Friday, May 07, 2004

Liars, Damn Liars and Journalists

Timothy Maier's article at FrontPage Magazine points out that Journalists rank just below auto mechanics in terms of ethics acording to a recent poll:

    For two decades polls increasingly have indicated public dismay at the spin and fantasies of the press. In fact, a recent Gallup Poll says Americans rate the trustworthiness of journalists at about the level of politicians and as only slightly more credible than used-car salesmen. The poll suggests that only 21 percent of Americans believe journalists have high ethical standards, ranking them below auto mechanics but tied with members of Congress. More precisely, the poll notes that only one in four people believe what they read in the newspapers. Chicago Tribune Editor Charles M. Madigan may have put it best when he offered this advice: "If you are a journalist, you should probably just assume that you come across as a liar."

    A 2004 study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, part of Columbia University's storied Graduate School of Journalism, underscores Madigan's observation. "Since 1985, believability of the daily newspaper has fallen by a quarter, from 80 percent in 1985 to 59 percent in 2002," notes the study, which includes data gathered by the Pew Research Center to form its conclusions. The study also points out that there has been a rapid decline in newspaper readership since the 1980s, with slightly more than half of Americans (54 percent) reading a newspaper during the week.

    "The three television network news divisions and local news also saw significant drops from 1985, when they were all above 80 percent for believability," the study reveals. A 1999 survey conducted for the American Society of Newspaper Editors also points out that about 53 percent of the public view the press as out of touch with mainstream America, while 78 percent think journalists pay more attention to the interests of their editors than their readers.

My favorite part of the piece is about two-thirds of the way down:
    "For me, I think it's editorial leadership," says Adam Penenberg, the former Forbes Digital Tool reporter who helped expose Glass. Author of Tragic Indifference: One Man's Battle With the Auto Industry Over the Dangers of SUVS, he says that even "when I worked at Forbes, no one ever gave me a piece of paper to sign about ethics." Penenberg believes an ethics guideline on the dos and don'ts - such as not altering quotes, avoiding use of anonymous sources, not holding positions that could be considered a conflict of interest for a reporter, and not owning or purchasing stock before or after writing about a company - would clear up a lot of gray areas between reporters and editors. Creating an ethics standard of the sort that Fortune 500 companies require of their employees would "put the fear of God" into reporters, he says.

Uh huh. These people are adults, right? Souldn't they already know this stuff without an editor having to spell it out for them? Maybe if they already had a little "fear of God", it might make a difference.

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