coming up with information that challenges what the authorities say. Not one major news organization has reported the evidence that disproves the scientifically absurd CIA video that “proved” that the crash of TWA Flight 800 was initiated by a fuel-tank explosion.