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Study warns of junk-news diet
From Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2005
By James Rainey
American consumers confront an ever-broader river of news from myriad sources, but the standard for gathering and presenting the information tends to be “faster, looser and cheaper” than in the past, according to a survey of the news business to be released today by a media watchdog group.
Internet blogs and cable TV programs have led the trend toward a “journalism of assertion” that relies less on reporting than personal opinion, reported the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which is affiliated with Columbia University.
That trend makes it more important for journalists “to document the reporting process more openly so that audiences can decide for themselves whether to trust it,” the organization concluded in its annual report.
On two of the top media stories of 2004, newspapers, magazines, radio, television and the Internet merited a mixed verdict, the study found.
On one hand, the study’s review of 250 randomly selected stories buttressed the complaint that President Bush got worse coverage than Sen. John F. Kerry in the 2004 presidential race. Coverage of the war in Iraq, on the other hand, tended to be far more neutral than some critics had charged — with 2,200 stories containing roughly an even mix of positive, negative and neutral accounts.
The second annual report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which is based in Washington, focused more on trends and prospects than on content. The considerable change facing the industry is revealed in a few facts: Online advertising has increased 30% to almost $10 billion in one year and estimated readership of blogs has increased 58% in six months. About 32 million Americans say they have obtained information from the Web logs, or journals, known as blogs.
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the research project, said that with the growth in Internet commentary, the culture of opinion journalism has expanded exponentially. Blogging has its value — exposing, the report said, hasty reporting by CBS News on memos that referred to Bush’s military service during the Vietnam War. But it can also lead the public astray, the report found, such as when it fomented the “unfounded conspiracy theory” that Republicans stole the presidential election in Ohio.
Rather than taking the time to gather and scrutinize each piece of information — the model for the mainstream media — the report said some bloggers hewed to another philosophy: “Publish anything, especially points of view, and the reporting and verification will occur afterward in the response of fellow bloggers.”
Although the traditional media continue to have struggles of their own, the public’s view of the believability of news organizations has stabilized somewhat in the last two years, according to the study, which relied on research by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. About 35% of Americans said the media get the facts straight.
Only better reporting and increased transparency about its tactics will help the media regain credibility, the study concluded.
“Since citizens have a deeper range of information at their fingertips, the level of proof in the press must rise accordingly,” it said. “In effect, the era of trust-me journalism has passed and the era of show-me journalism has begun.”
For its analysis of media content in 2004, the study team partnered with researchers at four universities to review coverage of two big stories and other trends.
The presidential race
Days were randomly selected from throughout the race to profile the equivalent of one month of coverage. Two hundred and fifty stories were then dissected. Any that had twice as many positive comments as negative ones were deemed “positive” and the reverse for negative references. The review found 36% of the stories about Bush to be negative, compared with 12% negative about Kerry. It found 20% positive stories about Bush, compared with less than 30% positive about his Democratic challenger.
The study did not try to assess whether the outcome reflected partisan bias against the Republican Bush, a tendency to view incumbents more harshly, or some other cause.
The war in Iraq
Using a similar methodology on 2,187 stories, the study found reporting of the conflict had slightly more stories with a clearly negative tone than stories with a clearly positive tone — 25% negative, compared to 20% positive. The largest number, 35%, had no decided tone and another 20% were on multiple subjects with no apparent tilt.
Newspaper coverage most closely mirrored that balance, while Fox had the most pronounced slant. The cable TV outlet aired twice as many positive as negative pieces about the war.
That finding may be partly related to a larger tendency at Fox on all kinds of stories that allows on-air personalities to offer their personal opinions. Seven out of 10 Fox stories reviewed in the study included opinions not attributed to reporting. That happened in less than one of 10 CNN stories and in less than one of three stories aired on MSNBC.
Rosenstiel linked the opinionated nature of Fox programs partly to big-name personalities such as Bill O’Reilly, whose programs are built largely around his musings. But even field reporters on the network employ a colloquial style. In one instance, a Fox journalist expressed hope that Iraqi forces, rather than Americans, capture a terrorism suspect. In another, a reporter speculated that Martha Stewart might want to buy back her company’s stock.
Despite the many issues raised about the media’s reliability and challenges in holding audiences (newspaper readership dropped again in 2004 and the audience for cable television stopped growing), the mainstream media continued to be a big moneymaker.
Corporations have been slow, however, to fold that money back into newsgathering. The number of editorial employees at American newspapers shrank by 500 in the most recent year studied. Local TV stations employ fewer news people than they did in the boom economy of 2000.
The study found surprising the lack of investment in websites devoted to news; 62% of those working for Internet news outlets said their newsrooms had suffered cuts in the last three years, far greater than the 37% of news people at traditional outlets who said their staffs had been cut.
The reductions came despite the spiraling Internet audience and seemed tied to a larger trend in American journalism that emphasizes “prepackaging and presenting information, not … gathering it,” the study concluded.
The study recommended that news consumers, like dieters, become more discerning.
“The real crisis may be news obesity,” the study said, “consuming too little that can nourish citizens and too much that can bloat them.”
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