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Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist

  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Fixing the media

Posted by James McPherson on May 9, 2008

For the semester’s next-to-last meeting of my media criticism class today, I asked students to each come up with a list of the three most important problems related to the media (after all, we’ve been talking about various problems all semester long). I then put the students in groups, and told each group to identify which of the problems they thought they could help “fix,” and to identify how they might go about it. None of the groups came up with solutions to the problems mentioned in the newest Project for Excellence in Journalism annual report, but then the report points out that even those in the media apparently are wrong about their most significant problems. Here are some of the students’ suggestions (words in parentheses are mine):

  • The news media should find better ways to cover international news and cover it more. An international news story should go on the front page of each day’s newspaper and near the top of each news Web site every day. News organizations might recruit reporters from within other countries–people who know the culture–rather than trying to rely on distant foreign bureaus and “parachute-drop” coverage.
  • Journalism schools and media organizations should do more training about cultural differences (this from a class that is 90 percent white), and about health and science reporting, which even students realize is often inflammatory, incomplete or inept.
  • The media should seek out and provide more contextual background information and critical reporting–that is, reporting the news with a critical eye, rather than looking for ways simply to criticize people–and engage in less speculation and infotainment.
  • Those in the media should look for ways to treat people with more respect, spending less time glorifying and/or sensationalizing what Ariel Levy has termed “raunch culture.” They might consider a new kind of “woman’s beat” (or similar beats about other groups) that focus on positive images and portrayals: more of Sandra Day O’Conner and working mothers, less of Paris Hilton, sex symbols and pretty dead white women.
  • The media should continue to expand the trend among many news organizations toward more transparency about how they work and why they make the choices they do. (Our local newspaper happens to be the Spokesman-Review, which has worked hard at this.)
  • Creators of advertising–not just newsrooms–should have and should provide access to guidelines regarding the use of Photoshop and subtle fakery.
  • News media and journalism schools should give up trying to pursue–and trying to convince others that they adhere to–objectivity. Recognizing that objectivity is a myth, they should follow the lead of Al Jazeera and Fox and make their biases clear, while (unlike Al Jazeera and even more frequently Fox) trying to treat all sides fairly. (Incidentally, I tell my students that I don’t believe there’s any such thing as an objective reporter, an objective teacher or an objective historian–and I don’t trust anyone who claims to be any of those.)
  • Readers and viewers should become more media literate and more discriminate in their media choices, and take responsibility for the news they consume.

They’re smart students. Next week on the last day of class, I’ll share my final thoughts on how they might become better media consumers, and maybe even help change the media.

2 Responses to “Fixing the media”

  1. Some great thoughts.

    I’ll purposefully side-step your zinger about Al Jazeera treating all sides fairly more often than Fox — although I think that speaks marvels about the inherent polarization in this country when it comes to the media — and move on address a few points one by one.

    – True, the American news media tends to lean heavily on news about America or countries America is involved in (like Iraq) to a detriment of international news. (BBC tends to do a better job than most American news outlets at providing a national perspective.) But a certain reason for that is the fact that proximity is a news value — events in America tend to affect Americans more than events in other countries. (As a superpower America is fairly unique in the way that the actions of other countries rarely affect it much. That viewpoint tends to lend to a bit of myopia, clearly.)

    – Recruiting reporters from other countries can be a bit dangerous, if we’re shooting for a certain amount of objectivity, depending on the circumstance. For example, a report from an Israeli generally will be wildly different than a report on the same story from a Palestinian. There’s an inherent conflict of interest there. True, bias and polarization is evident from American reporters as well, but they often have less invested in certain news stories. Outsourcing photographers in particular can also lead to ethical problems, such as the reporter who photoshopped smoke from an Israeli air raid– and did it poorly : (http://tinyurl.com/oz889)

    If newspapers *do* recruit reporters from other countries they should make sure to give them the same training and hold them to the same standard as American Reporters.

    -“Journalism schools and media organizations should do more training about cultural differences.” Hearing about “training about cultural differences” worries me a bit. Media outlets run the danger of reporting cultural differences as monolithic (see the coverage assuming Reverend Wright’s church was representative of all Black churches) and sometimes training just perpetuates this.

    Whenever cultural sensitivity becomes a paramount value, there’s a danger in reporting things as they *ought* to be, rather than how they *are*. Such as when a CBS news producer was chided by his superiors for a story on a chain gang that happened to be composed of predominately black prisoners. (http://tinyurl.com/66vlcs)

    -I like speculation. Speculation and predictions provides some of the more interesting news stories, and in some cases, the most valuable news stories. I would encourage, however, that news analysts, at the end of the year, publish all the predictions they got wrong. I try to do that. (http://www.whitworthforum.com/?p=111)

    -The problem with positive portrayals is that you run into a “dog bites man” sort of scenario. Though I agree that the only reason Paris Hilton would EVER be news worthy is if she bombed a nightclub in Bali.

    -The worst type of deceptive advertising is the kind that tries to camouflage itself as a legitimate news story. Putting “advertisement” in 8-point text above these newsertisements isn’t quite good enough.

    -“Readers and [viewers] should become more media literate and more discriminate in their media choices” Absolutely. But that goes further than “Fox Conservative Bad,” or “New York Times Liberal Bad.” I recommend consuming news and opinions from multiple media outlets — on all sides of the political compass — daily. Yes, reading something I strongly disagree with maddens and aggravates me, and sometimes leaves me fuming for the rest of the day. But it’s like exercise for the brain — it leaves you sore, but in the end, it strengthens your mental muscle.

  2. […] truth, there was another key finding (which I reported here a few weeks ago, based on a single-class-period survey of one of my classes): “Participants […]

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