Dim view of media? Try more transparency

September 18, 2009

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

This week brought more distressing news for journalists, as a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found the U.S. public more critical than ever of the accuracy and independence of the media.

Only 29 percent of Americans believe that news organisations generally get the facts straight, the survey found, the lowest level in the survey’s near quarter-century history.

It gets worse:

–Just 26 percent said the media are careful that reporting is not politically biased.
–Only 20 percent believe news organisations are independent of powerful people and organisations.
–Barely a fifth believe the media are willing to admit mistakes.

And news organisations have been able to do what politicians have failed at: creating consensus across party lines. Now solid majorities of Democrats, Republicans and Independents all believe that stories are often inaccurate and tend to favor one side.

It’s been a long road down. Back in 1985, in the first survey on media performance cited by Pew, 55 percent said news outlets get the facts straight and only 45 percent said the press was politically biased. Now 60 percent see political bias and only 18 percent say the media deal fairly with all sides of political and social issues.

What are we to do?

In the face of criticism, there’s sometimes a tendency to take shelter, keep one’s head down and hope the critics go away. But they won’t go away. And judging by the passionate and sometimes vitriolic criticisms I see in our comment sections, there are significant numbers of readers who will never believe reporters can put aside personal viewpoints and report a story accurately and fairly. You only have to look at discussions of coverage in the Middle East to see that.

The proper response, I believe, can be summed up in two words: More transparency.

That’s why we decided to make freely available to the public the guidelines our journalists live by when we published our Handbook of Journalism–and asked for feedback on it. That’s why I’m doing this job. That’s why we’re aggressive and open about correcting our mistakes. That’s why, in this blog and others, we welcome comments and debate on our work and issues in the news.

Reuters Editor in Chief David Schlesinger put it well in a recent speech, when he described journalism, at its best, as “a mirror, exposing back to society a true and brutally honest picture of what is going on.”

“When we fail at that,” he said, “when our picture is not clear or is at all distorted, we deserve to be criticised.”

At the risk of violating metaphor-overload rules, I invite you to take advantage of the windows we’re opening into our world–our Handbook of Journalism and our blogs–to tell us when you see a distorted picture or when the view is foggy. Or when it’s clear and distinct.

Judging by the dim view of the media revealed in the Pew survey, we can’t open the windows too wide or too soon.

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