In 1981 — pre-Internet, pre-laptop, pre-WiFi, pre-Lady Gaga, pre-Jason Blair, pre-Huffington Post, pre-Daily Beast — 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. “Playing It Straight” was commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors 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, regarding 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.
For instance, the New York Times, which dedicated itself to less use of anonymous sources and a more rigorous effort to enlighten readers about the context and biases with which the anonymous sources commented, has failed to follow its own cleansing formula. The best readers get from Times reporters now is a generalized, half-hearted “The speaker refused to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press.” That, for the reader, is less than nothing at all, because in addition to revealing no context, affiliations, or probable biases, it is a descriptor that signals collusion between reporter and source, when the collusion ought to be between reporter and reader.
There’s a consequence to this sort of misalignment of newspaper, source, and reader. As the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reports, in its most recent study of attitudes of news consumers toward the media, “For the second time in a decade, the believability ratings for major news organizations have suffered broad-based declines.
“In the new survey, positive believability ratings have fallen significantly for nine of 13 news organizations tested. This follows a similar downturn in positive believability ratings that occurred between 2002 and 2004.
“The falloff in credibility affects news organizations in most sectors: national newspapers, such as the New York Times and USA Today, all three cable news outlets, as well as the broadcast TV networks and NPR.
“Across all 13 news organizations included in the survey, the average positive believability rating (3 or 4 on a 4-point scale) is 56%. In 2010, the average positive rating was 62%. A decade ago, the average rating for the news organizations tested was 71%. “Since 2002, every news outlet’s believability rating has suffered a double-digit drop, except for local daily newspapers and local TV news. The New York Times was not included in this survey until 2004, but its believability rating has fallen by 13 points since then.”
In the interest of fairness, and to reveal some of my bias, the research found that the most respected of the array of news outlets — broadcast, cable, online, newspaper — is local television. That certainly reveals a sad bias on the part of news consumers toward coverage of the least distinguished, least distinctive, and least imaginative sort.
Oh well, must move on. Wait, before I do, one question. Can it possibly be true that local television news, whose best in depth coverage is devoted to snowstorms fronted by on-screen reporters picking up snow and seeing how easily it can be formed into snowbalsl, or 80-year-olds who back their Corollas into neighbors’ swimming pools is really the standard the news business should aspire too.
All right. Enough.
On a 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.”
But, readers believe, according to recent polling, that news outlets make up stories. Only a third believe that the media tries to report the news without bias, but they often fail.
What Hulteng recognized and what may have fallen along the roadside in the rush to connectedness, 24-hour news, the blogosphere, and the media conglomerates is that the privilege extended by the Founders to journalists came with obligations.
“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.”
To end with a bit of good news for us ink-stained wretches, the Los Angeles Times’s James Rainey reported on August 24 that “Facebook and Internet portals such as Google and Yahoo increasingly provide Americans their gateway for news, but the bulk of voters who catch up on current events daily turn to traditional sources, particularly local television stations, according to a nationwide poll.
“Traditional news sources on TV and in print also remain more trusted than the burgeoning alternative ecosystem of blogs, late-night comedy shows and social media outlets, the USC Annenberg/Los Angeles Times Poll on Politics and the Press found.
“The survey confirms a few widely suspected divides: Democrats and the young tend to be more trusting of a variety of media, while Republicans and older news consumers are more skeptical. Despite mixed feelings, though, the voters surveyed said by more than 2 to 1 that they got useful and important information from the media.”
To that question, posed so often in the 1960s, “Can’t we all get together?” I suppose the answer is, probably not.