Poll after poll, year after year, the message is the same: Journalists are ranked down with used-car salesmen and snake-oil peddlers when it comes to credibility.
Is it because reporters lie? Is it because reporters make so many mistakes? Or because reporters are biased?
No. It’s because the public does not understand what journalists do or how the news gets put together, whether it’s for TV, print, radio or the Internet.
Believe it or not, the majority of men and women practicing journalism day in, day out are honest people filled with integrity and motivated to get to the truth without leaving a trail of harm.
So whose fault is it that the public’s perception of journalists comes from a few bad apples or from movies about journalists that “Hollywood up” the reality?
The fault lies with a news media that has long arrogantly kept its way of doing business to itself and is only beginning to understand that the more transparent a news operation is, the more accountable it becomes. And that leads to increased credibility.
The news industry should work harder at exhibiting the same transparency about how it operates that it demands from public corporations and all levels of government.
Some news organizations do this better than others. But many still have a long way to go. Recently, the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda studied how transparent 25 of the world’s top news Web sites are. The conclusions are not encouraging.
An insular posture
“Journalists are not only reluctant to explain what they know and how they know it,” the report said, “their news organizations are also often loath to admit mistakes and loath to publicly state their policies regarding their internal journalistic and ethical guidelines.”
The University of Maryland-based group looked at five categories to rate a news outlet’s transparency: willingness to correct mistakes, receptivity to reader criticisms, and openness about ownership, editorial policies and conflicts of interest.
Overall, print tended to be more transparent than broadcast, but there were exceptions. Tops in transparency were The Guardian, The New York Times, BBC News, CBS News, The Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio.
The worst? Time magazine, CNN, ITN, Sky News and Al Jazeera (English).
“Transparency is essential because it’s inextricably tied to credibility,” said Susan Moeller, director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda. “Transparency doesn’t ensure accuracy. But it does ensure that when a news outlet makes a mistake … its audience can be assured that the news outlet is going to admit to it and correct it and will have policies in place for following it up.”
The report also found that only seven of the 25 news outlets have an ombudsman who acts as a liaison with the public — five newspapers, NPR and CBS.
“It’s no coincidence that the top-rated American broadcast outlet is CBS,” Moeller said. “They were very badly damaged by the National Guard story [that wasn’t totally accurate] a couple of years ago. As a result they put up ‘Public Eye,’ which has some problems with it, but it’s out there to see what can be done.”
Only 11 of the 25 clearly post story corrections. “Again, it is the broadcast outlets that have a particularly poor track record,” the study said.
Efforts at the Tribune
The Chicago Tribune was not included in the study. The Tribune considers its policy on corrections aggressive, and it has a public editor, or ombudsman, whose contact information is published in the newspaper and posted on the paper’s Web site.
“Measured by the five criteria used for the study, I think the Tribune rates highly in transparency,” said Don Wycliff, the paper’s former public editor. “The question is whether those criteria by themselves are sufficient to really tell the story.”
They may not be. But they are a start. The more the public is able to reach inside a newsroom and understand why a story is put on the front page or why a name is used or why a picture is cropped, the better the chances that the news media might win back the respect most journalists truly deserve.
Alicia C. Shepard writes about the media and is author of “Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate.”