AJR  Columns :     TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   October 1993

The Public Looks at The Press With AJR   

A roundtable explores trust, credibility and the general state of the news media.

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

"Bad journalism is like pornography – hard to define, but easy to recognize," the surgeon said.

The press is the "court of last resort"; there is "no other institution" that will take on the most powerful people, said the political consultant.

The media have provided "mountains of information" in recent years, the detective sergeant said, but "I don't believe that you've been totally straight with me."

"The problem is that there is not a mechanism to hold reporters and their publications accountable," said the retired CEO. He argued that the news media perform "quite well overall" but should be subjected to more review when they go wrong.

The Methodist minister saw an ominous trend. "We are, at this moment, a nation asleep, unwilling or unable to confront the incivility that has corrupted our news media and has led to such widespread public mistrust of profit-driven news gatherers," he said.

These comments came from an AJR roundtable on "Public Perspectives on the Press," conducted in September at the University of Maryland. An eight-page report on the conference will appear in AJR in December.

Around the conference table sat 13 members of the public and nine journalists, with Hodding Carter III as moderator. AJR wanted a diverse group from the public to spend two days examining the work of the print and broadcast press. The themes were "The Declining Trust of the News Media," "The News Reporter as Advocate" and "Are the News Media Changing for the Better?"

There was no illusion that the public participants were completely "typical" of the news consumers, though they were drawn from around the country and had very different backgrounds. We did hope they would forcefully represent many points of view and not be overwhelmed by the articulate journalists at the table. The charge that we accepted from Paul Mongerson, a retired businessman who funded the conference, was to let everybody have a say. He left the rest to us.

They turned out to be very articulate and thoughtful consumers indeed. I confess to some skepticism about whether the journalists would hear much that was new and whether the journalists would "circle the wagons" defensively.

This conference was certainly distinctive, if not unique. On many previous occasions journalists have met, profession-to-profession, with lawyers and judges, with business people and with other groups. There also have been seminars and roundtables that were predominantly for journalists but with a sprinkling of members of the public.

We think this roundtable was different because about three-fifths of the participants were public representatives, there were no speakers, there was time for extended dialogue over two days, and the journalists themselves represented a broad mix (from the editor of a small daily newspaper in Alabama to a network television anchor).

The discourse was rich and, I thought, fascinating. The conference may be a model for others on "Public Perspectives on the Press" at the local or regional level.

The detective sergeant said he often told reporters: "There are no suspects. The investigation continues." As for the questions discussed at the roundtable, I'd say there are some suspects and the investigation continues. l