Bias Or Balance? Media Wrestle With Faltering Trust

CNN's headquarters In Atlanta i i

CNN's headquarters is in Atlanta, Ga. The network promises an enduring commitment to factual news reporting even as its earlier standing as the nation's leading cable news network has been eroded. Ric Feld/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Ric Feld/AP
CNN's headquarters In Atlanta

CNN's headquarters is in Atlanta, Ga. The network promises an enduring commitment to factual news reporting even as its earlier standing as the nation's leading cable news network has been eroded.

Ric Feld/AP

The public's widespread disgust with government officials has been well documented, most recently in polling by the Pew Research Center and NPR.

But the news media — the institutions that accept the mission to hold those officials accountable — are hardly given high marks by their intended audience. In fact, a trip to Atlanta found the leaders of three very different kinds of news outlets grappling with their own trust issues.

"Trust is the No. 1 thing we're thinking about," says Vice President Richard Griffiths, a senior editor at CNN's headquarters in Atlanta.

The city of Atlanta serves up an example of the nation's media landscape in miniature. It boasts a major national cable news channel, in CNN; a dominant metro daily; commercial-television stations; public broadcasting; alternative weeklies; and newer and smaller online news outlets.

Bottom line: Trust in the media isn't very high, either.

Take Ronnie Hunt, who sells equipment to fly fishermen at the Fish Hawk in the upscale Buckhead neighborhood.

Hunt, 60, says he is a Fox News kind of guy. He listens to talk radio on his morning commute from Cartersville, about 45 miles northwest of the city. Hunt says he's a Tea Party protester who finds the rest of the media to be far too liberal.

"They leave out too many things — which in my opinion, is the same thing as lying," Hunt says. But the local paper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, comes in for particular scorn. "I became so opposed to The Atlanta Journal that I wouldn't even wrap a carp in it — and disgrace a carp."

Read more about public distrust of institutions like the media and the federal government and get more stories from NPR's series on trust.

In the past, Atlanta has taken its media moguls pretty seriously. Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, is a local hero. A drive downtown from Buckhead will take you past Ralph McGill Boulevard, named for a newspaper editor who crusaded for civil rights. Once downtown, you'll be greeted by a statue of the founder of the old Atlanta Constitution, Henry Grady, for whom other major institutions downtown are also named.

But ask people about their trust in the media, and you'll hear almost immediately about bias.

"I don't hold much stock in people's analyzation, 'cause I know everybody's got a slant," says Chris Neil, a 26-year-old graduate student in music at Georgia State. "There's going to be a different slant at CNN, and a different slant at Fox."

The Journal-Constitution asked readers what they want — and made a big change. "What we found is they don't want us to be a newspaper with a strong point of view," says Julia Wallace, the newspaper's editor-in-chief. "But what they do want is, they want balance. If we have a view to the right, they want a balance of a view to the left. And they want us to be transparent about how we go about our work."

About a year ago, as a result, the newspaper ditched its daily editorials, setting aside a liberal tradition established by McGill and others. Instead, the opinion pages are devoted to debate over matters of local interest — and the paper has promised more local investigative reporting on its news pages. This week the paper featured an in-depth look at the failures of the state's foster-care system.

Five or 10 years ago, the conversation about trust and the media would have triggered different results. But people no longer volunteer so many complaints about reporters making up stories, as they did in the wake of the scandals involving Jayson Blair at The New York Times and Jack Kelley at USA Today. And concern over how stories are slanted no longer comes just from conservatives. It comes from all quarters.

Last year, the Pew Research Center found a historic low level of trust in the media for just that reason — bias is virtually assumed. That even holds for people who like the news.

"I'm a big newspaper fan — I subscribe to three newspapers," says Cliff O'Connor. "The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are real high quality — the Times from the left, the Journal from the right."

O'Connor is a top fiscal official for the agency that oversees child welfare for the state of Georgia, and he was interviewed for this week's Journal-Constitution series. He said reporters always quote him accurately but tend to have the stories written in their minds before they come in for the interviews.

"I came up in the Huntley-Brinkley, Walter Cronkite era," says Glenn Law, 58, the owner and executive chef of the Sweet Auburn Bistro in downtown Atlanta. "There's a big difference. Did I believe everything Walter Cronkite said? Absolutely."

No more. Law says he still watches the news — but is far more careful to judge how reporters couch their stories. His human resource manager, Lela Johnson, puts it this way.

"You know you can't believe everything you read," Johnson says, "but I would say it's 50-50. It's what you take, you know, and gather from it."

Johnson, 30, gets her news from CNN.com, commercial-radio updates or text alerts on her phone. She's one of the many young professionals who only rarely turn to the surviving big daily, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The paper has lost hundreds of thousands of readers from its peak. In recent years, it was losing tens of millions of dollars a year. The paper has cut its staff by about half to get back on a profitable footing. This week, it moved from its longtime downtown headquarters to a much smaller office building just outside the city's major beltway. It has also devoted far greater resources — and staffing — to producing snappy content for the popular website, AJC.com, that is distinct from what appears in the pages of the Journal-Constitution.

"They are two distinct products," Wallace says.

Jay Bookman is a liberal columnist for the Journal-Constitution who used to be deputy editorial page editor. He says the newspaper is not changing its voice to please its readers — it's silencing itself to appeal to readers during tough economic times.

"I think there was a perception in the market that we were more liberal than the market," Bookman said. "We've tried to reorder our priorities and do the things that are important to our readers. Part of that discussion was how do we deal with that perception that we were out of sync with our readership."

Bookman says that during challenging times, people look to the media to provide reassurance their assumptions are true.

"It's hard to build trust in those times, because sometimes you have to tell them things they don't want to hear," Bookman says.

Over at CNN, executives are also trying to maintain a non-ideological course, in its case, between Fox News' voracious conservatism and MSNBC's leftward tilt. Griffiths says CNN's calling card has been reporting that viewers can trust.

"We're not going to throw that away simply for higher ratings or more viewers on the Web," Griffiths says. His consistent charge to reporters, producers and editors: "Have we done right by the viewers to dig down and ask the right questions? Have we got the various different nuances to this story?"

Such attention to nuance may not convince viewers. While officials say they have been able to maintain more than six straight years of robust profits, prime-time ratings have eroded badly. And considerably more Democrats than Republicans trust CNN.

Some critics, led by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, argue that CNN's quest to avoid an ideological position has led it to avoid controversy in favor of false balance.

"My position is that there's no such thing as objectivity in reporting, at all, period," says Matthew Cardinale, the 28-year-old news editor of the Atlanta Progressive News. "In fact, I think that it's kind of arrogant to say that you can be the arbiter of what is reality."

The five-year-old Atlanta Progressive News is a small website with a left of center agenda that focuses on poverty and housing issues. Cardinale says bigger media outlets such as the Journal-Constitution favor business interests, even as they proclaim their lack of ideology.

Cardinale has acted on his beliefs: He fired a writer earlier this year for arguing that the facts should speak for themselves in his articles. And he serves as a public gadfly and activist as well. He has challenged city officials for what he argues has been violations of open government laws, even resorting in one case to rapping before the Atlanta City Council.

Cardinale says news outlets can build trust only if they admit their biases. The Journal-Constitution and CNN are taking the opposite bet — that winning back the public's trust requires them to stick to the facts. Marketing researchers are back in the field for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to gauge whether readers recognize and appreciate the paper's changes.

"I think ultimately — if we stay true to those values of truth and verification — that, in the end, wins," Wallace says.

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