On the Purpose of Journalism

During the past year or so, I’ve taken to throwing two questions at my mass media, and especially my journalism, students. The first question – well, maybe it’s the communication studies specialist in me, but I want them to start thinking about the weight of the words they use and the reality of them, so I ask them to define something that’s at the heart of what we study. So often we see words and phrases tossed around, assuming we know generally what we’re talking about, but sometimes, we really need to stop and ask ourselves what we’re saying.

“What does ‘the media’ refer to?” I ask, and they respond with the usual laundry list of “newspapers, magazines, TV shows, Internet.”

“But I don’t mean just the forms of media. What do we mean when we say ‘It’s the media’s fault,’ or ‘The media never gets it right’?”

“It means the news; people who talk about the news,” they say, but now they’re not sure about what I’m asking. So I clarify.

“So you’re saying that you equate, say, Rush Limbaugh with, oh, I don’t know – Scott Pelley? Lester Holt? And the National Enquirer with the New York Times, or your soft rock radio station news with NPR? These are all ‘media.’ Are they all getting it equally wrong?”

Then they start to see what I’m asking. We start parsing it out a bit better. We talk about those stations or channels or publications that are trying a little harder than others, but which may still not be doing it quite right, and those that have definite political slants and aren’t afraid to use them. And I talk with them a little about what drives the news, now and historically, and while they weakly talk about the need to inform the public, they also know that the financial bottom line is really what drives a lot of content.

Those of us who have studied journalism know the history of it. We can pretty well explain how Gutenberg’s press brought about so many cultural changes, but among them was a rise in commerce, in capitalism. We know that the penny press succeeded largely because of advertisers, and that magazines – especially those aimed at women – were not so much for the benefit of the magazinists to have a place to put their writings, but rather for the corporations with products to sell, who needed the audience of consumers that these publications could offer with their broad, nationwide circulations.

And in all that history, we learn, and we continue to teach, the story of the Fourth Estate that serves to oversee the actions of the three branches of government. There’s nobility in that; we talk about providing a space for the public to discuss important issues, and to provide that public with the information it needs to keep our democracy running.

We talk, too, about how our two world wars helped pull us at least somewhat away from the era of yellow journalism and more toward the investigative side of reporting, with the muckrakers helping expose and bring down corruption.

Finally, we tell them about the Hutchins Commission of the 1940s, and of social responsibility theory (a nice overview of this is at http://pressinamerica.pbworks.com/w/page/18360200/Hutchins%20Commission). It’s all about democracy, we say. It’s about objectivity and being honest and finding the real stories.

What’s interesting of late, however, is that a study came out less than a year ago that puts a bit of a kink in things, and folks have been talking about it. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” came out in the September 2014 issue of the journal Perspectives on Politics [12(3): 564–581], and in it, Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University determined that “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence” (abstract).

In other words, the United States is no longer a democracy; we’re now an oligarchy (and Citizens United doesn’t exactly dispel this theory).

This, then, is the second question I ask my students: “If the U.S. is no longer truly a democracy, does objective, unbiased journalism serve any real purpose in our country?” (I’ll get to the question of the possibility of “objective” or “unbiased” news in a future post.)

For the most part, I’ve gotten a lot of push-back from the students on this one. They believe the news is still important and that it tells us things we need to know (though I’d note that the concepts of gatekeeping, agenda-setting, or framing never enter the conversation unless I toss them in).

But aside from those who are a little lost about politics in general (I had a student once who described the political spectrum of beliefs as the left side being communists, the right being fascists, and the middle being liberal . . . which in some ways might be more insightful than I gave this student credit for), I have found this question to be a good one to get them thinking about what the news provides them, and how finances have such a strong influence over both the watchers and the watched.

If I can get them thinking, even a little, about the connections among the citizens, the news sources, the government, and money, I count that class as a win. And it’s encouraging to occasionally run across an article to tell the students about that’s like the one the Columbia Journalism Review just posted on February 11 with the title “Virginia lawmakers blame the media for forcing them to pass ethics reform” (http://preview.tinyurl.com/o7k435n).

I guess “the media” still gets a few things right.

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