Journalism has a tough public-relations problem

Posted: Friday, September 18, 2009

When non-journalist acquaintances learned the subject of the college textbook I've been working on the last two years, a lot of them reached for the same arcane word to express their reaction.

My textbook subject is journalism ethics. The reaction: That's an oxymoron. As in an absurd contradiction of terms, like jumbo shrimp or exact estimate.

Having devoted a lifetime to working in journalism, I always find it disappointing to hear the profession's moral principles dismissed so derisively. But neither is it a surprise. Widespread hostility toward the news media, which has only intensified in the last quarter-century, is regularly documented in one public-opinion survey after another.

The Gallup Poll reported in 2007 that more than half of Americans had some degree of distrust in the news media - 35 percent said they had "not very much" trust and 17 percent said they had "none at all."

So much for perception. What is far closer to the truth is that in an occupation that cannot be regulated as lawyers, doctors, plumbers and electricians are - the First Amendment's free-press guarantee sees to that - most journalists adhere voluntarily to high professional standards.

This was borne out at the end of the 20th century when two distinguished journalists, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, conducted in-depth interviews to define those standards.

As Kovach and Rosenstiel's research proceeded, it became clear that certain beliefs were widely and strongly held. These beliefs guided the authors to a definition of journalism's primary purpose: "to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing."

Two professors, Renita Coleman and Lee Wilkins, reported in 2005 that their study of 249 experienced journalists placed them fourth among 20 groups that have taken the "defined issues test," designed to assess moral development. The professors concluded: "Thinking like a journalist requires moral reflection, both done dynamically and at a level that in most instances equals or exceeds that of members of the other learned professions."

For those of us who work in journalism, the Coleman-Wilkins study only confirms the anecdotal evidence we see daily - the practitioners' commitment to high standards, and the horror shared from top to bottom in an organization on the rare occasions that those standards are breached.

As for other causes of the news media's public-relations problem, that is a matter of conjecture. Roy Peter Clark, a scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, offered his educated guesses in a 2008 essay. He wrote that the attacks were coming from many directions, with a persuasive cumulative effect on "a public that has been conditioned to hate us."

Clark identified the attackers: politicians who "try to kill the media messenger"; broadcast talk show hosts whose centerpiece agenda is "to destroy the credibility of the mainstream press"; the "geek news revolution" on the Internet that routinely dismisses the value of the mainstream news media.

Despite the disdain they encounter every day, journalists have no choice but to stay focused on their mission: Tell the people what is happening in their communities and the world.

If they do it honestly, which is the way they usually do it, self-respect is reward enough.

• Gene Foreman is a former managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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