Solutions to Circulation Woes?: Free Expression as Predictor of News Seeking

Article excerpt

This experiment found exposure to study of expression increases news seeking and newspaper readership.

Since 1973, public confidence in major institutions -- except the mass media -- has declined only slightly. A special report from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research challenges the notion of declining social capital in America and suggests that public confidence in the press alone has shown a consistent decline since the early 1970s.(1)

Given this disparity, perhaps newspapers are suffering not from generalized civic disengagement but from citizen disgust at free expression that too often is filled with hate, racism and indecency.(2) Declining confidence in the press is most noticeable among those who are more educated, more conservative and more Republican, who also are more likely to be disillusioned by and disenfranchised from the press.

At the same time, editors' concern with declining newspaper penetration has become virtually a commonplace.(3) Abundant academic and industry research into declining newspaper circulation has found that newspapers disproportionately fail to attract people who are low in education or income, rural, non-white, uninvolved, younger than 35, recently relocated and female.(4) Nonreaders also are more likely to be less interested in political and civic affairs than readers.(5)

Because industry sins of omission and commission play a major role in distancing readers, industry actions may attract new and returning readers. For example, when Jeremy Lipschultz examined the reasons for nonreadership, he found nonreaders questioned newspaper readability, credibility and utility.(6) Ethicist and media critic Sissela Bok has said the press faces a "crisis of credibility."(7) In response, the American Society of Newspaper Editors sponsored a 1998 study examining erosion of newspaper credibility as a primary source of declining readership.(8) But according to Stephan Russ-Wohl, the proper response to such concerns is "to strengthen and diversify the existing network of institutions and initiatives that help maintain and improve journalistic standards. Such institutions and initiatives [should] sustain public discourse regarding journalism and the media."(9) This study, however, seeks to determine whether discourse designed to improve newspaper circulation also should encompass discussion of the value of free expression.

The underlying thesis is that if non-readership is a symptom of disillusionment with free expression, then readership might be improved by increasing understanding of and interest in First Amendment values. This thesis rests on the assumption that support of free speech and free press can be increased through education about free-expression issues and values. For, as ACLU President Nadine Strossen has said, the biggest threat to the civil liberties is "public apathy and public ignorance." Strossen further said:

   Ultimately, if people are not concerned and committed about their rights,
   we're going to have elected officials who trample over those rights, with
   nobody to stand up and defend them when they appoint judges who will not
   enforce the Constitution and other legal guarantees of rights.(10)

Indeed, a 1997 Freedom Forum survey found that most Americans do not believe in freedom of speech.(11) According to the survey, people from all points on the political and religious spectrum "embrace a flaccid and utterly meaningless definition of ... expressive freedom [as] support [for] freedom of speech for only speech that I agree deserves freedom."(12)

Attempts to find the source of this disaffection often lead to media blaming.(13) A 1997 report by media critic Stephen Bates found that "the strained bond between press and public" is a modern media crisis.(14) In his exploration of media, power and entitlement in America, David Protess found that the media rarely and only peripherally involve or affect the public. …