Carroll County Times

Dean Minnich: Media credibility concerns well-placed

Count me among those who have reservations about the way the media has been milking the contents of a dead woman's private thoughts on the pretense that her diary entries about her close friend, Hillary Clinton, are fair game because of the former Secretary of State's public persona and status as a candidate for president.

Sometimes, we choose populist appeal over integrity.

Most recent polls show the public distrusts most of the media, with credibility ratings running along ideological lines. Fox News is both the most and least trusted, but that network's credibility has dropped the most in the past three years, while PBS has retained the highest respect among moderate to liberal news watchers.

I'm with the writer who reported that one poll shows those who watch only Fox News are less well informed than those who watch no TV news at all - but that may be less fact than opinion. I think Fox wouldn't care much about the distinction.

The people who write and broadcast news should be as concerned about their credibility as they are judgmental about the credibility of those in elected office.

If transparency is the ultimate virtue, we in the press must hold ourselves to the same standard. Exploitation is not the same as investigative journalism.

This past week, it was revealed that Hillary Clinton did not - and presumably does not - love the media. She shares a skepticism that many newsmakers have: The media are sloppy about getting context right, and they are abysmal at correcting errors.

Clinton's immediate predecessor as first lady, Barbara Bush, warned her on inauguration day to be wary of the press.

Most journalists consider our skepticism fair, because we all know those in power who will manipulate the media if we let them. Nothing makes a good newsperson lose sleep like the fear of being used.

But the result of this caution that works against real transparency is the reluctance of media to point out errors - or lies that make it to print - when controversial claims and counter claims are made. And that hurts our credibility.

For instance, when policy makers are accused falsely in public meetings of "shoving this down our throats without debate," news media too often print the allegation, but fail to include in the same story that the meeting's agenda had been announced and details had been published and available to the public in advance.

In large news markets, the tendency toward the more sensational story is about market share and money for ad revenues. In smaller markets, the shortfalls are usually because of limited resources, and inexperienced staff. It leads to high turnover in reporters, and lack of background/institutional knowledge, changes in context that are not fully explained or examined, lack of courage in the face of lawsuits or losing insider contacts.

The most indefensible reason for bad journalism is pandering to ignorance.

Over the years, one of the complaints I heard most often from readers was the reluctance of media to make corrections - or to show corrections in a time or space relative to the time or space given to the initial error or misrepresentation.

But public apathy remains a major problem that contributes to inadequate transparency by all the players. If Fox News is too biased or sensational in its approach, then public television and radio, which set high standards for complete and fair coverage, tend to leave the average news consumer with too much information.

I for one would rather have too much information, less showbiz, than be subjected to a political climate in which only the owners of the news being made are in control. But most people want the shortcuts.

Politicians are using increasingly sophisticated tools to manipulate the news and win over a fickle public. An independent and ethical news media can stand watch against that, and gain respect with critics, if both consumers and providers of news do a better job of insisting on transparency not only in what we report, but how and why we do it, including cleaning up our own house when we come up short.