In spite of their adversarial relationship in a democracy, government and the press have a common need in carrying out their respective roles - that of credibility.
For without credibility among the electorate, a government cannot possibly exercise authority that can be considered, as Abraham Lincoln put, "of the people, by the people, for the people."Similarly, without credibility among their readers, listeners and viewers, the print and electronic media cannot carry out their watchdog role of holding government accountable. The reason: if people seriously distrust the media's reporting, then the bark of the watchdog will go unheeded. At that point, the press becomes a pointless institution, amounting to nothing more than a purveyor of entertainment.
And in a high-tech age, it is more important than ever that the media be vigilant about accuracy and fairness in their coverage. While the advent of the 24-hour news cycle - courtesy of cable TV and the Internet - has enhanced the ability of media outlets to get the news first, it has increased the danger that they will get it wrong.
The Associated Press recently demonstrated how today's technology spreads human error at lightning speed. On June 5, the AP inadvertently posted on its Web site a prepared-in-advance obituary of Bob Hope, prompting the House majority leader and Reuters News Service to spread the word that the 95-year-old entertainer was dead. The announcement of Hope's death, like that of Mark Twain's, turned out to be "greatly exaggerated."
The credibility problems afflicting government are well-known, and to fix them government officials must conduct business in as open, straightforward and responsive a manner as possible. But the press has created its own credibility gap, as evidenced by various studies cited in a 1997 report prepared for the Journalism Credibility Project of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Among other things, these studies found that only 21 percent of the public expressed "a great deal of confidence in news reports in newspapers" in 1996 - down from 49 percent in 1987. And the percentage of Americans who think news organizations get their facts straight has declined from 55 percent in 1985 to 37 per-cent in 1997.
These findings show that America's news media need to bolster their credibility with the public. Yet some members of the mainstream media still insist that the press has no credibility gap - only an image problem that comes from being the messenger of bad news. (Ironically, such news sells newspapers.) The press must move beyond this denial of the problem before it can take self-corrective measures. And self-correction is the answer, because a free press is basically a self-policing institution.
To meet its "credibility challenge," the press must, in my view, do several things. First, the press must do a better job of explaining the nature of its work to the public. As it is now, newspapers and other media seem content to concede limitations or fallibility only by means of next-day corrections - which, by the way, do not cover every inaccuracy in the previous day's coverage (just ask reporters).
Second, more newspapers must hire ombudsmen, or "reader advocates." The hard truth is that there are just over 30 newspaper ombudsmen in the United States today. As noted by David Cox, chairman of the Newspaper Association of America, this means that ombudsmen - those who handle reader complaints about accuracy, fairness and good taste in news coverage - represent only slightly more than 2.2 percent of the newspapers now publishing in the United States. And these "reader advocates" work for newspapers that account for only 15 percent of the total U.S. daily circulation of about 59 million. That means nearly 98 percent of America's newspapers have no ombudsmen.
Why are there so few? The answer: complacency. It's that old head-in-the-sand mentality that asks: "What problem?" But this complacency appears to mask yet another factor: fear. One ombudsman minced no words in explaining the situation: "Our number is few and we are not growing because there are not enough publishers and editors who have the guts to appoint someone to look over their shoulders."
The press also needs more media critics - scribes like Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. Media critics play an essential role in breaking what almost seems like a conspiracy of silence in which otherwise zealous news outlets refrain from exposing each other's newsworthy mistakes and misdeeds.
Government and the press must take actions to improve their credibility. But there is also a need for more discerning readers, listeners and viewers of the American media. I fondly remember my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Nelson, who required our class to read the daily newspaper, particularly its editorial page. Then we would discuss what we had learned. Through this educational exercise, Mr. Nelson showed us the need to read and think critically - the process that enables us to separate to separate fact from opinion, truth from fiction, wheat from chaff.
That's why it is amazing and, frankly, shameful, that in our nation's $7.5 trillion economy, we spend only $340 billion a year - or only 4.5 percent of the gross domestic product - on elementary and secondary education. Unless the United States makes education a higher priority, the cultivation of students' critical thinking faculties will fall short of what America truly needs to succeed in the 21st century.
Despite my blunt critique of today's press, I truly believe that news reporting is a noble calling. It is a profession that writes the first draft of history and is essential to the functioning of a democracy. All the more reason the press must get to work now and start building up its deteriorating credibility.