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Selling Credibility

By John McManus
Posted Oct. 8, 2004

The Gallup Poll recently reported that fewer Americans trust the news media than at any time since Gallup began asking the question in the 1970s.


No one really knows.

The extent that America is politically polarized between President Bush and Sen. Kerry almost certainly contributes to the impression that reporting is biased.

Psychology teaches us that the more partisan we are and the more important we consider the issue, the more likely we are to consider versions of reality different from our own to be biased.

John McManus

But there also may be broader underlying reasons for public mistrust of our messengers. After all, journalism's credibility has been falling for at least two decades.

That's the same period over which many news corporations have diminished their allegiance to the public service "oughts" of journalism ethics, to the more whimsical target of whatever the market values that day.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about. Some months ago a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle told me the editors had decided to place a story on the murder of Laci Peterson inside the paper because it wasn't that important.

But after they saw local newscasts leading with the murder, they bumped the story up to the front page. With the massive TV exposure, they reasoned, people were likely to be talking about the case around the watercooler. Despite its non-consequence it had value in the market for public attention.

Presto! It was transformed into front page news.

When journalism is market-driven, what its weakest practitioners do changes what's newsworthy for everyone else.

Once newspaper editors might have scoffed at the frivolity of local television news. Today they follow its lead, as it shapes what mass audiences consider interesting.

When journalism is market-driven, what its weakest practitioners do changes what's newsworthy for everyone else.

That lessens the credibility of news in several ways.

First, there is a sameness to the cheapest ways to amass an audience. Mainstream news is becoming more homogeneous.

Could you tell one station's coverage of the Peterson case from another's. Or from the San Jose Mercury News' or the Chronicle's? Understandably, but unfortunately, the public begins to lump all news media together.

So when CBS fails to vet its report on Mr. Bush's National Guard record, "the media" lose face. Not just CBS.

Second, the news sacrifices our trust when it pretends to seek truth, but instead plays to public passion -- which is always what the market values.

It's both cheaper and more popular to take dictation from an administration bent on war than to skeptically assess its evidence and the cost of unleashing violence across a nation. But when reality eventually intrudes -- as it always does -- we lose faith in those who claimed to be our watchdogs.

A third factor is the resentment the public may feel towards news organizations that proclaim themselves public servants but act like any other business.

News media claim special privileges like free use of the airwaves -- rather than paying as cellular phone companies must. Reporters tell judges they can't testify about crimes they witnessed or were told about by sources to whom they promised anonymity.

News media are quick to wrap themselves in the First Amendment as a way of both fending off government regulation and establishing their self-importance.

When they abuse those privileges for private gain, they risk losing our faith and gaining our ire.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.


A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle


San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)


Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

Site highlights


The three-part series follows the rise of three Bay Area handouts:
• Part 1: At free dailies, advertisers sometimes call the shots
• Part 2: Free daily papers: more local but often superficial
• Part 3: Free papers' growth threatens traditional news
• See also: SF Examiner and Independent agree to end payola restaurant reviews
• And: The free tabloid that wasn't: East Bay's aborted Daily Flash


Lou Alexander started a firestorm with his original guest commentary predicting the company would be sold. Several other experts on newspapers have weighed in:
Newspapers can't cut their way back into Wall Street investors' hearts, by Stephen R. Lacy; Alexander responds
Humbler profits won't encourage buyouts, by John Morton; Alexander responds
Newspapers can't maintain monopoly profits because they've lost their monopolies, by Philip Meyer
Knight Ridder in grave jeopardy, by Lou Alexander...


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Is CPB irrelevant? As Congress moves to cut public broadcasting funds, has CPB become obsolete in the modern marketplace. 6/26/05
The paradox of news: There's more news available and its cheaper than ever before, but fewer young people are interested. 5/12/05


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