I teach an undergraduate course in Media and Public Affairs. It’s a challenging course to teach, because every year, the definition of “media” changes, and the erosion of the part of the profession called “journalism” becomes more pronounced.
In a recent New York Times column, written in the aftermath of the uprising at the University of Missouri (and the indefensible conduct of a journalism school adjunct professor during that uprising), Timothy Egan addressed the current environment:
I’d like to believe that this video snippet was just another absurdity of campus life, where the politics are so vicious, as they say, because the stakes are so small. But it goes to a more troubling trend — the diminishment of a healthy, professionally trained free press.
For some time now, it’s been open season on this beaten-down trade, from the left and the right. Into that vacuum have emerged powerful partisan voices, injecting rumors and outright lies into the public arena, with no consequence. At the same time, it’s become extremely difficult for reporters who adhere to higher standards to make a living. Poverty-level wages have become the norm at many a town’s lone nonpartisan media outlet.
More than 20,000 newsroom jobs have been lost in this country since 2001 — a work force drop of about 42 percent. The mean salary of reporters in 2013 was $44,360; journalists now earn less than the national average for all United States workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
With the loss of the traditional business model, a new media has emerged–providing celebrity gossip and “infotainment,” pandering to partisan loyalties and pre-existing prejudices, and–rather than competing to tell us what we need to know about our government and society– vying to see what words and phrases will trigger the most “clicks.”
As I told my students at the outset of the current semester, it is no longer possible to teach this course in the conventional way–a professor introducing students to a body of agreed-upon scholarship. Instead, the class has become a joint expedition into a wild and wooly information environment that is evolving on a weekly basis– and a joint exploration of the ways in which the loss of that quaint thing we used to call “journalism” is affecting our ability to engage with each other in a democratic system.
How long can this continue before we no longer share a common vocabulary–or reality?