Public Perspectives on the Press

By Pagano, Penny | American Journalism Review, December 1993 | Go to article overview
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Public Perspectives on the Press


Pagano, Penny, American Journalism Review


The assignment was a challenging one: Bring together journalists and a cross-section of non-journalists for two days of candid discussion about the press. Encourage a frank, on-the-record dialogue on major public and press issues. Seek to clarify misunderstandings about the decision making process and the the ethical considerations of journalists. Address the public's declining trust in the news media and what is perceived as excessive reporter analysis and advocacy in normally straight news reporting. Attempt to determine whether the news media are changing for the better. Or does this hyped era of MTV and sound bite journalism place new demands on reporters and editors for dramatic storytelling that leads to exaggeration and misrepresentation? This special AJR conference and report, "Public Perspectives on the Press," was funded by retired businessman Paul Mongerson of Flat. Rock, North Carolina, and Marathon, Florida. Mongerson, former chairman and CEO of Standyne, Inc., is an engineer, inventor and involved consumer who has had a keen interest in public-press relationships for the past 25 years.

To develop more open dialogue between the public and the news media on matters of credibility and fairness, AJR brought 13 non-journalists and nine journalists to the University of Maryland at College Park for two days of discussion in September. The moderator was Hodding Carter III, former Mississippi daily newspaper publisher and editor, former State Department spokesman and currently a syndicated public affairs columnist and public television commentator.

I. "We don't understand how you operate, especially how you make decisions on story selection and what news to cover."

Moderator Hodding Carter III posed a question about a vital aspect of the journalistic process that clearly baffled many of the conference's participants from the public.

"How do we make decisions about what is the news?" he asked. "...We play God routinely by throwing away 95 percent of everything that...comes across our desk every day in the form of material that does not get used."

Dr. John Kirkpatrick, chairman of surgery at the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C., said, "Most people do not understand the decision making process and the fact that it is human judgment, just like the human judgment that Joe Six Pack or anybody else out there is going to have to exercise in his or her daily life."

He urged journalists to explain to the public what their job is and how they do it. "Once people can understand how or what is important to each side," he said, "then there can better understanding, or tolerance."

The non-journalist participants said their lack of knowledge about thee day-to-day operations of the print and electronic media--from selecting stories to creating headlines and sound bites--contributes to their perception that the media have an inherent bias in the types of stories they select and the way in which stories are covered and presented. "How is the playing field established in the first place?" asked Det. Sgt. Albert Williams of the Montgomery County, Maryland, police force. "Who decided what was going to be the timely topic of the day and the issue that the public was going to look at when they got up the next morning?"

And there are other questions. How does a newspaper decide who its audience is? How do reporters develop expertise in the growing number of specialized topics?

"I am not always so sure that the reporter understands the subject that they are talking about or writing about. There are so many fields out there that are so specialized," said Mary Richardson, Ottawa County treasurer from Grand Haven, Michigan. "As a person who interacts with the media on a regular basis, I spend a third of my time trying to...educate a reporter on the topic that we are going to be talking about."

The journalists said there is no set formula for deciding what ends up in newspaper.

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