At Large: Are we doing our big job well?

At Large: Are we doing our big job well?

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Before the Internet, pre-Yelp, pre-Jason Blair, pre-Dan Rather’s downfall, pre-HuffPo, pre-Hannity, pre-Palin, pre-Facebook and Twitter, John L. Hulteng, a Stanford professor of communications, published a small paperback called Playing It Straight.

Hulteng, who died in 1996, was an imposing figure in journalism education. He was a newspaperman for 10 years in the Midwest, and on the East Coast as editorial page editor of The Providence Journal and Bulletin. He taught at the University of Oregon for 22 years, then at Stanford for nine. The American Society of Newspaper Editors commissioned Playing It Straight, published in 1981, as an ethics handbook. I’ve had my copy for 30 years, and I’ve consulted it often. And often I didn’t like what I found in it. Too cumbersome, I thought. Too straight-laced.

For instance, of confidentiality of newspaper sources, Hulteng wrote, “But such pledges of confidentiality must be entered into only when there is no other way, for they put both the reporter and the paper at risk. Moreover, every attempt should be made to win agreement from confidential sources before publication that if the courts should order the journalist to name the source, the source will step forward and testify.” Hulteng’s view, authoritative as it may have been 25 years ago, is not the view common among journalists today.

The State of the First Amendment 2011, the most recent of the annual surveys by the First Amendment Center, reports, Americans were first asked in 1997 if journalists should be allowed to keep a news source confidential. The vast majority (85%) agreed, strongly or mildly, that they should. Nearly 14% disagreed mildly, somewhat, or strongly.

“The opinion has been shifting over the past 14 years,” the survey reports, “and today only 75% agree, while 23% now think that journalists should not be allowed to keep a news source confidential.”

Newspapers spend a lot of time worrying about declining revenues, declining readership, and proliferating web competitors, whether corporate aggregators, search engines, portals, or social networks. They spend less time worrying about the issues that the State of the First Amendment survey raises. But they should spend more.

The 2011 First Amendment survey, conducted in July, finds that Americans endorse in increasing numbers the role of the press as a government watchdog. Forty-eight percent strongly agreed with this statement in 2009, and this year 54 percent strongly agreed: “It is important for our democracy that the news media act as a watchdog on government.”

That’s encouraging, but the performance of the press and some of its practices, including especially the use of anonymous sources, attracted far less support, and in part that’s because Hulteng’s formulation of the rules for using anonymous sources is no longer in vogue.

But, there are other flaws in journalism practice, as perceived by American readers. And, on the broader front, the news is worse. Hulteng wrote that, “Good faith with the reader is the foundation of good journalism. Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly. Editorials, analytical articles and commentary should be held to the same standards of accuracy with respect to fact as news stories.”

Although the survey over the years has found Americans in broadening agreement that the news media should act as a watchdog on government in the interest of the citizenry, according to the 2011 survey, “Americans increasingly believe that the media are biased, as 33% still think the media report without a bias and 66% see a bias in the media.”

We have an important job to do, the public wants us to do it, but they are uneasy about the way we manage the trust they place in us.

“The public is hearing that everything is biased; it’s either one side or the other; there’s no such thing as straight journalism,” Duke University professor Susan Tifft told the American Journalism Review, in response to questions posed in reaction to an earlier survey’s results, about fairness and bias in the media.

What Hulteng recognized and what may have fallen along the roadside in the rush to connectedness, 24-hour news, the blogosphere, the social media, and the media conglomerates is that the privilege extended by the Founders to journalists came with obligations. The readers support the privilege, but they want the obligation discharged with diligence and fairness.

“If it is true,” Hulteng wrote, “that a free press is indispensable to the public because it provides a catalyst for the functioning of a representative system of government, it is equally true that the respect and confidence of the public are essential to the continued survival of a free press. The interdependence is organic.”

1981 was an awfully long time ago. It might as well be 1881 for all that it matters today, except to the politicians who invoke inauthentically the guiding spirit of Ronald Reagan. But, has Hulteng’s guidance been remaindered and discarded, as his volume has? And, if it has, who will respond to the abiding faith of Americans in the mission of the press, as evidenced by the State of the First Amendment survey results?