Guarding the Fourth Estate
Jessica Opoien | 2010 Sidey Essay Winner
Today, the face of news seems to change more rapidly than headlines floating across a cable news program's ticker. Reporters young and experienced alike face an unstable job market and an uncertain future as the journalism industry struggles to find a viable business model. However, some things still hold true.
The presidency remains, as Hugh Sidey said in his 2004 book "Portraits of the Presidents," "the most sought-after, analyzed and scrutinized" political office in the U.S. — if not on earth. Because of this, journalistic standards must be upheld to the highest degree when covering the presidency, as they should with any governmental entity. Now, more than ever, journalists must regain the public's faltering[wavering] confidence and cover the presidency with the excellence and integrity it deserves — the excellence and integrity it received from such reporters as Sidey.
According to a report released by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), coverage of campaigns, elections and politics accounted for 21.3 percent of media coverage between Jan. 1, 2007 and June 30, 2008.
Additionally, PEJ reported, the 2008 presidential election dominated more than one-third of the entire news hole studied by the group that year — more than twice the coverage the Iraq War received as the previous year's top story.
However, the horizontal reach of today's presidential coverage does not guarantee extensive depth. Reporters seem to have taken a passive role in covering the presidency, even during the campaign media frenzy. According to PEJ, in 1992, the Washington Post printed 13 "major profiles" investigating the eventual winner's past record and history. In 2008, only three such pieces were printed. This trend was also exhibited by the Los Angeles Times, whose number of "enterprise" stories dropped by two-thirds over the same time period.
This trend is undoubtedly a result of the shrinking newsroom. Of 259 daily newspapers surveyed by PEJ, 59 percent reported a decrease in full-time editorial staff from 2005-2008. As manpower is reduced, it seems more and more news organizations tend to concentrate their attention on one or two subjects at a time, moving along to the next topics with minimal updates following the initial flood of coverage.
The strategy shift has not gone unnoticed by the American public. PEJ's 2009 "State of the News Media" report found that since 2004, the percentage of Americans who "believed most or all of the reporting from the most trusted newspaper ... operations" has held steady in the 20s — compared to more than 40 percent in 1998.
News organizations are not the only entities facing criticism from the public — the glare of skepticism falls onto individual journalists, as well. Journalists simply do not command the same respect they did in the post-Watergate days of Sidey, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
In Nov. 2008 following the presidential election, just 25 percent of Americans rated the honesty and ethical standards of journalists as "high or very high" in a Gallup poll — and the percentage fell to 23 percent one year later. Of those surveyed in 2009, 31 percent rated journalists' honesty and ethical standards as "low or very low." The opposite was true in 1976, just a few years after journalists like Sidey, Woodward and Bernstein reported on the Watergate scandal — 33 percent of Americans approved of journalists' ethics, while only 17 percent gave a low rating.
Confidence must be restored among the American public, or journalism will fail to survive. For professional journalists, it is as simple as obeying the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.
Accuracy is key as journalists "seek truth and report it." The political nature of the presidency creates boundless opportunities for advocacy to seep into stories, but it is a reporter's job to identify and avoid that influence. Journalists must also resist the temptation to sensationalize a story because of the fame and glamour associated with the presidency.
News judgment must be sharp and well-exercised in order to "minimize harm." As Web sites such as TMZ and shows such as Entertainment Tonight feed a celebrity-obsessed culture, journalists covering the presidency must be able and willing to look beyond stories of no importance — such as the in-depth analyses of First Lady Michelle Obama's bare arms — or, more importantly, stories that capitalize on personal scandal but serve no common good. Sidey explained this principle best when he wrote about reporting the Kennedy presidency: "We had the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall, the space race, the Cuban missile crisis and Bull Connor in Birmingham, Ala. Never saw one of the girls in the Cabinet Room interfering with the President on how to handle Vietnam."
The widening partisan gap in reporting makes it ever more imperative for journalists to "act independently." Cable news and the Internet make it possible for people to consume the news they want, with the form and spin they want, the moment they want it. Journalists reporting — not providing commentary — on the presidency must remove themselves from partisan influence, and interpret and report the president's actions (or inactions) free of external pressures.
An increasing number of platforms and rapidly improving technology allow journalists to "be accountable" in ways that are just beginning to be explored. While it can increase the spread of misinformation, the Internet also affords journalists the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with the public, and to practice openness and transparency through a variety of platforms.
Certainly, journalists face a host of challenges in the effort to properly report on the presidency and restore faith in the American public. What is popular and what is trusted are not necessarily the same, and trends in popularity are shifting into uncharted territory.
While daily newspaper circulation fell approximately 13.5 percent from 2001 to 2008, traffic for all news and information Web sites grew 7 percent in 2008 alone, according to PEJ's 2009 "State of the News Media." The number of Americans who regularly view their news online skyrocketed by 19 percent in the last two years. Additionally, the report estimates that unduplicated Web audiences added 8.4 percent to the average newspaper's readership. Online news sources are clearly gaining popularity.
However, people appear to be flocking to a source they do not fully trust. While, according to the "State of the News Media," most Americans view "traditional" news sources (print, television and radio) as "believable," the same is not true for seven online news organizations evaluated by the study (including Google News, the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post). Of those online users surveyed, fewer than 25 percent said they view any one online news organization as "highly credible."
In addition to the opportunities the Internet makes available, cable television allows viewers to tune into the coverage they most enjoy. A 1985 Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey determining America's favorite journalists put Dan Rather in the lead with 11 percent of the positive responses, with Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings tied in second place with 6 percent. The journalist in first place following the same survey in 2007 — Katie Couric — failed to garner a majority as high as the second-place tie in 1985. Couric edged out Bill O'Reilly, with 5 percent to his 4 percent. Daily Show host Jon Stewart even made the list, in a five-way tie for fourth place.
O'Reilly and Stewart's rising popularity falls in line with the growth of cable news, which saw a 38 percent increase in audiences in 2008 — along with profits that rose by one-third. The lack of a clear majority among "favorite journalists" indicates a shift from traditional, unbiased news broadcasts to highly customized, commentary-infused coverage.
The widespread availability of news with a heavy dose of opinion likely plays a large role in the public's distrust of the media. As the demand for up-to-the-minute, 24/7 news increases, the amount of "knee-jerk" commentaries and analyses that infiltrate the initial reporting of a news item seems to rise steadily. As less emphasis is placed on simply reporting and interpreting the facts, there seems to be more room for editorializing to be confused with straight news coverage — and the lines between reflecting, reporting and influencing public opinion are blurred.
Personal opinions now permeate the national political discourse with greater ease and, in some cases, less effort, than ever before as "average" citizens with no journalism background are given increased platforms and opportunities to self-publish. Blogs and microblogging platforms make it as simple as a few strokes of the keyboard and a click of the mouse to broadcast an opinion on any matter — presidential or otherwise — to the entire world.
Journalists must respond to this by offering something beyond what is presented by bloggers and their ranks. The nation and world must be able to rely on journalists to provide presidential coverage that is accurate, thorough and objective. Internet platforms can and should be used to enhance reporting — not as an excuse for laziness or lowered standards.
The direct pipeline to the world provided by the Internet extends to political figures, as well. This was most notably taken advantage of by President Barack Obama, more actively during his presidential campaign than during his presidency. Journalists should embrace politicians' new abilities to communicate directly with the public; however, a president's direct message to his or her public should never be the last word on the subject. It is the journalist's job to follow up, investigate and report.
The instantaneous nature of online publication creates a newfound sense of urgency, which has found its way into newsrooms. Every story required as soon as possible, to beat the competition. This puts an intense pressure on reporters and editors, and it is important that quality never be sacrificed in the race to publish a story first. Journalists must always work to be thorough and efficient in their coverage. The benefit of publishing a story online first will never outweigh the consequences of misunderstanding a situation and publishing an error in a story about the president."
If journalists fail to uphold standards of excellence and integrity in coverage of the presidency, the ultimate consequences will be dire. The First Amendment guarantees that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." The freedom of the press granted unto the American people is a liberating right and a heavy responsibility. Journalists must not shirk their responsibility as members of the press, lest democracy in the U.S. disintegrate.
"Freedom of the press is not an end in itself but a means to the end of achieving a free society," said former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
The democratic freedoms of the U.S. depend on freedom of the press — with the stipulation that the press be responsible with its freedom. Journalists must act as middlemen in the dialogue between the president and the American public — interpreting, analyzing and reporting the actions and mindset of the American people to the president, and vice versa.
Journalists must not let the public's confidence in the press waver, nor should the president's confidence in the press be weakened. Journalists must present the information necessary for a president to serve his or her nation, and for a nation's citizens to take an active role in its politics. It is a journalist's job to report accurately and fairly, performing his or her function as the Fourth Estate — for if the Fourth Estate ceases to exist, democracy as we know it will certainly perish.