The nation's news media, battered for 25 years by declining credibility, appear to have regained respect among readers and viewers--at least temporarily--with their coverage since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In the first week after the attacks, "an unprecedented 89%" of the public gave the media a positive rating, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, a Washington-based independent polling firm. That stands in stark contrast to a Gallup Poll taken last year that showed that the number of people who had little or no "trust and confidence" in the media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly had almost doubled since 1976.
Viewer comments to the ABC and CBS television networks since Sept. 11 have roughly tripled, with the vast majority being positive, according to network officials. NBC's "Nightly News," which typically receives as many as 1,500 e-mails a week, reports an average of 7,000 a week since the terrorist attacks, and they've been "overwhelmingly positive," says Barbara Levin, director of news communications.
Newspaper and newsmagazine editors report a similar trend. This is a welcome change for many newspapers in particular, where a shift toward scandal, sensationalism and celebrity-oriented news, combined with reductions in staff and news space, had exacerbated reader dissatisfaction.
"The news media are talking about real news, real issues, real problems, instead of Gary Condit, shark attacks and roller-coaster accidents, and that's something that many people have been waiting for for a while," says Barry Glassner, a USC sociology professor and the author of a 1999 book, "The Culture of Fear," that contained considerable criticism of the media.
Some of the public's support for the media may simply be part of a larger, we're-all-in-this-together attitude that also has contributed to the public approval of President Bush. Pollsters found similar support for the media in the early stages of the Gulf War in 1991.
It is probably unrealistic for journalists to expect their elevated standing to endure. Clashes will inevitably occur when military action begins and the media seek more access and information than the Pentagon and the White House are willing to provide.
After the Gulf War, poll respondents said by a 2-1 margin that censorship for the sake of national security was more important than allowing the media to report important news, a survey at the time said.
Some newspapers already are receiving criticism, either for providing information that readers think could be helpful to terrorists or for columns or photographs that are seen as unfavorable to Bush. But so far, these complaints represent a tiny percentage of the communications received from readers and viewers, news executives say.
In addition, letters to the editor have increased exponentially, newspaper and newsmagazine editors say. Newsweek has received more than 10 times its normal volume of correspondence, and the Chicago Tribune says it has been receiving more letters to the editor each day than it normally receives in a week.
Newspaper ombudsmen--journalists whose primary duty is to respond to readers' comments and questions about their papers--say their own communications from readers have actually declined.
"It's down about 25%," says Michael Getler, ombudsman for the Washington Post.
One reason: Most people who write to ombudsmen do so to criticize the paper. "There's not usually too many 'Hey, you guys are doing a great job,' " Getler says. "But now there's been a noticeable increase in the number of people calling and e-mailing to say just that."
Readers of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which has made a number of cuts in recent years, have been effusive in their gratitude for the resources devoted to the attack coverage, says Lillian Swanson, the assistant managing editor and ombudsman.
"We've been taking things away from readers before this, and they knew that and they weren't happy about it," Swanson says. "Now that we've gone full-throttle on this story, they've been thanking us for the depth and breadth of our coverage."
Most papers have been cutting back in response to a declining economy--and most have been busting their budgets and expanding their news holes to provide extra coverage, despite an even greater economic decline since the attacks.
But complaints about coverage already are beginning to increase as the focus of media coverage shifts, some ombudsmen say.
"I got some complaints from businessmen about our stories on the bleak economic outlook here," says David House, reader advocate for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "They said the stories and headlines on Page 1 were so horribly negative that they would terrify people and doom business here even further."
House says he's also received complaints from readers about anything seen as presenting Bush in an unflattering light.