James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

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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Posts Tagged ‘objectivity’

Literary journalism & the Web: the newest “new journalism”? (Part I)

Posted by James McPherson on August 14, 2008

The print version of a recent Columbia Journalism Review article is subtitled, “A new kind of journalism takes root in a struggling Detroit neighborhood.” An interesting aside is the fact that the online version is titled “Crossing Lines” while the print version uses “Drawing Lines,” but the key point remains: that a Detroit News blog is going beyond tradition journalism to improve an impoverished Detroit neighborhood. In the words of CJR’s writer: They “aren’t just reporting the neighborhood’s story. They’re affecting the story. In some ways, they are the story.” (emphasis in original)

The activism draws criticism from even among others at the News, who worry that it compromises the newspaper’s credibility. The concern is worth consideration, complicated by the proliferation of blogs coming from news organizations throughout the country. But the fact is, for most of those organizations, credibility in a traditional sense is pretty much a lost cause for a couple of reasons. First, if “credibility” is code for “objectivity,” there’s no such thing as an objective reporter (or historian, or teacher). Second, Americans like the news media in general just a bit more than they like George W. Bush or Congress.

Journalism is changing, as it always has. The term “New Journalism” has been used most prominently with the journalism of the 1880s and 1890s and then again with the literary journalism of the 1960s and 1970s, but has also been applied to the Penny Press of the 1830s and the civic journalism movement of the late 20th century. “New” just keeps happening.

Besides, campaigns by newspapers are far from new. Newspapers have always advocated for issues they saw as being for the civic good (even if far too often their biases corresponded with the desires of the Chamber of Commerce). My own local daily, the Spokesman-Review, recently devoted an entire month of front-page attention to the issue of child abuse, and its own annual Christmas fund is front-page news every day from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas.

We know that bloggers are changing news, even if–as recently reported by a Poynter Institute columnist and others–the most popular blogs tend to look and act much like mainstream news organizations. That shift worries people on both sides, though a careful reader could be much better informed about issues by relying only on blogs than on a local newspaper or–God forbid–television news.

One of the most interesting things I got out of last week’s Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication convention was a discussion that–combined with the CJR article (which I read on the train on the way home from AEJMC) and some other tidbits of information–prompted the idea that blogging might actually “save” the 1960s-style literary journalism, which has faded significantly from the types of magazines that most Americans actually read. More on that in an upcoming post.

Posted in History, Journalism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

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.

Posted in Education, Journalism, Media literacy, Women | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »