Current Problems in the Media
The burgeoning problems with the
media have been documented in great detail by researchers, academicians
and journalists themselves:
High levels of
- Public confidence in the media, already
low, continues to slip. A poll by USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup found only 36
percent of Americans believe news organizations get the facts straight,
compared with 54 percent in mid-1989.
- According to an in-depth study by
the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1999, 23 percent of the
public find factual errors in the news stories of their daily paper
at least once a week while more than a third of the public - 35 percent
- see spelling or grammar mistakes in their newspaper more than once
a week. The study also found that 73 percent
of adults in America have become more skeptical about the accuracy of
- The level of inaccuracy noticed is
even higher when the public has first-hand knowledge of a news story. Almost 50 percent of the public reports having had
first-hand knowledge of a news event at some time even though they were
not personally part of the story. Of that group, only 51 percent said
the facts in the story were reported accurately, with the remainder
finding errors ranging from misinterpretations to actual errors.
- When reporters and editors interviewed
in the ASNE study were asked why they thought mistakes were being made,
34 percent said the "rush to deadline" was the major factor,
one third said it was a combination of being "overworked"
and "understaffed,” and the remaining third said it was
"inattention, carelessness, inexperience, poor knowledge"
and just-plain-bad editing and reporting.
- The Columbia Journalism Review and
the nonprofit, nonpartisan research firm Public Agenda polled 125 senior
journalists nationwide in 1999 on various questions. When asked: "Have you ever
seriously suspected a colleague of manufacturing a quote or an incident?"
a disturbingly high 38 percent answered yes.
There is tendency for the press to
play up and dwell on stories that are sensational - murders, car crashes,
kidnappings, sex scandals and the like.
- In a study by the American Society
of Newspaper Editors, eighty percent of the American public said they
believe "journalists chase sensational stories because they think
it will sell papers, not because they think it is important news. " Another 85 percent of the public
believes that "newspapers frequently over-dramatize some news stories
just to sell more papers." Over 80 percent believe sensational
stories receive lots of news coverage simply because they are exciting,
not because they are important.
- 78 percent of the public thinks journalists
enjoy reporting on the personal failings of private officials.
- 48 percent of the public sees misleading
headlines in their paper more than once a week.
A 1999 poll by the Columbia Journalism
Review and the nonprofit research firm Public Agenda of 125 senior journalists
- Fully 70 percent of the respondents
felt that most news organizations do a "poor" (20 percent)
or "fair" (50 percent) job of informing the public about errors
in their reporting. Barely a quarter called it "good." A paltry
2 percent awarded a rating of "excellent."
- A remarkable 91 percent think newsrooms
need more open and candid internal discussion of editorial mistakes
and what to do about them.
- Almost four in ten of those people
interviewed feel sure many factual errors are never corrected because
reporters and editors are eager to hide their mistakes.
- More than half think most news organizations
lack proper internal guidelines for making corrections.
- A majority (52 percent) thinks the
media needs to give corrections more prominent display.
- Over 40 percent said their news organization
does not even have a person designated to review and assess requests
of important issues
While the media is busy covering
sensationalist stories, issues that affect our lives and the whole world
receive little attention.
- A study by the Center for Media and
Public Affairs found the number of stories about the environment on
the network news went from 377 in 1990 and 220 in 1991 to only 106 in
1998 and 131 in 1999. At the same time, the number of stories about entertainment soared from 134 in 1990
and 95 in 1991, to 221 stories in 1998, and 172 in 1999.
Though polls repeatedly show Americans
overwhelmingly (higher than 80 percent) want improvements in the environment,
Dan Fagin, President of the independent Society of Environmental Journalists,
said in 2003 “Whether the subject is global climate change or local
sprawl, aging power plants or newborn salmon, debate over environmental
issues has never been … so obfuscated by misleading claims. Meanwhile,
getting environmental stories into print, or on the air, has never been
- “The Project for Excellence in
Journalism, reporting on the front pages of the New York Timesand the Los Angeles Times, on the ABC, CBS, and NBC Nightly news programs,
and onTime and Newsweek, showed that from 1977 to 1997, the number of stories
about government dropped from one in three to one in five, while the
number of stories about celebrities rose from one in every 50 stories to one in every 14. What difference does it make? Well, it's government that can pick our pockets,
slap us into jail, run a highway through our backyard or send us to
war. Knowing what government does is “the news we need to keep our freedoms.”
- Bill Moyers
- The reporting on national affairs
by the major newsmagazines has declined by 25 percent, while the number
of entertainment and celebrity stories has doubled, according to "The
State of the News Media in 2004” report by the non-partisan Project
for Excellence in Journalism.
Foreign Aid and
24,000 Easily Preventable Deaths a Day
- At the Rio Earth Summit the world’s industrialized nations agreed to
fix international aid at 0.7 percent of GDP. The only countries to reach
that target have been the Scandinavian countries. The US ranks at the
very bottom with a pathetic 0.14 percent. A sizeable amount of our aid is
political in nature and does not go toward benefiting people in need. Even when private donations are included in the mix,
our country still ranks at the bottom in total giving per capita.
According to the World Health Organization
about 28,000 people who die every day around the world could be saved
easily with basic care. In all, last year 8.8 million lives were lost
needlessly (approximately the combined number of people living in Massachusetts,
New Hampshire and Maine) due to preventable diseases, infections and
child birth complications.
When Americans are asked what percentage
of the GDP for international aid would be reasonable, the answers range
from 1 percent to 5 percent. Similarly, when asked what percentage of
the federal budget should go to foreign aid, Americans on average said
14 percent, and that in fact, they thought 20 percent was currently
being allocated. The actual amount of our budget allocated is 1 percent.
Yet the press rarely reports on any
of the above – that we give so little, that we are avoiding what
we agreed to, that Americans think giving at a higher level would be
reasonable, that we think we are giving far more than we are, and that
a huge number of deaths every day (eight times the number that died
in the 9-11 attacks), are a direct result of not receiving basic care.
When the press does report on foreign aid, the media often perpetuates
the myth that we give substantially and in proportion to our means.
- Large numbers of Americans give low
ratings to the media for school coverage. For example, in a joint survey by
the Education Writers Association and the Public Agenda, 44 percent
gave “print media with a national readership” ratings of fair to poor, while only
4 percent gave a rating of excellent. About 84 percent gave “broadcast media with a national audience” ratings of fair to poor and only
1 percent gave a rating of excellent. Educators and journalists agreed. Over 44 percent of journalists rated “print media with a national readership” as fair to poor in their coverage
and 84 percent rated “broadcast media with a national audience” the same.
organizations rate far higher on educating the public than for-profit
A seven-month series of polls by
the Center for Policy Attitudes and Center for International and Security
Studies at the University of Maryland found that Americans receiving
their news from nonprofit organizations were far more likely to have
accurate perceptions related to American foreign policy than those receiving
their information from for-profit entities. The study also found the
variations could not be explained as a result of differences in the
demographic characteristics of each audience, because the variations
were also found when comparing the demographic subgroups of each audience.
For example, in three areas of information
related to Iraq (whether weapons of mass destruction had been found,
if clear evidence had been found linking Iraq and al-Qaeda and if worldwide
public opinion supported the war in Iraq), only 23 percent of those
who received their information from PBS and NPR had an inaccurate perception,
while 55 percent of those who received their information from CNN or
NBC had an inaccurate perception, 61 percent for ABC, 71 percent for
CBS and 80 percent for Fox.
Similarly, on the specific question
of whether the majority of the people in the world favored the U.S.
having gone to war, 63 percent of those who received their information
from CBS misperceived, 58 percent who received their information from
ABC misperceived and only 26 percent of those who received their information
from PBS and NPR misperceived. Those receiving information from the
other networks fell into a similar pattern as demonstrated in the example
above: Fox at 69 percent, NBC at 56 percent and CNN at 54 percent -
all with rates of misperception twice as high as the nonprofit media
When the percentages of people misperceiving
in each area were averaged, it was found that those receiving information
from for-profit broadcast media outlets were nearly three times as likely
to misperceive as those receiving from the nonprofit media organizations.
Those receiving their information from Fox News showed the highest average
rate of misperceptions -- 45 percent -- while those receiving their
information from PBS and NPR showed the lowest - 11 percent. CBS showed
at 36 percent, CNN at 31 percent, ABC at 30 percent, and NBC at 30 percent.
The study found similar patterns
also existed within demographic groups, and that differences in demographics
could not explain the variations in levels of misperception.
For example, the average rate for
all Republicans for the three key misperceptions was 43 percent. Yet
for Republicans who took their news from PBS and NPR, the average rate
was only 32 percent - a full one quarter less. This same pattern occurred
in polled Democrats and Independents.
Similarly, among those with bachelor’s
degrees or higher, the average rate of misperceptions was 27 percent.
However among those who had their news from PBS-NPR the average rate
was 10 percent. This pattern was observed at other educational levels
short attention span
- Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution
in the 1970’s began observing what he called “the issue attention cycle” in the American media. The cycle is: the news media and public ignore
a serious problem for years; for some reason, they suddenly notice,
declare it a crisis and concoct a solution; next they realize the problem
will not be easily fixed and will be costly; they grow angry, then bored;
finally, they resume ignoring the problem.
- Here is an example from research
done by Laura Haniford of the University of Michigan. Haniford focused on the news media's coverage
of the racial achievement gap — the difference between how whites
and blacks score on standardized tests.
She found that from 1984 to 1995,
The Ann Arbor News published 11 articles on the achievement gap in local
schools; then suddenly, in 1997, 92 achievement-gap articles appeared;
then, gap coverage virtually disappeared again, plummeting to two articles
in 2001. What amazed her was that during that entire period the achievement
gap remained substantial and virtually unchanged.
The media does
not cover itself
- Of the roughly 1,500 daily newspapers
in the U.S., “Only a handful—at most a dozen, including The [Washington]
Post—actually have a reporter who covers
the press full-time as a beat. What critical reporting exists, though
at times is refreshingly good, it is for the most part timid and superficial.
About 15 papers have an ombudsman on staff to respond to readers' complaints.
When it comes to looking at itself, society's watchdog is a lamb,” according to Sydney Schanberg, one of the most respected journalists
of this era, he has been a reporter for The New York Times for more
than twenty-five years, and recipient of many awards, including a Pulitzer
- Schanberg adds: It's no secret that journalism
in America has become more slipshod and reckless, at times promiscuous....
Every journalist surely also knows that the old-time standards...have
been weakened if not discarded. Most of us in the business, however,
stand by as mere observers....
If this were happening in any other
profession or power center in American life, the media would be all
over the story, holding the offending institution up to a probing light.
When law firms breach ethical canons, Wall Street brokerages cheat clients
or managed-care companies deny crucial care to patients, we journalists
consider it news and frequently put it on the front page. But when our
own profession is the offender, we go soft.
By failing to cover ourselves, we
have made ourselves complacent, virtually assured that because we are
not likely to be scrutinized by our peers, we are safe in our careless
or abusive practices.”
- Renee Ferguson of WMAQ in Chicago
said the unwillingness on the part of the media to monitor itself is
amongst the reasons behind an increasing problem of plagiarism among
print and broadcast reporters. “I suspect we all know examples at
own our stations and papers where things like the Blair incident have
happened,” Ferguson said. “Are we prepared to investigate ourselves?”
Focus on huge
profit margins, not serving public
- Geneva Overholser (former Editor of The Des Moines
Register and board member of the Pulitzer Prize Board and American Society
of Newspaper Editors) describing in 1990 a list of factors rapidly eroding
the quality of reporting, said, “There is the fact that newspaper corporations
typically retain truly remarkable profit margins: 30 percent is not
unusual and the metro average has been somewhere around 17 percent.
That's 17 cents on every dollar made as profit for the company, yet the average beginning
salary for a newspaper reporter last year was $17,000.”
- Current data supports Overholser’s assertions. In October, 2003, for example, Gannett
Co. Inc., one of the nation's largest newspaper chains, reported for
the first nine months of 2003 profits of $853.2 million on revenues
of $4.89 billion, a profit margin of 17.4 percent. In the same month, the E.W. Scripps
Co., owner of another chain of daily newspapers, reported quarterly
profits of $60.9 million for the company's newspapers on revenues of
$164 million, a profit margin of 37 percent.
- “Citizens are asking journalists
and media critics why the media don't ‘do something’ to discover and publish ‘the truth.’
…. As a loyal American, trained
as a journalist some 45 years ago, I am convinced that journalists in
the U.S. feel increasingly trapped between their professional values
and the marketing/profits mentality so evident now everywhere in the
news industry. The old professional values urge them to dig, investigate
and bring to the light of day the relevant facts and issues, while the
market/profit mentality asks, ‘Is it worth it? Do enough people care?’
It seems clear enough that the market/profit
mentality has won out, especially in electronic news, and to a considerable
extent in the print media. ... Meanwhile, the push for corporate profit
margins much higher than those of average American businesses goes on
— with 40 to 100 percent in the electronic media and 12 to 45
percent in the print media common during 2003.”
- Margaret T. Gordon, a professor
of news media and public policy at the Evans School of Public Affairs
at the University of Washington and formerly the dean of the school,
in a Seattle Times column August 08, 2003.
- The American public agrees with Overholser and Gordon. In an in-depth by the American Society
of Newspaper Editors, 59 percent of Americans said newspapers are concerned
mainly with making profits rather than serving the public interest.
are investing less in the quality of what they do
According to the Project for Excellence
in Journalism, there are 2,700 fewer reporters employed by newspapers
in 2003 than there were in 1990. The number of jobs lost is believed
to have continued falling in 2004.
According to washingtonspectator.com and speeches made by Bill Moyers, full-time employees
of radio stations decreased by 44 percent during the period from 1994
– 2000. Moyers also stated that since the 1980s, broadcast network
correspondents’ numbers are down by one-third, and TV networks now
have half the previous number of reporters in their foreign bureaus.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism
said Internet news also experienced cutbacks:
- “In the area with the greatest
potential, they are cutting personnel the most: Our data suggest that
news organizations have imposed more cutbacks in their Internet operations
than in their old media, and where the investment has come is in technology
for processing information, not people to gather it.”
- “Some 62 percent of Web professionals say their
newsrooms have seen cutbacks in the last three years - despite huge
increases in audiences online. That number is far bigger than the 37
percent of national print, radio and TV journalists who cited cutbacks
in their newsrooms. Anecdotally, Web journalists say what investment
there is tends to be in technology for processing information, not in
journalists to gather news.”
The public is
misinformed and uninformed
A few heavily studied examples:
- A Knight Ridder/Princeton Research poll of Americans
showed 44 percent of respondents believed "most" or "some"
of the 9-11 hijackers were Iraqis. Only 17 percent gave the correct
answer: none. A New York Times/CBS News Poll revealed
that 45 percent of respondents believed Saddam Hussein was directly
involved in the 9/11 attacks.
- A Pew Research Center/Council on
Foreign Relations survey around the same time showed that almost two-thirds
of people polled believed U. N. weapons inspectors had "found proof
that Iraq is trying to hide weapons of mass destruction." A report
of such proof was never made by Hans Blix or any U.N. inspector, nor was it
made by Mohammed El Baradei or any other official of the International
Nuclear Regulatory Agency.
The same survey found 57 percent
of those polled incorrectly believed Saddam Hussein assisted the 9/11
- Despite wide knowledge of the above
polls and others similar to them, the media did little to correct the
misperceptions and in fact, may have continued feeding them. A poll
conducted months later by the Washington Post on September 6, 2003 found
that 69 percent of Americans thought Hussein was linked to 9/11.
Who We Elect
- A major study by the Joan Shorenstein
Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's John F.
Kennedy School of Government found the level of people’s knowledge about candidates’ positions rose and fell based on
the degree to which the media was focusing on important issues. Moving from a spate of media coverage of gaffes by
Bush and Gore in the 2000 race to a period of focusing on the issues,
for example, there was a 20 percent increase in people's ability to
identify correctly the two candidates’ positions.
"Once again, public awareness
increases when the focus is on the issues," said Marvin Kalb, the
Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's Washington Office and
co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project.
- Still, only a few weeks before the
election, when voters were read a major issue position attributed to
a candidate and then asked whether it was the candidate's actual position,
on average, of those polled 47 percent said they "didn't know,"
while 34 percent identified the position accurately and 19 percent misidentified
it. In all, almost 50 percent of registered voters were
able to recognize none or only one of the twelve candidate positions.
Only 10 percent knew more than half of the policy positions about which
they were asked.
- "It's pretty clear that millions
of Americans will go to the polls on Election Day armed with only scant
knowledge of the issues, Some of them might be a bit surprised next
year when the new President pursues policies quite different from those
they thought he would."