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Journalists Surveyed on Inaccurate, Misleading News

May 9, 2006 | by Wendy Leopold

WASHINGTON, D.C. --- While they admit that the public is losing confidence in newspaper reporting, seven of every ten daily newspaper editors and reporters more frequently point to factors beyond their control as opposed to their own newspaper's actions as the cause, according to a study released today (May 9) at the National Press Club. At the same time, more than half say a problem with unethical or unprofessional behavior occurred in their newsroom in the past five years.

These and other findings are the results of a survey of 527 randomly chosen journalists working at 218 daily newspapers across the country about inaccurate, misleading or fabricated news. Conducted by researchers at Northwestern University's Medill School, the 2006 Survey of Newspaper Editor and Reporter Attitudes -- available online at www.mongersonprize.org -- was released at the awards presentation of the Mongerson Prize for Investigative Reporting on the News.

“Many journalists believe that the recent sins of other newspapers and media taint their own newspapers and contribute to the public's diminished confidence in newspapers generally,” said Mary Ellen Shearer, assistant dean of the Medill School and co-director of the Medill News Service. She is co-author of the report with Medill Associate Professor David Nelson and researcher Steven Rolandelli.

Widely reported incidents of plagiarism in national media overwhelmingly accounted for the “taint” on newspapers generally, according to the survey. Newspaper journalists say problems in television news, on Web sites and blogs, and even in tabloids and shopper publications all have a deleterious effect on the credibility of newspaper journalists. In addition, almost one in five say that criticism of media by politicians erodes readers' trust.

More than half of the surveyed journalists report working with a peer involved in fabrication, plagiarism or other deliberate misconduct. “We found that the majority of journalists show strong support for their newspaper's standards and policies, and almost 90 percent say they would report suspected unethical behavior by a peer to management,” said Nelson.

A battery of questions designed to measure whether and when respondents were involved either directly or indirectly in an incident involving newsroom mistakes, unethical behavior, or perceptions of such mistakes or behavior reveals that almost all respondents have experienced at least two such situations. Twenty percent say that bad behavior should be punished more rigorously.

More than 70 percent say they themselves have been accused of bias in the past 12 months and often blame poor editing as contributing to inaccuracy in their articles. Sources -- anonymous or otherwise - also are viewed as problematic and potentially leading to factual errors.

The same number of journalists report experiencing source-related problems in the last year. Thirty-nine percent say they suspected a source was deliberately misleading them; 31 percent discovered that they had been misled by source; 35 percent learned that one of their published stories had contained false information provided by a source; and 33 percent had concern about a source that caused them to review a story with their newspapers' legal counsel.

The Survey of Newspaper Editor and Reporter Attitudes is made possible by the Mongerson Prize for Investigative Reporting on the News. The Mongerson Prize was established in 2001 through a grant from Paul Mongerson, an engineer, businessman and author interested in media. Designed to improve news credibility and based at the Medill News Service, the prize honors those who set the record straight and promote high news standards so the public can get the best, most reliable and most accurate information possible.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has provided support to the prize. The Knight Foundation promotes journalism excellence worldwide and invests in the vitality of communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. One of its signature programs is Journalism Initiatives. Since its creation in 1950, Knight has approved more than $275 million in journalism grants. For more information, visit http://www.knightfdn.org/.

For a copy of the 2006 Survey, with data and commentary, go to www.mongersonprize.org.

Topics: Research