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Media lose public's respect in coverage of the 'big story'

More Americans say the government should regulate the press, raising concerns about industry's standing.

Within minutes of the news breaking that John Kennedy Jr.'s plane had disappeared, the media went into overdrive.

Within hours, major networks and 24-hour cable news channels had top anchors in place, keeping up a steady drumbeat of coverage, pounding on the same few facts amid a sea of speculation, historical reminiscences, and anecdotes.

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"In 12 hours of coverage, there were only about 10 minutes' worth of actual facts," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

For some analysts, the media were giving the public exactly what it wanted - constant updates. Indeed, viewership was expected to spike again yesterday with news that search-and-recovery crews had found Mr. Kennedy's body.

But for others, last weekend's coverage was unqualified media overreach - another example of the news industry exploiting a tragedy in a push to stem a 20-year slide in ratings, readers, and credibility.

That effort, however, may be backfiring. As America's once-staid news culture moves headlong toward becoming "info-tainment," the very freedoms upon which the media depend are being undermined.

A study released this week by the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center reports that 53 percent of Americans believe the press has "too much freedom." That's an increase of 15 percent in just two years.

More startling, more than one-third, about 35 percent, say the government should regulate the media. That's also a 15 percent increase over two years ago.

"That was the most dramatic and unsettling finding of this survey," says Paul McMasters of the First Amendment Center.

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Mr. McMasters attributes the shift in part to fallout from coverage of the Monica Lewinsky affair. The poll was taken at the end of February and the beginning of March. But he believes it's also a reflection of a deeper dissatisfaction with the media, a sense of being overwhelmed in major stories (such as the Kennedy crash) by speculation, punditry, incremental reporting, and the pervasiveness of news outlets.

"There's a sense out there that we want the news, but we're getting a lot more than we really want," says McMasters.

Mr. Rosenstiel calls it the "summer blockbuster mentality" come to the newsroom. In his new book, "Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media," he documents the fragmenting of the mass news audience into five or six different segments - all with different interests. He says it now takes a J.F.K. Jr., a Diana, or an O.J. Simpson sensational story to reassemble, at least temporarily, a mass audience for news.

"These stories are like break-out hits on the pop charts," he says. "Like those hits, they're generic. They have all the elements of a popular tabloid story - celebrity, sex, tragedy, downfall, a whiff of scandal."

But other critics, such as The New Yorker's Ken Auletta, argue the press is just giving the public what it wants. Ratings soared on Saturday as many people stayed glued to the television, waiting for the next revelation. And Mr. Auletta credits the anchors, reporters, and pundits for being careful not to speak of Kennedy, his wife Carolyn, or his sister-in-law, Lauren Besette, in the past tense.

At the same time, he notes, the spectacle of the press stakeout outside the Kennedy family's compound in Hyannisport, Mass., and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg's home in Bridgehampton, N.Y., was "ghoulish" and may only feed the public's low opinion of the media.

Stephen Lacy, acting director of Michigan State University's School of Journalism in East Lansing, sees a bigger disconnect between the press and the public. He was flying home from Seattle over the weekend and heard plenty of complaints from fellow travelers. While they thought Kennedy's disappearance was tragic, they also complained about the relentless coverage on the CNN monitors at the airport.

"It was a bit of overkill, especially on television," says Professor Lacy. "The [media] haven't quite realized that overplaying does not help their credibility. It doesn't leave such a great impression among viewers."

Over the past several years, a myriad of polls have backed up that view.

Americans now find the press to be less credible, less professional, even less moral than in the past. They also criticize how the media perform their watchdog role, complaining that they've become sensational and exploitative rather than using their investigative tools to protect the public.

"When the public sees what it believes is exploitation of the scandals, it's viewed as the press advancing its own agenda, whether it's building audience or professional reputation," says Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington.

Recent surveys show the media themselves are beginning to share the public's frustration. Mr. Kohut notes that several efforts are now under way within media organizations to try to restore press credibility and high standards.

BUT many critics question whether such efforts can succeed, in part because of changes in the structure of the news industry, particularly in television. News divisions are no longer viewed as a money-losing public service but as profit centers under increasing pressure to keep advertising dollars rolling in.

"The big story might be a way to temporarily boost your audiences," says Rosenstiel. "But it corrodes your authority over the long haul." And as the American public's opinion of the press continues to slide, so too does its support for basic media freedoms.

"We have the ironic situation where the media could face restrictions and regulations, because they've been responsible in part for helping to create a sense of insecurity and frustration that is not justified by the facts," says McMasters.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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