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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 inaccuracies

  • 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 their news.
  • 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.

Sensationalism

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.

Mistakes regularly left uncorrected

A 1999 poll by the Columbia Journalism Review and the nonprofit research firm Public Agenda of 125 senior journalists nationwide found:

  • 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 for corrections.

Poor coverage of important issues

While the media is busy covering sensationalist stories, issues that affect our lives and the whole world receive little attention.

The Environment
  • 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 more difficult.”

Government

  • “The Project for Excellence in Journalism, reporting on the front pages of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, on the ABC, CBS, and NBC Nightly news programs, and on Time 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.

Education

  • 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.

Nonprofit media organizations rate far higher on educating the public than for-profit entities

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 organizations.

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 as well.

The media’s 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 Prize.
  • 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.

Media outlets 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.”

The public is misinformed and uninformed

A few heavily studied examples:

Foreign Policy
  • 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 terrorists.

  • 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."

    - Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and director of the Shorenstein Center surveys

Media consolidation

In 1945, four out of five American newspapers were independently owned and published by people with close ties to their communities. Those days are gone however. Today less than 20 percent of the country's 1483 papers are independently owned; the rest belong to multi-newspaper chains.

  • “Of the nation's 1,500 daily papers, nearly 1,200 — about 80 percent — are owned by the big chains, which concentrate on reaping large profits and are not much given to public self-examination on ethics and quality issues.

…. The gut decision that journalists have to make is whether they want to be regarded as professionals with honor or merely as pickup teams of scribblers and windbags.”

- Sydney Schanberg
  • “It is not apparent to many news consumers, but 22 companies now control 70 percent of the country's newspaper circulation and 10 companies own the broadcast stations that reach 85 percent of the United States.

Since 1975, two-thirds of independent newspaper owners and one-third of independent television owners have disappeared. Only 281 of the nation's 1,500 daily newspapers remain independently owned. The three largest newspaper publishers control 25 percent of daily newspaper circulation worldwide.”

- Freepress.net
  • “Five companies now own the broadcast networks, 90 percent of the top 50 cablenetworks produce three-quarters of all prime time programming, and control 70 percent of the prime time television market share. The same companies that own the nation's most popular newspapers and networks also own over 85 percent of the top 20 Internet news sites.

While the Internet has become a valuable new source of information, the vast majority of Americans continue to rely on television, newspaper, and radio as their primary sources of news information. Two-thirds of America's independent newspapers have been lost since 1975 and according to the Department of Justice's Merger Guidelines every local newspaper market in the U.S. is highly concentrated.

One-third of America's independent TV stations have vanished since 1975 and there has been a 34 percent decline in the number of radio station owners since the Telecommunications Act of 1996.”

- According to bill H.R. 4069 introduced to the House of Representatives March 30, 2004

  • “Sure enough, as merger has followed merger, journalism has been driven further down the hierarchy of values in the huge conglomerates that dominate what we see, read and hear. And to feed the profit margins - journalism has been directed to other priorities than “the news we need to know to keep our freedoms.” 

    -  Bill Moyers

Journalists agree that major problems exist.

The study by the American Society of Newspaper Editors found these startling facts:

  • Only 47 percent of journalists surveyed felt their publications were improving.
  • Only 39 percent felt their newspapers were usually very interesting to read.
  • A remarkably low 21 percent felt their newspapers were connecting very well with readers.                                                      

“For all sorts of reasons, timidity, self-satisfaction, greed, inappropriate desire to belong…for all these reasons and more, there is an awful lot that the press keeps from you....  we'll begin with squeamishness... and an overdeveloped fear of offending someone... orthodoxy, conventional thinking, a misplaced pleasure at being on the inside, incompetence and laziness.... greed.... the fact, for example, that too many papers by far do not wish to offend major advertisers....

Reporters who are incompetent, lazy, lack fire in the belly.... You put all these sins together, and there are more, and you come up with a public-press know-nothing pact that makes some sizeable contributions, I would argue, to our national problems currently.

Break this know nothing pact now and you will have taken as mighty a step as you can as an individual to help see to it that we as a nation move together toward a lively, hopeful, confident, and all-embracing future.”

- Speech to Stanford graduates by Geneva Overholser, chosen 1990 Editor of the Year by the Gannett Company, former board member of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and Pulitzer Prize Board, former reporter for NY Times, and former Editor of the Des Moines Register.

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