EDITORS of the United States's daily newspapers have just finished their annual conclave in Washington and it has not been all joy. Presidents usually show up at the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, but President Reagan stood up the editors last year and he did it again this year. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was the most senior administration official to speak, prompting one journalistic wag to remark that the editors were closing in on the White House; at least Weinberger was someone who had actually spoken with the President.
But Secretary Weinberger's nostalgic reminiscences of his days as a Harvard Crimson reporter were not enough to dispel the gloom from some bad blows to the profession of journalism during the session.
First, a couple of federal appeals judges in Washington handed down a ruling interpreted as increasing the vulnerability to libel judgments of newspapers that regularly engage in investigative reporting.
At issue was a suit by a former president of the Mobil Oil Corporation against the Washington Post.
Many editors found the ruling chilling, arguing that it will discourage some news organizations from digging out wrongdoing.
Indeed, it seemed a curious legal posture to hold suspect any newspaper that engages in investigative reporting. More logical, it seems to me, would be to hold suspect those newspapers that have approached irresponsibly the demanding task of investigative reporting.
Second, the editors got the results of a $100,000 survey they commissioned on press credibility, and the results were not particularly cheering. When participants in the survey were asked how much confidence they had in people running 10 different institutions, the folks who run newspapers ranked sixth, behind judges, teachers, bankers, government officials, and preachers. Organized labor came last.
Some editors put a brave face on all this, but as one other said: ``I bite my nails down to my fingers every day over this credibility business.'' The reason for his anxiety is not difficult to discern, for as the survey also indicated, readers who do not feel the press represents them are not particularly moved to defend the freedom of the press when it is under fire.
The professional researchers conducting the credibility survey talked to about 1,600 adult newspaper readers. They found widespread criticism that the press exploits people, rather than serving as the watchdog of the people. Many polled felt the press invades the privacy of ordinary people -- particularly in depicting the grief of those overtaken by tragedy or disaster. There was also widespread belief of political bias in newspapers, and skepticism that newspapers are fair to other candidates after one candidate has been endorsed on the editorial page.
One interesting finding was that newspapers that try to make themselves more accessible to their readers fare better, in terms of credibility, than those that give the readers the brushoff. Earlier research by the editors' organization suggested many readers have a hard time getting through to anyone in authority, getting a sympathetic hearing, and getting a correction if the newspaper has gotten the story wrong.
Increased accessibility is something the survey recommends to editors in the wake of their negative image, along with a sturdy effort to educate readers about what the press is doing, and why. There is other good advice: treat people in the news ``with empathy,'' and be ``fair, unbiased, accurate, complete, factual, professional, aggressive, and compassionate.''
The editors have dispersed for another year, and publishers are due to gather in Miami for their convention. While editors usually talk about press freedom and how to cope with publishers, publishers usually talk about production costs and how to handle editors. Editors often affect a calculatedly rumpled effect, publishers tend to be spiffier dressers. This year, the problem of their newspapers' credibility may give editors and publishers a common theme for discussion, and a common cause for action.