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Newspapers tackle question of trust

By MIKE FEINSILBERAssociated Press Writer Published: July 28, 1997 12:00 AM

A lot of editors worry that you wouldn't that people are less willing these days to believe what they read in the newspapers.

They fear that, for a variety of reasons, newspapers are suffering a crisis in credibility, losing the irreplaceable asset of believability.

The press has a lot to worry about these days: stagnant circulation, too few young readers, the Internet's threat to the lucrative classified advertising business.

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Still, many industry executives put the decline in newspaper credibility they see at the top of their list of woes.

"When you have national poll numbers that say half the public believes your reports are unfactual, then I view it as a serious problem," said Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of The Oregonian in Portland and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. "If people don't trust us to be factual, then ultimately we lose the franchise."

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So the society, with a $780,000 grant from the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, is setting out on a three-year, million-dollar undertaking to find out whether readers really lack faith in the daily paper or just say they do.

Two polls will be taken. Observed discussions known as "focus groups" will be conducted. Eight newspapers will field-test fresh ideas.

The problem in America certainly is not new. In 1807, Thomas Jefferson suggested labels for newspaper sections: Truths, Probabilities, Possibilities, Lies.

Twelve years ago, 25 percent of readers and even 14 percent of the journalists publishing the readers' newspapers rated the papers' credibility as "low."

In the same year, 1985, 55 percent of participants in a poll said news organizations generally get their facts straight. This year, 56 percent said the opposite.

Last year, when asked, "How much of what is reported in your local paper do you believe?," the average answer came out: 70 percent. Talk radio's content was rated 60 percent believable.

Arlene Morgan, assistant to the editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, worries that editors, in their urgency to find out what has gone wrong, may lose sight "of what we do right."

"After all, 50 million people read papers every day," she said.

But a moment later, Ms. Morgan voiced anxiety of her own. She said she suspects that newspapers, seeking both economies and new readers, may be shortchanging hard-core readers.

"We've cut the news hole (the amount of space devoted to materials other than ads), and we have a more fun kind of approach," she said. "And that may be affecting our credibility."

That's one theory to explain the credibility gap. Others abound:

In a skeptical age, all big institutions government, banks, unions, churches, universities are distrusted, notes pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Center for the People and the Press. "The difference is that newspapers, unlike most institutions, are in the believability business," he said.

Newspapers get splattered by the sensationalism of supermarket tabloids and tabloid television.

"We're doing a poor job of differentiating ourselves from the irresponsibility around us," said Mike Clark, reader advocate at The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. He said readers do not believe him when he tells them the Times-Union rarely put O.J. Simpson on page one and has never put a story there about the murder of JonBenet Ramsey.

Newspapers distance themselves from readers. "We don't look like an institution reaching out to explain ourselves," said Art Jurkowitz, the readers' ombudsman at The Boston Globe. "I meet with lots of community groups trying to get their story told, and they are daunted in figuring out how to get inside the castle."

In a time of corporate ownership and college-trained staffs, everyone from the publisher to the copy aide may be from somewhere else. Reporters, better paid than many of their readers, no longer drink in the neighborhood bar or chat over the fence. "There's social detachment between a lot of journalists and those who read them and those they write about," Jurkowitz said. "We're no longer the neighbor."

Added Kohut: "The public thinks reporters and powerful political people all drink out of the same cup. It isn't the cup they drink from."

Robert Lichter of Washington's Center for Media and Public Affairs, offers one final theory. Newspapers, in their zeal to be relevant, put too much interpretation of the news into their reporting instead of offering it straight, he said. Readers see that as bias.

"What journalists see as the solution, readers see as the problem," Lichter said. "People want Joe Friday reporting: just the facts."

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