Media Focuses On 'Bad News'

A poll by the Pew Research Center and NPR found that trust in government has hit near record lows. For people to judge public officials they need information they find credible. Executives at three very different kinds of news outlets in Atlanta wrestle with their own trust issues.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

And now the latest in our series on trust in government. It's hit a near record low according to a poll by the Pew Research Center. And part of the problem is information. For people to judge public officials, they need information they find credible.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik traveled to Atlanta this week. There he talked with executives at three very different news outlets and he found them wrestling with their own issues of trust.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Travel guide Ronnie Hunt has sold equipment to fly fishermen at the Fish Hawk in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta for years.

Mr. RONNIE HUNT (Travel Guide): Carry your fly boxes, your fly (unintelligible), your leaders.

FOLKENFLIK: Hunt says he's 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.

Mr. HUNT: TV and newspaper. They leave out too many things, which in my opinion is the same thing as lying.

FOLKENFLIK: The local paper comes in for particular scorn.

Mr. HUNT: I was became so opposed to the Atlanta Journal that I wouldnt even wrap a carp in it and scratch the carp.

FOLKENFLIK: Spoken by a guy who takes his fish pretty seriously.

Mr. HUNT: Yeah, very seriously.

FOLKENFLIK: Actually, Atlanta is a town that takes its media moguls pretty seriously too. CNN was founded here by local hero Ted Turner. And if you're heading downtown, you're likely to pass Ralph McGill Boulevard, named for a newspaper editor who crusaded for civil rights.

Once you're downtown, you'll be greeted by a statue of the founder of the Atlanta Constitution. But ask people about trust and the media and you'll hear about bias.

Chris Neil is a 26-year-old graduate student in music at Georgia State.

Mr. CHRIS NEIL: I don't hold much stock in people's analyzation because I know everybody's got a slant. Like, there's going to be a different slant at CNN, a different slant at FOX.

FOLKENFLIK: Last year, Pew found a historically low level of trust in the media for just that reason. Bias is virtually assumed. And it's not just conservatives. Over at the Sweet Auburn Bistro, I met owner Glenn Law.

Mr. GLENN LAW (Owner, Sweet Auburn Bistro): I came up in the Huntley-Brinkley, Walter Cronkite era. So, there's a big difference.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAW: Did I believe everything Walter Cronkite said? Absolutely.

FOLKENFLIK: No more. Law says he still watches the news, but he's far more careful about how reporters couch their stories. His human resource manager, Lela Johnson, puts it this way.

Ms. LELA JOHNSON (Human Resource Manager, Sweet Auburn Bistro): You know, you can't believe everything you read, but I would say it's 50/50. It's what you take, you know, and gather from it.

FOLKENFLIK: Johnson gets her news from CNN online, from commercial radio updates or text alerts on her phone. She's one of the many young professionals who only rarely turns to the surviving big daily, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The paper lost hundreds of thousands of readers and, for a time, was losing tens of millions of dollars a year. It has cut its staff by about half to get back on a profitable footing.

Journal Constitution editor Julia Wallace says the paper has asked readers what they want.

Ms. JULIA WALLACE (Editor, Atlanta Journal-Constitution): What we found is they don't want us to be a newspaper with a strong point of view, but what they do want is they want balance. They want if we have a view to the right, they want balance of a view to the left. And they want us to be transparent about how we go about our work.

FOLKENFLIK: So, just about a year ago, 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 it's promised more local investigative reporting on its news pages.

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. Vice President Richard Griffiths is a senior editor at CNN's Atlanta headquarters.

Mr. RICHARD GRIFFITHS (Vice President; Senior Editor, CNN Atlanta Headquarters): Trust is the number one thing we're thinking about. Have we done right by the viewers to dig down and ask the right questions? Have we got the various different nuances to the story?

FOLKENFLIK: Such attention to nuance may not convince viewers. While officials say they have been able to maintain six straight years of robust profits, the cable network's ratings are eroding. And considerably more Democrats than Republicans trust CNN. But Griffiths says honest reporting is more than a slogan at CNN.

Mr. GRIFFITHS: We're not going to throw that away simply for higher ratings or more viewers on the Web.

FOLKENFLIK: But Matthew Cardinale argues that's what is turning audiences off. Cardinale is editor of the five-year-old Atlanta Progressive News, a website with a left of center agenda that focuses on poverty and housing issues. And he says bigger media outlets favor business interests.

Mr. MATTHEW CARDINALE (Editor, Atlanta Progressive News): My position is that there's no such thing as objectivity in reporting at all, period. I mean, in fact, I think it's kind of arrogant to say that you can be the arbiter of what is reality.

FOLKENFLIK: Cardinale fired a writer earlier this year for arguing the facts should speak for themselves in his articles. And Cardinale articulates his point of view in public settings as well as his website.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. CARDINALE: (Rapping) Here's a little story about a woman named Joyce. She was so confused, she wants to silence your voice.

FOLKENFLIK: And, yes, I kid you not, that was a rap he performed at the Atlanta City Council about government openness. Wolf Blitzer, he ain't.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. CARINALE: (Rapping) Boom, are you feeling it?

FOLKENFLIK: He 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 with the facts.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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