Accuracy in Media

The advent of the Internet has seen a veritable cottage industry of grassroots media critics spring up on both the right and the left. Some of these ‘Mom and Pop’ operations watch just one network (like CBS) or just one newspaper such as the New York Times). Others watch the media in a single state, such as Texas Media Watch. Meanwhile there are those in the press who react by suggesting dissatisfaction with the news is nothing more than a partisan figment of the popular imagination.

Yet, a study conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) concludes that journalism is “in the midst of an epochal transformation, as momentous probably as the invention of the telegraph or television.”

Many long-held ideas about journalism are “unraveling,” PEJ reports. As people move online, the notion of news consumers is giving way to something called “pro-sumers,” in which citizens “simultaneously function as consumers, editors and producers of a new kind of news in which journalistic accounts are but one element.” This means that the people themselves are becoming journalists. They are not leaving the job to the so-called “professionals.”

Ironically, there seems to be more freedom in these new media ventures, while the old media continue their descent. The PEJ 2004 study on the State of the News Media determined that journalists see many problems within their profession and they seem more “intractable” than they did a few years ago. Sizable majorities of journalists (66% nationally and 57% locally) think “increased bottom line pressure is seriously hurting the quality of news coverage.” That represents a dramatic increase from five years ago, when fewer than half in the news business held that view.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that most sectors of the news media have seen clear cutbacks in newsgathering resources. Among their findings:

  1. The number of newspaper newsroom staffers shrunk by 2,000 between 2000 and 2004 (a 4% drop).

  2. Some major online news sites like MSNBC experienced much deeper cuts, with around a quarter of its staff reduced between 2001 and 2003.

  3. Radio newsroom staffing declined by 57% from 1994 to 2001. After an uptick in 1999, network staffing began to drop again in 2000.

  4. Since 1985 the number of network news correspondents has declined by 35% while the number of stories per reporter increased by a surprising 30 percent.

Journalists believe these pressures are making the news they produce “thinner” and “shallower.” PEJ reports that we’re getting the “raw elements” of the news as the end product with “jumbled, chaotic, partial qualities.” The material is often not synthesized effectively or updated sufficiently. Instead, broadcast news features “meaningless repetition.” Roughly eight-in-ten in the news business feel the news media pay “too little attention ? to complex issues,”

Nationally, the number of journalists who feel that news reports are increasingly sloppy and inaccurate is rising. Among local journalists, it’s dropping.

Then there’s reported interference from advertisers of corporate owners attempting to influence coverage. A whopping one-third of local journalists have felt such pressure to steer their writing in a certain direction. This type of interference was found to be similarly high among those who work in online news.

Journalists also are said to have a declining faith in the public’s ability to make wise decisions. “A cynical view of the public becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads journalists to produce a shallower product because they think the public cannot handle anything else,” the study notes. It’s not clear to PEJ what the journalists’ declining faith in the public is attributable to: market research data, getting “closer” to their audiences, liberal bias, or some other factor/combination of factors.

But the bottom line is clear: the media are getting nervous about losing their audience.

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