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The media urged to enhance credibility

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Like the government they scrutinize, news organizations must do more to enhance their credibility or risk becoming "nothing more than a purveyor of entertainment," the Bureau of Land Management's director said Friday.

"The credibility problems afflicting public officials are well-known. But the press has created its own credibility gap" by failing to adequately explain its role or to police itself, Pat Shea told an audience of newspaper editors and publishers.Speaking at the annual meeting of the Utah-Idaho-Spokane Associated Press Association, Shea said that if news organizations lack credibility they cannot fill their vital role of holding government accountable in a democracy.

"The reason: If people seriously distrust the media's reporting, then the bark of the watchdog will go unheeded," said Shea, a Salt Lake lawyer who assumed the BLM helm last July. "At that point the press becomes a pointless institution, amounting to nothing more than a purveyor of entertainment."

Citing studies showing a dramatic decline in the public's confidence in the accuracy of news reports and in the ethics of journalists, Shea said some mainstream news organizations nev-er-the-less insist they have "only an image problem that comes from being the messenger of bad news."

"By moving beyond denial of the problem, the press can take self-corrective measures. And self-correction is the answer because a free press is basically a self-policing institution," he said.

Yet, Shea said, there are only 34 newspaper ombudsmen - those who handle reader complaints about accuracy, fairness and good taste - in the United States. And they represent only about 2.2 percent of the nation's newspapers.

"Why are there so few? The reason is obvious: complacency."

Shea compared what he said was the news media's reluctance to police itself to the BLM's response to a series of Associated Press stories in January 1997 pointing out serious problems in the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program.

After becoming BLM director, Shea asked Salt Lake Tribune Editor Jay Shelledy to undertake an independent review of the news coverage of the wild horse program and the agency's response.

The report concluded the BLM had responded with "defensive, half-cocked responses, inaccurate or unfocused data and a bunker mentality." Shelledy recommended the agency change its attitude and develop "a more positive working relationship" with the press.

Shea said he has made a point of being accessible to reporters and that the BLM is making progress in improving relations with the media.

"Similarly, news outlets need to bolster their credibility with the public," he said. "The press is always trying to lift the veil on what government is doing; now it's time to start raising the curtain on itself."