Tuesday, September 4, 2007

How Mainstream Media Broke Its Contract With Readers, part II

In my last post I discussed the way main stream media (MSM) inevitably ran the small press out of business, and now I'm going to finish up my critique through a discussion of how I think MSM actively broke its trust with readers.

The press should operate as the fourth estate -- a check on government power through the free exchange of ideas. (But whether the public actually wants this from MSM is another blog post). Impartiality is embedded in the concept of journalistic objectivity -- reporters are supposed to check their biases at the door. Also, ideally journalism should give us the facts. MSM has failed on all three accounts.
  1. MSM has not provided the public with accurate information:

    • Many journalists have recently been caught plagarizing. Jayson Blair is the obvious example.

  2. MSM has failed to operate adequately as a check on government power, particularly as applies to the Iraq war, which broke the contract in two ways:

    • Because MSM didn't scuttle fast enough, we went to war. We didn't hear that there were no weapons of mass destruction, we didn't find out about torture soon enough to prevent it -- the Bush administration was not held up to scrutiny in the days surrounding 9/11. Journalists were sleeping on the job.

      I understand that the Bush White House, and perhaps other White Houses as well, grant better access to and answer more questions from favorably inclined reporters, as opposed to ones who ask tough questions. This is a plainly unacceptable situation, and I would like to see reporters banding together to boycott substance-less press conferences where only the softball questions get answered.

    • Because reporters rolled over and accepted the administration's press conference rules, they lost the credibility that objectivity brings. Right-leaning news organizations got great access but weren't very critical, left-leaning organizations got bitter and preachy. In a sense, Bush polarized the media, although I'm sure earlier administrations helped.

  3. MSM has failed to operate impartially:

    • In an ideal world, newspapers would disseminate information freely and reporters would not be paid. The absence of money would help ensure that reporters were in it for the truth, and not for cash. Obviously, we do not live in an ideal world and newspapers and reporters must be paid for their work, but MSM has taken things too far. My perception, which I believe others share, is that news corporations are owned by uber-conglomerates that hawk a wide variety of stuff, and I don't have time to parse these relations myself. I worry that this commercial bent is slanting news media, imbuing it with consumerism. The news is not the news, but PR information fed to me (and perhaps to reporters also) to get me to buy stuff.

    • Newspapers have money, and are often run by white men. The lacking diversity of op-ed pages in the nation's newspapers has been widely lamented -- few women and writers of color figure into these pages, although this has been changing for the better. However, I think that many people perceive newspapers as old boy's clubs, where the old boys hire and pay people who are like them to produce the news, which makes newspapers sound suspiciously like the establishment they are supposed to be covering.
So, I can pay to read inaccurate biased news written by white guys that subliminally tells me to buy stuff (MSM), or for free I can read inaccurate biased news written by a diverse population that is not unilaterally motivated by money (Internet).

Somewhat reductive, I know, but is there any wonder that folks have turned to media on the Internet?


Elizabeth Browne said...

As a female journalist at a newspaper that has a female publisher, editors and varied group of reporters from a gender and minority standpoint, I'm having a hard time swallowing this overly-generalized post.

There are so many things to take offense to and so many generalizations to attempt to counter, I don't even know where to begin. Frankly there's not enough space, and as a busy reporter, I don't have the time to address all of your points.

I will say that if you think that the Internet is free of advertising-driven news and information, think again. If anything, Internet advertising is more nefarious because it's less clear where the line is — what's advertising and what's not. Bloggers are being paid to promote products by post, for example, but don't tell you when this is happening. (Next time you read a blog post that includes a list of links, consider why the blogger is promoting those particular sites.) Even smaller-scale bloggers, me included (and I get maybe 30 hits a day), receive press releases from companies, events, or products seeking promotion.

Some web sites seem like news sites, but they are funded by companies and made to look like separate media sites. Companies are putting films on You Tube with discreet product placements. How's that for PR?

As a journalist working for a more traditional outlet, I can tell you that my colleagues and I attempt to actively ignore/tear down/refuse companies and individuals seeking promotion. I have never been told to write about something so that the paper could make money, nor have I ever written anything for that reason. I have never been told to write about something or written about it because an advertiser pressured me to do so. Such requests from advertisers and yes, they do happen, piss me off and I usually end the conversation. Many of the journalists I know have worked for a variety of newspapers and magazines, both local and national, independent and conglomerate-owned, and I think I can safely say that none of them would put up with that kind of boundary crossing and pressure from higher-ups.

Journalists are a skeptical, critical bunch and I think you're underestimating their ability to be swayed by money and power — and also how much they make. Which let me tell you, isn't much.

Lizzie said...

Thanks for holding me to task. I'm new to the field and still developing my own view of the situation. I wanted to clarify a few things you mentioned in your comment:

I know that newspapers are not run exclusively by white men and take your point that there are newspapers that have a wide diversity of writers, which I certainly applaud. Many newspapers, for example the Washington Post, are trying to bring on minority and women writers by cultivating them from early in their careers. This is great. However, there is still much work to be done, not just to improve the actual situation, but also to improve the way the public views it.

I don't think web news is free from advertising, nor do I think I said that in my post. Like print papers, ad revenue sustains news on the Internet. But there is more choice on the Internet, and I think it's easier to find ad-free media if you know where to look for it.

Yes, there are ethical walls between the advertising and news departments, because it is impossible to run a real paper without funds. However, there are other ways to sell out -- see this gawker post on a Mary Schmich article on 2004 Republican Convention freebies to journalists.

Yes, by and large I think journalists are a skeptical, critical bunch and I hope to join them after I graduate, but they are not perfect. Their credibility has been damaged, and that is why the explosion of blogs has given them a run for their money. To regain the public's trust will take hard work and new media ingenuity.