Long before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Russians criticized their two major newspapers, Pravda (which means “truth”) and Tass (which means “the news”), in the saying, “There’s no truth in The News, and no news in The Truth.” It was more than just a clever play on words, however, because the Soviet government and the KGB controlled the news media, and there was no such thing as “freedom of information” in that Communist regime. The people’s lack of trust was justified.
For many months now, we’ve been hearing that the mainstream media in this country is on hard times, with reader-viewer-listener confidence at an all time low. A Gallup news poll found that: “Americans are more likely now than at any point in the previous fifteen years to say that news organizations' stories and reports are inaccurate.”
Even before the tragedies of September 11th, Americans believed that the media were out of touch, and that the "news" in their morning papers and the major networks was generally unreliable. Fully 65 percent of survey respondents agreed that “stories and reports are often inaccurate,” while just 32 percent believed that “news organizations get the facts straight.” No wonder the brass at the networks and major dailies are worried. Their audience is shrinking fast.
Peter Brown, an editor at the OrlandoSentinel, examined the opinions and attitudes of journalists and discovered that — surprise! — members of the media really are out of touch with the average American. His demographic survey of reporters and editors found that mainstream journalists, who are typically urban liberals, have little in common with their readers. The sharp differences in attitudes, lifestyles, and values leads to a “mutual antipathy” between reporters and readers, and inevitably results in distrust for members of the press.
Journalists, Brown discovered, are less likely to form families, have children, go to church, do volunteer community service, own homes, put down roots or even be the same age as others –– non-journalists –– who live in the communities where they work. In his discussion of these findings, Brown said: “How many members of the Los Angeles Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch belong to the American Legion or the Kiwanis, or go to prayer breakfasts?” When you realize that the answer is “None, or very few,” you begin to understand why more and more Americans are looking to “alternative media” for the facts.
Journalists in most newsrooms share a very liberal set of values. Fewer than 43 percent of the general public say they support abortion, while 82 percent of journalists do, according to a Los Angeles Times survey. Other concerns about the lives and values of journalists include journalists’ hostility to prayer in the schools, their hostility to religion in general, and the comparative youth of journalists compared to other occupations. Lawyers, for example, average 40 years of age in this country, and college professors average 46. Journalists, however, are concentrated between the ages of 25 and 44. That concerns a lot of older Americans. It also helps to explain journalists’ apparent disrespect for history and tradition.
Robert Louis Stevenson once said, in a booklet called “The Art of Writing,” that: “Those who write have to see that each man’s knowledge is, as near as they can make it, answerable to the facts of life…. It can never be wrong to tell him the truth; for, in his disputable state, weaving as he goes his theory of life, steering himself, cheering or reproving others, all facts are of the first importance to his conduct ... for it is in this world as it is, and not in a world made easy by educational suppressions, that he must win his way to shame or glory. In one word, it must always be foul to tell what is false; and it can never be safe to suppress what is true.”
The English poet’s nineteenth-century prose may sound a bit old-fashioned, but the truth of his observations is as timely today as ever. The writer, Stevenson says, is involved in the vitally important task of informing and educating the reader. His duty, in that sense, is sacred. It’s not just wrong to mislead the reader with personal bias, but a betrayal of a public trust. Truth is the writer’s higher calling; it is his or her purpose. And it is this, in large part, that ought to give the journalist’s calling great importance in a busy and often confusing information society like this one.
Journalists, publishers, broadcasters, and news organizations who believe they’re putting one over on the public when they allow reporters to fudge the data or editorialize on the facts are really only hurting themselves, and the explosive growth of cable television, the Internet, and talk radio are the proof. It may already be too late for yesterday’s news media, but if there's any hope of restoring the fortunes of this discredited lot, it will be when, once again, there's truth in the news, and information we can actually use.