Public concerns

Despite enjoying a period of unsurpassed wealth an influence in the 1970s and 1980s the American media is troubled by rising public dissatisfaction. Critics complain that journalists are unfair, irresponsible or just plain arrogant. They complain that Journalists are always emphasizing the negative, the sensational, and the abnormal rather than the normal. President Reagan's science adviser expressed the irritation of many when he accused the press of "trying to tear down America."

Some observers link the criticism to rising standards in journalism. "The press is more professional, more responsible, more careful, more ethical than it ever has been," said David Shaw, media critic for the Los Angeles Times. "But we are also being far more critical toward other institutions, and people are asking, "Why don’t you criticize yourselves?" In fact, the rise of ombudsmen (spokesmen for groups with a grievance), "opinion-editorial" pages in newspapers, television time for statements of opinion and media review journals suggest that ways are being found for individuals and groups to present their views. During the early 1980s, a number of organized groups from both sides of the political spectrum were formed to monitor and critique the news media. Political balance in news reporting became an issue of debate and controversy.

Surveys show that the American public — on both sides of the political fence — holds strong opinions about the press. According to a 1984 Galiup poll (survey of public opinion), 46 per cent of Americans believe the news media's bias is liberal, while 38 per cent said it is conservative. In contrast, most journalists — 59 per cent — described their political views as "middle of the road."

Reporters are, sometimes seen as heroes who expose wrongdoing on the part of the government or big business. In the early 1970s, for example, two young reporters for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, investigated a break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic Party in a Washington building known as "the Watergate." Their reporting, along with an investigation by a Congressional committee and a court trial, helped implicate high White House officials in the break-in. Woodward and Bernstein became popular heroes, especially after a film was made about them, and helped restore some glamour to the profession of journalism. Enrollments in journalism schools soared, with most students aspiring to be investigative reporters.

But there is a feeling that the press sometimes goes too far, crossing the fine line between the public's right to know, on the one hand, and the right of individuals to privacy and the right of the government to protect the national security.

In many cases, the courts decide when the press has overstepped the bounds of its rights. Sometimes the courts decide in favor of the press. For example, in 1971 the government tried to stop the New York Times from publishing a secret study of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers, claiming that publication would damage national security. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that since the government had not proved that the damage to national security would be so great, the newspapers should be free to publish the information.

One growing pressure on reporters and editors is the risk of being sued. Even though the First Amendment protects the press from government interference, the press does not have complete freedom. There are laws against libel and invasion of privacy, as well as limits on what reporters may do in order to get a story.

Libel is any false and malicious writing or picture that exposes a person to public ridicule or injures his reputation. If a broadcast or published story falsely implies that a private citizen committed a crime or is mentally incompetent, for example, the victim would probably win a libel suit. But Supreme Court decisions have made it much harder for public officials or well-known public figures to prove libel. Such persons must prove not only that the story is wrong, but that the journalist published his story with "actual malice."

The right of privacy is meant to protect individual Americans' peace of mind and security. Journalists cannot barge into people's homes or offices to seek out news and expose their private lives to the public. Even when the facts are true, most news organizations have their own rules and guidelines on such matters. For example, most newspapers do not publish the names of rape victims or of minors accused of crimes.

Americans' right to a fair trial, guaranteed by the Constitution, has provoked many a media battle. Judges have often ordered journalists — many times unsuccessfully — not to publish damaging information about a person on trial. Also, in most states journalists may be jailed for contempt of court for refusing to identify the sources for their story if demanded by a court.

TV newspeople operate under an additional restriction called the Fairness Doctrine. Under this rule, when a station presents one viewpoint on a controversial issue, the public interest requires the station to give opposing viewpoints a chance to broadcast a reply.

In recent years, more news organizations are settling cases out of court to avoid costly — and embarrassing — legal battles. Editors say that major libel suits which generally ask for millions of dollars in damages, are having a "chilling effect" on investigative reporting. This means that for fear of being involved in a costly libel suit, the reporter or news organization may avoid pursuing a controversial story although revelation of that information might be beneficial to the public. Most affected are small news operations which do not have large profits to finance their defense. Press critics, however, say the chill factor also works the other way — against people who feel they have been wronged by publication of false information about them, but cannot afford to sue.

In short, the United States confronts a classic conflict between two deeply held beliefs: the right to know and the right to privacy and fair treatment. It is not a conflict that can be resolved with a single formula, but only on a case-by-case basis.

A study released in 1985 by an impartial panel of prominent representatives, journalists and media observers found reasons for optimism. "The press is responding to the invisible hand of public pressure" said the panel, sponsored by the National Chamber of Commerce. "The journalist who has not struggled with...questions of ethics...is increasingly rare today."