How Long Can This Continue?

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?

 

28 thoughts on “How Long Can This Continue?

  1. “For some time now, it’s been open season on this beaten-down trade, from the left and the right.”

    Mr. Egan speaks the truth; but didn’t point out that it has been “beaten-down” and the workforce drop cause has come from within the world of journalism in all its many forms. Locally we can point fingers at Gannett/Indianapolis Star/USA Today, our daily source of printed news. The blatant far-right-leaning views have been bought and paid for by big business, and Gannett, Inc., is indeed big business. Quantity is their goal; quality is lost and the public is spoon-fed celebrity gossip and “infotainment”…with the GOP providing most of the “infotainment” in their bogus presidential nominee campaign these days.

    What is the solution? If we refuse to buy or subscribe to printed news or forego watching TV news, we lose the only sources available; even with its biased reporting. (MSNBC has new right-leaning leadership.) Basic quality of providing local information lacks substance and sources in most articles and other vital information isn’t reported. This is the “boilerplate” reporting format provided by private owners of massive numbers of news outlets nationwide. There is no solution unless and until big business has been scaled back by regulations which used to be unspoken and unwritten but was standard quality in most media outlets.

    Let me be nit-picky (no surprise to many who know my name on this blog); being deaf and disabled I depend on my TV for entertainment and such news as is now available. The TV Week magazine is rife with incorrect program listings and times and some weeks it comes unstapled…it IS in magazine form. There was a time period of several months when it was unstapled every week; when I found someone to question this I was told their stapler was broken. Gannett’s stapler was broken for months:) This is part of the lost quality of journalism vs. quantity…petty as it may seem on the surface.

    “How long can this continue before we no longer share a common vocabulary–or reality?”

    Get used to it; it is what we have, follow the money.

  2. Sheila, congratulations on the courage to write this, but if your penultimate paragraph is true, then you ought consider whether the course is still the same course that was accredited. College isn’t merely four years of shooting the bull.

    The media, particularly the print media, has only itself to blame for its irrelevance. It spent decades carrying government press releases to print, merely changing the byline and passing off the press release as “news.” Such complicity kept the media warmly invited to government meetings, but it destroyed the worth of the media as a thing of truth and insight to its customers.

    Others in the media have spent decades not printing anything absent quasar spin. Inconvenient facts were suppressed if no spin were possible, causing the people who later learned of the fact later to wonder why they didn’t timely see it in what they thought was their trusted news source. Bloggers ascended; newspapers collapsed.

    The media desperately needs to return to presenting all the facts and news in a community facts in a cold, sterile, trustworthy fashion. The great problem for the media is that honest reporting, the reporting we really need, and not Tully, Erika or NUVO, is now capable of being performed by robots.

    http://www.theverge.com/2015/1/29/7939067/ap-journalism-automation-robots-financial-reporting

  3. Many people use the word “media” as a singular noun. The noun is plural. The distinction is important. If we see “media” as one giant blob of things, the implication is a unified whole. There are various media of communication. Each medium has its particular traits.

  4. Mark,

    Six companies own 90% of the media.

    Others make the point more clearly, arguing that 96% of the world media is under Jewish control.

    Under either calculation, It’s difficult to argue that the media it isn’t a unified whole.

    In further reflecting on my post, Sheila should worry that college is following media’s path. If college isn’t doing what it is supposed to do, education, like news, will be obtained via alternate channels, and college will further devolve into the pablum of self-affirmation and smug self-congratulation. with no real learning occurring, at all.

  5. Mark; I’m sure most of Sheila’s readers know that the term “media” is plural. Today’s “media” IS “one giant blob of things” spouting, in all its forms, the same hyperbole daily. Social media must be included in this list as it seems to provide several popular formats and it is accessed by the public who adds their personal views…and colorful language.

    Sheila teaches a course in Media and Public Affairs; she referred to a New York Times journalist whose column referred to a “video snippet” in keeping with two forms of “media” as the word suggests. Just sayin’

  6. Perhaps your course should be renamed Media and Private Affairs since the reading public is apparently more interested in the sexual and anti-social antics of the rich and famous than whether we can survive dirty air and atomic weapons in the hands of terrorists who consider it a pleasure to go see Allah and want to take the rest of us along for the ride. News has become a purely business venture (sell that advertising!) and/or a front for right to left politicking; no Ernie Pyle need apply. Profits depend upon not just sales of advertising and circulation; profits also depend upon cost-cutting , so empty the newsroom, call in the wire services, and await robot news services run by one human in Oz-like surroundings so that we will finally have arrived at a totally homogenized news service by some rich and journalistically inclined Big Brother.
    We see such monopolies in banking, retail pricing, and a host of anti-trust practices our legislators are paid to see unenforced, so it’s no great surprise that journalism is in the mix. (In the Thanksgiving spirit, see Murdoch the gobbler who recently gobbled up National Geographic to add to his Fox News and other right wing media – and shortly thereafter announced cuts in that magazine’s personnel.) It’s a familiar pattern as we are nearing some form of 1984 corporate control not only of America’s economy but even of its mores and folkways, speaking of Big Brother.
    Why have diverse points of view in a democracy when the Wizard has all the answers, and at a profit? Are we being programmed as surely as robots are, and all in the name of power and profit? You be the judge.

  7. Where would we be without “The Daily Show” or “Last Week, Tonight”? Did the framers imagine that the comedy shows would be the bastions of truth that newspapers once were?

  8. Gooper, you hit the bulls eye twice. Mergers exploded after Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Howard Zinn talked about the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in 2003:
    the Telecommunications Act of 1996…enabled the handful of corporations dominating the airwaves to expand their power further. Mergers enabled tighter control of information…The Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano commented…”Never have so many been held incommunicado by so few.”

    The CIA got into the action after WW 2 of influencing and directing the Media with Operation Mockingbird. Today we are bombarded day and night with various McMega-Media selected experts on Terrorism. There are internet outlets who see the Paris Bombings, etc., as false flag operations. Well there is a reason Operation Northwoods. Briefly from Wiki – The proposals called for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or other US government operatives to commit acts of terrorism against American civilians and military targets, blaming it on the Cuban government, and using it to justify a war against Cuba. The proposals were rejected by the Kennedy administration. < This plan was originated within the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) of the United States government in 1962.

    At a local level The Star and TV has become purely infotainment. Big issues such as the Crony-Capitalism and Corporate Welfare rampant all around us are ignored.

    I am not a history of journalism expert but I do understand that back in the 19th and early 20th centuries there was a thriving written tabloid outlet for issues the Corporate Media of it's day would not report on or ignored for some reason or another. Perhaps our wild and woolly internet of today is just an offshoot. We know facts can be presented with a spin.

  9. I am curious why you didn’t point out what has been alluded to in the above comments, the control of the media by a small group. To me the greater point is that, like religion in the past, we have an oligarchy that is trying to control information. They have no desire for true journalism that would investigate them and their involvement in politics and control around the world.

    The same goes with education, less knowledge means less critical thinking and a population that is easier to manipulate and control. Simply look at what is happening right now with the GOP Presidential field and the Syrian refugee crisis, both are driven by the same thing fear.

  10. Sheila, your course must be extraordinarily difficult to teach. It seems that your choice is to try to balance teaching the students about honest, fact-based journalism (that has no market value) with the reality of our country’s current media platform of selling sensational stories that spark fear, anger and a host of other emotional responses to made-up stories that have nothing to do with truth or reality.

    Maybe by encouraging them to be aware of the reality of today’s false “journalism”, they will understand that they should strive to uncover the truth by carrying out their own fact checking.

    JoAnn, if you have a smart phone there is a tv guide app that you can personalize to show the listings in your location by your provider. No need for the newspaper tv guide. Or, go to tvlistings.com. If these don’t work for you, I bet you can find the listings somewhere else on the internet.

  11. I’m absolutely sure that people get sick of reading from me that private business is defined completely and accurately now by: make more money regardless of the cost to others. The truth is that it has always been only that but in the smaller, tighter communities of the past it was tempered by neighbors serving neighbors. Now that “big box” defines virtually all surviving essential businesses they are merely accounting machines marching relentlessly to that single drumbeat.

    It simply does not serve us well anymore in that form. We are slaved to their bottom line.

    It’s too bad really because the old model served us and them very well mostly.

    We can survive on big box restaurants and tool stores even though we don’t thrive. I personally don’t see how we can even survive on media solely for profit though.

    That brings up the always troubling question, what is the solution?

    While we ponder that socially I think that we have to make sure that we in no way compromise the one medium left that works for us instead of the accountants. The free and open Internet. We need to make sure that government assumes whatever role there that private ownership demonstrates as necessary to keep it free and pervasive. And we have to educate next generations of society in critical thinking, the demonstrable failure of our generation.

    We now have the ability to know instantly the events of the world. We have evolved from journalism as a profession to everyone is a journalist. Not an ideal change but one we’re stuck with and have to make work.

    Congratulations on being the future by your participation here.

    Sheila congratulations on being in a position to demonstrate to your students in Media and Public Affairs the future with your efforts here.

    Now if we can address this critical thinking thing.

  12. The fact that media is such a difficult course to teach and to even comprehend qualifies it as something that needs to be studied and discussed. If media and freedom of the press is part of the Constitution, yet the area continues to evolve that’s scary stuff when we understand that we do not know where it is going or exactly what it is.

    If a class that deals honestly and deeply brings to bear all the tools we have to understand the area, and students leave with more questions than answers, it must be a wonderful course. All of education should do the same. As the saying goes, “Education is proceeding from cocksure ignorance to thoughtful uncertainty.”

  13. Advertising revenues are the goal for the media now; “content” is the candy used to attract readers and viewers so they can experience the advertising. I am sick of being talked at by voice over and color inserts in the Star.

  14. JoAnn, I don’t think Civics is taught any more. It should be a required course to graduate high school.

  15. It’s a common misconception that scientists invent stuff. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Scientists only discover what already exists. The universe really doesn’t care whether we know any of her secrets, they are the rules that she always follows and always has and will. They don’t change because we finally figured them out.

    So the independent but concerted effort around the world to organize the search for revelation is another kind of news network.

    It is expected that every scientist also be a journalist and report their discoveries regularly and accurately to add their content to the bigger effort. It seems to work very well most of the time at least within the scientific community.

    A few times lately though it’s come to be known that that everybody’s a journalist doesn’t work as well when it’s from within, but directed out of the science community. Scientists are typically very adequate journalists to others with similar education and temperament and discipline but lack in reporting to the general public.

    Of course that’s prompted much science on the interface between science and the general public. Progress is being made.

    A conclusion that can come from all of that is that science education needs to be a bigger part of all education. For one reason it adds to understanding the nature of evidence and certainty and objectivity in the reporting that we all as amateur journalists must now perform in the new connected but lournalistically challenged world. For another it will spread this emerging science of how best to communicate with those who don’t think for a living.

    Perhaps the most important revelation from that science has been the extent among the general public of various forms of confirmation bias – sorting incoming info in terms of what best supports what I already believe rather than independent from that.

    A new deadly sin?

  16. From Scientific American on how reporting by scientists to scientists is essential to discovery.

    “It is not because of the sheer number of scientists. After all, science is not conducted by poll. As Albert Einstein said in response to a 1931 book skeptical of relativity theory entitled 100 Authors against Einstein, “Why 100? If I were wrong, one would have been enough.” The answer is that there is a convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry—pollen, tree rings, ice cores, corals, glacial and polar ice-cap melt, sea-level rise, ecological shifts, carbon dioxide increases, the unprecedented rate of temperature increase—that all converge to a singular conclusion. AGW doubters point to the occasional anomaly in a particular data set, as if one incongruity gainsays all the other lines of evidence. But that is not how consilience science works. For AGW skeptics to overturn the consensus, they would need to find flaws with all the lines of supportive evidence and show a consistent convergence of evidence toward a different theory that explains the data. (Creationists have the same problem overturning evolutionary theory.) This they have not done.”

  17. I’m not sure the analogy is entirely apt, but I can’t help thinking of Gresham’s Law. It’s commonly phrased as ‘bad money drives out good’ but more exactly should be described as follows: overvalued money [i.e. currency whose inherent worth is less than its exchange value] floods the market when undervalued money, i.e. the real thing, is removed from circulation & hoarded because of its high inherent value (in this case, expense, though good investigative journalism also has a high inherent value independent of $, which is I think Sheila’s point).
    There is no shortage of superb insight, reporting, and writing in the dozens of obscure journals & magazines that have sprung up in the last five or ten years; the problem is that they’re obscure to all but effete rootless cosmopolites such as myself, who don’t mind sending a yearly token $25 to the grossly underpaid editors of these works of love.
    Could it be that in the scarcity economy prevalent in contemporary media, we’ve crossed a threshold below which only a race-to-the-bottom will keep a large organization alive? If suddenly everyone in the country was only willing to spend $10 a week for food, the supermarkets would be selling pasta & rice and very little else. Until readers are willing to replace the lost ad revenue, real journalism won’t revive.

  18. Rob, very thoughtful, even profound observation.

    Here’s a question to add to it. Do we behave as we do, maximum stuff, minimum quality, be it journalism or health care, because we are the most intelligent life on the planet, or is it because we are advertising besotted media addicts over serving ourselves at the banquet of capitalism?

  19. Part of my FB comment on today’s essay:
    “Let us remember the old journalism of the 18th century. A hand printing press, one sheet of paper printed on front and back, and distributed by people who could afford to buy one copy and then that was handed on — to the wider number of literate people.
    We have pretty much come back to that, haven’t we? Somebody finds a story on a blog, or from an official, or (rarely) a TV station that actually contains real news. They share the link, it’s passed around with a good headline.”
    Nobody has to actually read it to get the overall point, but some do and know the story. Process is about the same between now and then, isn’t it?

  20. From the NYT. Interesting because it describes a Muslim view of us and also a Christian view of them.

    “It is worth reading certain Islamist newspapers to see their reactions to the attacks in Paris. The West is cast as a land of “infidels.” The attacks were the result of the onslaught against Islam. Muslims and Arabs have become the enemies of the secular and the Jews. The Palestinian question is invoked along with the rape of Iraq and the memory of colonial trauma, and packaged into a messianic discourse meant to seduce the masses. Such talk spreads in the social spaces below, while up above, political leaders send their condolences to France and denounce a crime against humanity. This totally schizophrenic situation parallels the West’s denial regarding Saudi Arabia.”

  21. When I was a college student we had a discussion in the laboratory about killing a frog by gradually heating the water it sat in. It was heated slowly so that the frog didn’t perceive a large enough change in temperature to trigger a flight response. Maybe television programming is running the same experiment: gradually increasing commercial time in the program hour while reducing the actual programming, but at a rate that won’t trigger the flight response in the viewers. Maybe it’s the same for print media.

  22. You got it Daleb! Just for the heck of it, I watched an entire rerun of a Dr. Phil Show on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). My goal was to count every commercial in that hour–those that just flash by and are gone, the usual ones for cars, dietary supplements, arthritis, cancer, male dysfunction, cosmetics, sinus aids, computers, constipation, GE, Internet service, promos for other OWN programs, and on and on. I was and still am amazed. Can you guess how many commercials were shown in that hour? Go ahead. You are likely not even close. If I got them all, there were 32 ads during that program.

    The media is/are everything. We are its/their eager, willing slaves. Believe it. As Pete often says, it’s all (and I mean ALL) about the money!

  23. As a holder of a journalism degree from the 20th century, I will say that journalism, nor its failure or virtue is not the issue: The failure is our collective recognition of truth that’s paramount. Perhaps we have all become such adept marketers that we have lost all connection to reality and fundamental truth.

  24. I was not familiar with Sheila Kennedy until today. I am impressed and will continue reading. I also am impressed with the public comments I have read. Obviously those who read her blog are intelligent and educated. Wonderful.

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