The Public’s turn to Speak

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
30 January, 2018
Editorial: 172
Fecha de publicación original: 15 junio, 1999

Rough winds bring high tides

In 1996, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE, the biggest and most important in the United States of America) started an ambitious project to look into the reasons why newspapers were losing credibility among the American public. The cornerstone of this project was a comprehensive study which included a national survey of 3,000 people, a self-administered 12-page questionnaire by a random, stratified sample of 1,714 journalists and a series of 16 “validation” focus groups. They used a representative sample of US territorial regions in order to weigh this against Census statistics projectable to more than 197 million adults. This is, undoubtedly, the most exhaustive research conducted up until now on the subject of media credibility. got permission from ASNE to translate the part of this study that summarises public opinion and publish it in the “+enredandos” section of en.medi@ in Spanish. In my opinion, the study’s conclusions should be compulsory reading for anyone who wants to understand a substantial part of the problems facing journalism and the relationship of the press with its readers. We should not forget, in this case, that the analysis must be seen in the light of the particular characteristics of the printed press in the US.

However, the study echoes problems close to us too. Many of the issues raised by readers –some of which are extraordinarily harsh– are very familiar and, in one way or another, come up in surveys conducted over here too, although they might not be as methodical and extensive as those of the ASNE. The other interesting thing about this study is that it began to be formulated just as the WWW was starting to take off. Since then, newspapers and television in the USA have felt the growing competition from the Internet, not just because of the volume and direct accessibility of the information distributed through the Net, but also because of the versatility, ubiquity and dynamism of the new digital media. As we already mentioned in a previous editorial –“The Spark in the Paper” at the beginning of May– the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) at the end of its annual general meeting decided to approve funding of 11 million dollars to contain mass desertion of readers to other news sources, particularly the Internet.

The ASNE study concentrates on the relationship of readers with newspapers and looks into the credibility of the latter as perceived by the former. What comes out is a serious breakdown in confidence based, above all, on the one hand, on the absence of channels of communication to convey the audience’s viewpoint back into newsrooms and, on the other, the lack of consistent responses on the part of the latter to convert this unease into changes in editorial policies. From this perspective, the study reflects a pathetic image of misunderstandings and, simultaneously, frustrated love. Readers and newspapers love each other, but don’t speak the same language. Reading the report, I remembered what the writer Jorge Luis Borges said in an interview when I asked him for his thoughts on love: “Love is impossible,” he answered, “when I love a woman, then she loves me and, so we both love different people, don’t you see?”

The fundamental reasons for this misunderstanding on the public’s part are summarised in 6 points, which the study examines in detail:

1. The public sees too many factual errors and spelling or grammar mistakes in newspapers.
2. The public perceives that newspapers don’t consistently demonstrate respect for, and knowledge of, their readers and their communities.
3. The public suspects that the points of view and biases of journalists influence what stories are covered and how they are covered.
4. The public believes that newspapers chase and over-cover sensational stories because they’re exciting and they sell papers. They don’t believe these stories deserve the attention and play they get.
5. The public feels that newsroom values and practices are sometimes in conflict with their own priorities for their newspapers.
6. Members of the public that have had actual experience with the news process are the most critical of media credibility.

This part of the study concludes on a cautionary note addressed to journalists and publishers/editors: “Of course, some journalists will argue that sources always complain after-the-fact, just as others will believe that “small” typos shouldn’t affect a reader’s ability to appreciate the excellence and insight of their story. They might both be right – but the numbers are too big and the public’s perceptions too prevalent to write off, or to retain comforting extenuations in the face of a small army of citizens who might be willing to testify differently.”

The data in the study by ASNE, a society founded in 1922 and the doyen of US publishers, are being used to shape the work of eight “test-site” newspapers across the US. They will experiment with ways to correct credibility problems and build reader trust in four major areas: accuracy, eliminating sensationalism, reducing bias, and “connecting” with readers, the four horseman they are going to employ to prevent this “Apocalypse”. This is, in fact, a considerable challenge to which, in a few years’ time, we will have to add the impact of the Internet to accurately measure the actual scope of the media phenomenon in a world built to a large extent on information and knowledge networks.

Translation: Bridget King.