David Domke and Elizabeth Blanks Hindman
Seattle Times (12/16/07)
Journalism in the United States has a serious identity crisis. It’s not the first time this has occurred, but it might just be the last.
Over the past few decades, the news organizations that many of us read or watch have lost enormous credibility among the U.S. public. This is due to high-profile mistakes such as taking a pass on the Bush administration’s claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — a journalistic debacle for which The New York Times and The Washington Post publicly apologized — and for everyday errors of emphasizing entertainment that masquerades as news. Enough Britney, Paris and O.J. already.
That’s not only our view. The Pew Research Center has tracked perceptions of the press among U.S. adults for more than two decades, asking the same questions over time. Some trends speak volumes:
• In 1985, when asked whether news organizations “get the facts straight” or are “often inaccurate,” 55 percent chose the former option and 34 percent the latter. This past July, when Pew asked this question, the responses were almost exactly reversed: 39 percent said news media get facts straight and 53 percent said they often don’t.
• In 1985, when asked whether news organizations were “moral” or “immoral” in their practices, 54 percent indicated the former, 13 percent the latter, and 33 percent said neither or that they weren’t sure. This past July, 46 percent said news media were moral while nearly a third, 32 percent, said immoral.
• In 1985, when asked whether news organizations “are pretty independent” or are “often influenced by powerful people and organizations,” 37 percent chose the former option and 53 percent the latter. That wasn’t good for the press then. It’s even worse now: In July, 69 percent said news media are often influenced by powerful actors and institutions.
• Finally, in 1985, when asked whether news organizations “protect democracy” or “hurt democracy,” 54 percent chose the former option and 23 percent the latter. In July, only 44 percent said news media protect democracy, while more than a third, 36 percent, said news media hurt democracy.
These trends (and there are more data, none of which shows improving perceptions of the press) are unsustainable for any industry that depends on public support, both philosophically and economically. In decades past, journalism as practiced by newspapers, network and local TV news, and newsmagazines might have been able to turn around these views. But today, with Internet blogs and the loud voices of cable television gaining audiences, what we know as mainstream journalism might simply fade away, seen as increasingly unnecessary.
That would be disastrous.
Let us be clear: We write as former journalists and now professors of mass communication and society. We believe deeply in the importance of news media in the American experiment in democracy. In fact, we believe that if journalism goes, democracy almost certainly goes with it. That’s why today we have grave concerns about the state of journalism — both in the United States generally and in the Northwest.
For this essay, we talked with several community leaders and activists in Washington, most but not all from west of the mountains. They differed in ethnicity, age, gender, religious and political outlook, and profession. What they shared were two beliefs: that the press is vital in democratic debate and decision-making, and that news organizations are failing, miserably, to provide the kinds of coverage that Americans need. Today, journalists (and journalism educators) can no longer fail to change their ways. Drawing upon these conversations, we offer four ways in which the press must fundamentally improve its news coverage. We might call this a model for Journalism 2025.
First, the press must be a true marketplace of ideas. Study after academic study shows that mainstream news organizations privilege the voices of powerful leaders in government, business and other cultural arenas. The Pew Center data indicate that the public recognizes this. Indeed, the concentration of power in the print columns and broadcast segments of news coverage is so great that democracy feels like a fiction to many. That’s not an outcome that creates an empowered public; instead, it fosters and feeds an apathetic one.
News coverage today commonly includes far too few voices. For example, the issue of immigration contains national security, economic, cultural, moral and legal dimensions. In 1965, Congress overhauled U.S. immigration laws, and in so doing ensured a nation of profound religious and ethnic diversity. What will today’s politicians, in this Washington and the D.C. one, set into motion? Who should enter U.S. borders, how will people be treated, and what kinds of opportunities are to be available?
These questions resonate in every corner of this state. From high-tech immigration in the software industry to seasonal workers in Central Washington, to growing African refugee and former Soviet immigrant communities, the identity of the state and nation is in our hands. News media must help us — all of us — to work this through.
Second, the press must drop the posture of detached neutrality. In mainstream journalism, a norm of objectivity fosters a reporting process that feels clinical and uncaring for many citizens. What society needs from the press, instead, is a posture of invested engagement. This does not mean journalists should do away with balanced reporting; rather, it means that the treatment of news would change slightly. An invested press would place less emphasis on getting and neutrally reporting “both” sides of a story, and more on telling the story from many perspectives.
An engaged press would have a real, deep and long-lasting involvement in its community. This would mean fewer “sound-bite” stories and more in-depth public-affairs reporting. It would require more diversity — ethnic, religious, economic — among newsroom staff. People, including reporters, see the world through their own lens. The more lenses in a newsroom, the more points of view or perspectives will come through in stories. This, of course, means that journalism schools, like our own, must recruit and train journalists from many backgrounds. We can and will do better.
Third, the press must fully adapt to the new world of online media. We believe that many in the news media are beginning to understand the value of the Internet, but more could be done. At the University of Washington and Washington State University, we are beginning to see students who have known and used the Internet all their lives, and they treat news very differently even than people 10 years older. They expect interactive news — they want information, but also demand the ability to comment on it themselves, and to experience other, nonofficial perspectives. They want both the expertise of the newsroom and the “outsider” view, at the same time.
Online news provides opportunities for that mix of insider and outsider, for journalist-created and citizen-created perspectives on democracy. The top-down, voice-on-high model of knowledge is dead, in journalism as well as in higher education; that’s a good thing.
With this in mind, journalists must capitalize on the fast-paced Internet culture of information to quickly correct mistakes. Journalists can follow the lead of prominent bloggers here; many acknowledge errors or alternate views proposed by readers, making for a more democratic and humble news-reporting process. The new online world still needs gatekeepers who sift through information and help people to make sense of it. News media can either adapt to the online world, or be left behind.
Fourth, the press must bring alive common and everyday experiences. Right now, such realities are largely ignored by a news media consumed by the bizarre and the unusual. Consider religious faith. Even in the nation’s least church-going region, millions of Northwesterners attend some kind of worship services on a regular basis. Yet, the diverse ways in which faith is experienced are often ignored by news media, relegated to a buried weekend news story or taken up only when something controversial is in the offing. This guarantees a narrow perspective, and it has allowed religion to become big political and economic enterprises in America without adequate scrutiny.
In 2005, New York Times leadership recognized this failing, telling its reporters, “Our news coverage needs to embrace unorthodox [religious] views and contrarian opinions and to portray lives both more radical and more conservative than most of us experience.”
It’s a position that, if heeded generally, would prompt news media to put their spotlights more often on issues and experiences that members of the public actually recognize and to which they can relate. People tune in to the news not only to learn about the world, but also to feel a sense of connection with one another. Right now, the press does too much to disrupt, rather than firm up, these connections.
A half-century ago, broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow risked his career to challenge Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s claims about communism in the United States. A few years later, in 1958, Murrow addressed leaders of the radio and television industries, speaking forcefully about his concerns that news organizations were abdicating their democratic roles. His words included these: “We are engaged in a great experiment to discover whether a free public opinion can devise and direct methods of managing the affairs of the nation. We may fail. But we are handicapping ourselves needlessly.”
The identity crisis for journalism in America is even more acute today. It is critical that U.S. news media regain credibility — critical for their survival, and especially critical for our democracy. The press must expand beyond old ways of defining news, to find new pathways in the 21st century, routes that include many voices and new ways of interacting with the public.
This will take creative balancing on the part of the press. The press must continue as an authoritative source of news in most communities, while embracing public input, commentary and wisdom. The press must retain the ability to present information accurately and quickly, while presenting many points of view. The press must be deeply committed to local communities while preserving the capacity to critique those communities.
All of this can be done. And for everyone’s sake, it must be.
David Domke is a professor and head of journalism in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. He is a co-author, with Kevin Coe of the University of Illinois, of the just-published “The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America.” Elizabeth Blanks Hindman is a professor and director of the graduate program in the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication at Washington State University. She is the author of “Rights vs. Responsibilities: The Supreme Court and the Media.” They wish to acknowledge the assistance of UW student Devin Hampton in preparing this essay.