It used to be said you only enjoyed freedom of the press if you owned one. Those times vanished with the last millennium as the Internet and outlets like Twitter, Facebook and WordPress spread faster than a Grumpy Cat video. Now anyone — from press-card and citizen journalists to neighborhood activists, would-be writers, hacks and shills — can beat an online drum to attract your attention and say anything they please. This is one revolution that actually handed power to the people but with little guidance for spotting honest information brokers among the misguided, misinformed and routinely deceitful.
Did those legacy news organizations always get it right? Not at all. Cheerleaders drowned out party poopers digging into both government spin on invading Iraq and Wall Street spin on endless profit. If ever there were a time we needed an independent corps of reporters picking at the veneer of society, business, government and politics, it is now. But amid the constant chatter and noise, would anyone notice?
Freedom of the press was intended to inform citizens, not mislead them, which may be how it does work on some other planet. On this planet, even in the earliest days of our republic, partisan newspapers gleefully flung sensational and slanderous mud. At least then you recognized the owner of the press as someone you might actually meet on the street or at the tavern. Separating fact from fiction is not a new challenge although it’s gotten tough to spot hidden advertising and argument passing as news not to mention figuring out who’s behind your favorite sources of information and entertainment. These days the tentacles of giant media corporations grow ever longer challenging news consumers to understand their news sources and to add or subtract accordingly.
Even out here in poor New Mexico four Albuquerque TV stations — two of them producing local news not in competition but with the same studio, staff and sources — now broadcast from the building of one national corporation, which is itself about to merge into a larger media corporation. Nationally the country’s biggest cable and Internet company, Comcast, wants to gobble up the No. 2 cable company Time Warner Cable, and AT&T just announced plans to buy DirecTV, the latest big-media consolidations with negative implications for consumers’ choices and budgets. Taking time to consider what’s happening to U.S. media, let alone doing news homework among diverse sources, becomes a daunting task for folks already stressed by work, life and family when they aren’t worrying about whether they’ll die first from some drug-resistant microbe, random crime or crashing asteroid.
My God! Explore some independent thought. — Michael Smerconish, talk-show host and author of “Talk: A Novel,” interviewed on CBS This Morning, May 9, 2014.
For what it’s worth your host here at FotoGrande.com is a working journalist affiliated with of the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Press Photographers Association, both of which ask adherence to a code of ethics as a condition of membership. Over the years he’s been threatened with arrest for doing his job, subjected to minor verbal and physical assaults and bullied by lawsuits that were never filed. He still beats himself up for factual errors, misspelled names and other screw-ups made in the rush to deadline.
Subscribing to a voluntary ethical code of fairness and accuracy backed by a personal sense of right and wrong is about all you can ask in a country whose Constitution bars the government from controlling news media or deciding who is and is not a journalist. Note there is no claim of complete objectivity here since each person’s background, from DNA to individual experience, influences their perspective in pursuit of that worthy goal. Accuracy is accuracy, though, and fairness comes with context where everything is not necessarily equal. Should, for example, academic scientists producing tested and reproducible findings of climate change or the health risks of smoking be given the same weight as scientists subsidized by the fossil-fuel or tobacco industries? Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, but the fairness scale tips toward independent researchers, not paid spokespeople.
A writer without a sense of justice and of injustice would be better off editing the yearbook of a school for exceptional children than writing novels. … The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it. — Novelist and Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway interviewed by editor George Plimpton in The Paris Review, No. 18, Spring 1958.
Are there glimmers of hope out there? Perhaps. Studies show young people actively engaged with online news. Ah, but to what depth, and does it begin to match the print experience of stumbling upon unexpected topics while turning the pages of news magazines and newspapers? Also out there the startup website Upworthy (“social media with a message”) is finding success trolling the Web for meatier news and spreading it to a larger–often much larger–audience through enticing headlines and algorithmic magic beyond what Facebook sharing offers.
“It’s easy to push ‘Like’ and increase the visibility of a friend’s post about finishing a marathon or an instructional article about how to make onion soup. It’s harder to push the ‘Like’ button on an article titled, ‘Darfur sees bloodiest month in two years.’” Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser quoted in Columbia Journalism Review, July-August 2014 (see link below).
The flip side of giving media power to the people is shifting a huge responsibility to the people lest they be led astray by charlatans peddling snake oil when you need a drink of cool, clear water. I’ll just try to tell you an honest story; then you’re on your own. Good luck tuning up your excrement detectors.
American Press Institute: Young people are high news consumers
Columbia Journalism Review: The king of content: How Upworthy aims to alter the Web, and could end up altering the world
Michael Copps, former FCC commissioner: Journalists need to generate a national discussion on the future of the Internet
Pew Research Center: 12 trends shaping digital news
Pew Research Center: Newspaper newsrooms suffer large staffing decreases
PublicMind Poll: What you know depends on who you watch (PDF download from FotoGrande.com)
Radio Television Digital Association: Newsroom staffing stagnates
State of the Media: Americans show signs of leaving a news outlet citing less information