Doing journalism is difficult work. News organizations make countless decisions each day that affect the nation’s news agenda and subsequent civic discussions. Today’s technology-driven world means those decisions are made quickly. Every second provides a new deadline. Having acknowledged the challenge, however, doing solid journalism shouldn’t be impossible. That is what it seems like these days, as the news industry continues to stumble with self-inflicted mistakes and colossal errors in judgment.
News media blunders over the past several weeks dishearten even the most ardent defenders of journalism. The damage done at the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner will take years to undo. The vulgar display by a so-called comedian was only part of what ails this overblown tribute to journalists’ self-importance. That our nation’s top journalists and news executives want to hob-nob with the powerful politicians, corporate fat cats and entertainers who should be the subjects of news coverage is the real mistake. This event demonstrates that the news industry is firmly entrenched in the elite establishment, living in an alternative universe disconnected from real people.
The WHCA defends the event as a scholarship fundraiser and tribute to the First Amendment. Then have a First Amendment scholar address the crowd, not a crass comedian. It is hard to build credibility for the news industry when its leaders promote a keynote speaker to tell off-color jokes. Here’s betting the American Medical Association won’t have a crude podium performance at its upcoming national meeting.
Results of a recent study of journalism hiring practices further underscore the elite and detached state of the journalism industry. Researchers Jonathan Wai and Kaja Perina published a study showing that almost half of employees at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal attended what they defined as “elite” colleges.
The news industry should, of course, try to attract smart people to the field, but there are plenty of smart prospects who didn’t happen to emerge from elite settings. This incestuous hiring process narrows the range of perspectives brought into the news decisionmaking process. The 20th century Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, Walter Lippmann, once wrote, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” That sentiment rings true in too many newsrooms today.
The media’s fascination with Stormy Daniels’s bumptious attorney, Michael Avenatti, suggests further that news standards have warped. Data from the Media Research Center show Avenatti has been interviewed on broadcast and cable news shows 147 times over a recent 10-week period. This saturation coverage could be justified if the Daniels story were being advanced, but that has not been the case to date. Meanwhile, CNN, the main cheerleader for Avenatti, gets to keep showing video of Daniels in glamor poses.
Then there was the obsession with the royal wedding. The marriage of a British prince to an American actress is a charming feature story, the key word here being “feature.” Yet, the broadcast “news” organizations blanketed the wedding with coverage that tied up anchors and producers for days, and cost huge money. NBC had five anchors involved in its broadcasts. CNN sent its highest profile personalities, Don Lemon, Anderson Cooper and Alisyn Camerota. There just has to be a better journalistic use for such air time and resources.
Edward R. Murrow warned of this problem in his 1958 “wires and lights in a box” speech. He would be shocked at the extent to which his prophecy has played out.
The nation yearns for a news industry that realizes its First Amendment promise to serve as a public surrogate and fuel the information needs of a democracy. Surveys of media credibility from Gallup and Pew Research show dismal results, and that decline in trust was well underway before Trump began his constant bashing of journalism. Surveys show confidence in news sources is quite low across all political groupings, with right-leaning and independents particularly distrustful of news outlets.
It will take courageous leadership to turn the news industry around. It will take corporate leaders who have read the history of why a First Amendment was created in the first place. It will take leaders who have read the ethics codes of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Association.
Without confidence in the news media, citizens turn to social media or the guy at the bar for their information needs. Worse yet, many citizens today just tune out the news altogether. An uninformed citizenry, with no suitable surrogates in the news media, is left disabled in addressing the serious issues the nation faces.