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Readers say it will take big effort to win back public trust

Three strong themes emerged when a national group of newspaper editors asked readers if the CBS National Guard memo scandal had affected their faith in election coverage.

Three strong themes emerged when a national group of newspaper editors asked readers if the CBS National Guard memo scandal had affected their faith in election coverage.

- Yes, because CBS violated the principles of good journalism.

- No, because everyone makes mistakes.

- No, because the media had no credibility left to lose.

Credibility always is a media concern, but the memo story became a flashpoint for questions over trustworthy political coverage.

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"My choice of networks has been CBS for years," said Jeff Clark of Janesville, Wis. "This event/controversy has really damaged my trust of the media as a whole."

Responses to an online survey by the Associated Press Managing Editors' National Credibility Roundtables Project suggested some good news -- plenty of readers said human error goes with the territory -- along with the bad: Even more said the media needs to work to win back the public trust.

On this the readers offered advice, listing ways to remind the media of its mission, as well as a few ideas that conflict with journalistic tradition.

But the CBS story was a clear-cut example of everything news consumers complain about. Online critics immediately questioned documents central to a "60 Minutes" piece on President Bush's National Guard service. Traditional journalists joined them the next day. CBS News tried to defend itself even as details of ethical lapses trickled out -- raising even more questions about its ability to objectively report the news.

"I relied on coverages such as this to have been accurately checked out and I guess I don't see how this could have passed through so many people without being checked out," said Elaine Scheer of Hawley, Minn.

"It makes you wonder if there is any honest reporting left."

Some readers explained that they'd always had suspicions of agenda-driven coverage, and the memo story told them they were right. Others said they still felt comfortable trusting the rest of the media, but would keep an eye on CBS. Or possibly, not keep an eye on CBS: Ratings for the evening news broadcast showed a significant drop after criticism of the memo story surfaced.

Other readers were more sympathetic.

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"These sorts of things happen sometimes, because 'the media' is actually composed of a large group of human beings, and I haven't met a human being yet who is infallible," said Marge Barber of Beaufort, S.C. Readers like Barber fell in line with a recent Gallup poll, in which most of the public described CBS' actions as an "honest mistake."

And then there were the readers the media lost a long time ago.

"I didn't trust the mainstream media to begin with. This just confirms my belief that they are biased," said Gayle Mesec of Woodbine, Ga. "Too bad more people aren't turning away from them."

Although this group of readers may be unreachable, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen said, the rest offer a couple of clear lessons as the media moves forward. First, don't abuse those who are willing to forgive. "This is why many critics of CBS have drawn attention to the response from Sept. 9 to Sept. 20, when CBS finally admitted to having made a mistake," Rosen said.

And second, when a breakdown in journalism cuts loose some of the public trust, a display of good principles gives media the best chance of getting it back.

So how does the media go about repairing credibility with a skeptical readership?

More than a few survey respondents said there's only one way: fire everyone and start from scratch. But most readers say getting the media back on track is simply a matter of getting back to basics. More objectivity, fewer anonymous sources. Be skeptical, but not hostile. Take time to verify the story, be quick to admit when you're wrong. And please, send those sound bites into the abyss.

"If Kerry is calling Bush a short little shrimp in a speech, or if Bush starts throwing flip-flops into the audience at a rally, there should be ZERO coverage of that kind of nonsense," said Gary Silvers of Spokane, Wash. "If you don't give them exposure, maybe they'll talk issues instead."

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"Stop trying to interpret everything," said Sally Drumm of Beaufort, S.C. "Show some respect for the audience. Stop judging and just report. Bring me the news and quit telling me how to think."

Jeanette Pryor of Greeley, Colo., believes the he-said, she-said model of reporting opens the media up for abuse by its sources, which is worse than getting no story at all. "Do not let politicians and parties use the media as outlets to distort and lie about their competition. The media owes it to the voting public to correct distortions and report the facts and truth about both candidates and their positions."

Dave Solomon, editor of the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph, agrees. "We need to do more analysis of truth in campaign advertising, and more input from uninvolved third parties in academia and business, outside of the political spin machines, to challenge assertions and characterizations that are misleading at best, sometimes downright false."

One suggestion for improving credibility was the most pervasive among survey responses, and it's not going to surprise many journalists: Lose the liberal bias. Some readers, like Cal Skinner of Crystal Lake, Ill., assume that conservatives are a rare breed in newsrooms these days.

"It seems to me that more than a little effort should be made to diversify ideology in the newsroom," Skinner said. "Of course, that would mean that liberals would have to admit that conservatives might have useful thoughts. My guess is that many newsrooms don't even have anyone willing to identify themselves as a Republican or a conservative."

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