A little less churn in the press pool, please

Monday, August 30, 1999

Sydney H. Schanberg is one of the nation’s journalistic treasures. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the fall of Cambodia in 1975. He has distinguished himself in the reporting craft at The New York Times and Newsday. He has fought fiercely for press freedom. His work and his integrity stand as a caution to indiscriminate bashers of the press.

But because he cares about his profession and the crucial role the press plays in our society, Schanberg has his own criticisms of today’s press. His colleagues may be able to shrug off the words of others, but not so easily the words of such a credible member of the profession.

One of the problems of the press, in Schanberg’s view, is that it doesn’t cover itself as it does other key institutions in our society. So he has been trying to persuade news-media leaders to do a better job of reporting on the press.

“When it comes to looking at itself, society’s watchdog is a lamb,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed piece this weekend. He noted that few newspapers actually cover the press as a full-time beat: “What critical reporting exists, though at times refreshingly good, is for the most part timid and superficial.”

Actually there is a lot written about the press, but most of the good stuff is in the trade press, which doesn’t get much distribution beyond a rather small number of journalists and scholars. Generally, these publications cover the press thoroughly and thoughtfully. They include Columbia Journalism Review, American Journalism Review, Editor & Publisher, Quill, American Editor, Presstime, St. Louis Journalism Review, and others. There are a number of academic journals that focus on press practices and ethics. There are even Web sites that cover the press.

But Schanberg believes the press should be covered for the general public in the daily newspapers and news magazines, where the same reporting tools and values used to explore other issues and events would be brought to bear on media ethics and practices.

Regular press beats would include such stories as this weekend’s suspension and reassignment of an Indianapolis newspaper writer for plagiarizing the work of a journalist at another newspaper. But a press beat would entail more than that.

“The overarching principle would be to demystify ourselves, our methods and goals,” wrote Schanberg. “I believe that self-examination, besides improving standards and quality, would bring us closer to our readers and make us more credible in their eyes.”

Schanberg is right. The press should do a better, more regular, more deliberate job of covering itself. Unfortunately, that alone won’t be enough to help the press climb out of its credibility cellar. Deeper structural changes are needed.

One of the most essential of these needs for change is in the professional standards and expectations for journalists charged with keeping the citizenry informed. The nation’s newsrooms are in such constant flux that many veteran journalists are frustrated and bewildered and new journalists are overwhelmed. Beats change into pods, missions are rationalized, and news is redefined to fit the latest fad or focus group.

Reporters are expected to do more in less time with fewer resources. Editors and news directors tend to dictate story ideas from the top down, relying less and less on ideas reporters bring in from the street or the beat.

More and more, success as a journalist is counted in terms of moving into an editor’s chair or writing a column instead of continuing to grow and excel in the reporting craft. Rather than search out and report the news, many journalists are encouraged by their bosses to promote their publications by making the rounds of talk shows, “showing the flag.”

At least 20% of journalists expect to get out of the business within the next five years and there’s not much incentive for others to rush to replace them. Entry-level journalists are not paid well, their future is uncertain, and their standing in the public’s esteem is not very high.

Meanwhile, front offices exert their own influence on the way newsrooms do their jobs. Often the rush to challenge new competition and embrace new technology comes at the expense of the fundamentals of newsgathering. The need for newsroom stability, adequate resources, and competitive pay for good journalists is neglected. The will to commit to quality over glitz is seldom summoned.

Many front-office decisions seem driven by the need to serve the shareholder rather than the news consumer. The measure of success in this environment is who got it first and who had the biggest “spike” in readers or ratings on a big news story. That masks the sordid little secret that both print and broadcast news organizations are chasing a dwindling number of news consumers.

And the fans that remain are fickle indeed. They clamor for “better” news, more responsibility, more substance on the part of their newspapers and newscasts. But they send mixed signals.

They say they want the depth and details that newspapers provide but they rely primarily on television for their news. Then they complain that the newspapers are becoming too much like TV. They say they want the kind of balanced, complete news that can be heard on National Public Radio or PBS’s “Lehrer NewsHour.” Then they scoot off for the quick fix of the 24-hour cable channels or the tabloid values and soft news of the networks.

It is not as if the journalism community slouches along unaware of the deficiencies of the press and the disillusionment of the public. A number of newspapers do have press beats; others report on the press as news happens. More than 30 newspapers have ombudsmen or readers’ representatives. And there are more than three dozen major initiatives by news organizations, foundations and others working hard on the issue of improving press responsibility, accountability and credibility.

Certainly press beats would help journalists be more professional and ethical. They also would help public understanding. They might even increase appreciation for the press, because they also would show that on a day-to-day basis the press does a good job of delivering the news citizens need to make informed decisions about their government and their lives.

In fact, such coverage might show that, if ratings and readership figures are to be believed, the news consumers are getting what they want — if not what they say they want.

The fact that most of us prefer to rail about press excesses and abuses rather than acknowledge the vital role it plays in democracy and our lives may say as much about us as it does about the press.

Paul McMasters may be contacted at pmcmasters@freedomforum.org.