I used to be proud to be a journalist. When they called me "Mass Media Maia," in high school, for once, I didn't taking being teased the wrong way. But these days, journalists barely rank above used car dealers-- and if the large turn-out at the Demos/ New York Society for Ethical Culture talk on "Ethics and Journalism: Should We Trust the Media?" is anything to go by, I'm far from the only one who is concerned.
Unfortunately, however, few in the audience appeared to be under 30-- and those who were, were primarily journalism students. The younger generations are tuning out, fed up with a media that seems interested only in celebrity fluff and in sucking up to those in power. They also don't seem to think much of the First Amendment, with close to half saying that it "goes too far" in the freedom it grants to the press.
Panelist Helen Thomas described what she sees as the main problem bluntly: "The press rolled over and played dead in the run-up to the Iraq war." She noted how a sense of patriotism after 9/11 muted critical thinking and questioning, but added, "The press is the only institution that gets to ask questions of the president and if we don't ask the questions, they're not asked," to loud applause.
New York Magazine editor Adam Moss was less well-received when he said he didn't believe that journalistic ethics are in particularly poor shape today. But even he agreed that, "We're timid and not aggressive enough... Journalists have not fought back as a group, as an institution, as a community, it's largely the work of this administration to whittle the press down to be as powerless as possible."
Blogger Jeff Jarvis discussed how he believes that part of the problem is the mainstream media's "false god of objectivity." Research in numerous fields has found that objectivity is simply not possible. Instead, he said that "transparency [should be] our ethic." A look at the disclosure page on his site shows that he takes the idea seriously. "Our job is to help people decide what they think is true," he said. The position stands in stark contrast to the "he said, she said" coverage so common these days.
Randall Pinkston, the CBS correspondent, noted that the media has a tendency "to allow public officials to make statements that we know are not true," and to let them pass without significant challenge. "And if they keep being repeated, people might start to believe them."
So, how do we give the media watchdog back its teeth? Solutions are difficult because economic pressures push the mainstream media to be overly cautious. While the web now allows new voices and "citizen journalists" to be heard, it's difficult for them to do the kind of investigative journalism we need because they don't get paid for their work.
The Bush administration has taken advantage of a situation in which the economics of journalism is shifting-- a terrified mainstream media that still provides most of the actual reporting on which the new media depend, and a new media that doesn't yet, for the most part, allow journalists to make a living from it.
Can the mainstream media be fixed? Would a new ideal of transparency rather than objectivity help? Is there a way to stop the reflexive coverage of politics as a horse race, which neglects policy and promotes cynicism? Would politics change if instead of covering the new torture law that guts the Constitution as "business as usual," there were banner headlines and news bulletins interrupting entertainment? Would a gutsier press bring more young people to newspapers and news media in general? Is it the media that killed outrage?
I would like to be proud of my profession again-- and will explore some of these questions further in the coming weeks. I welcome your comments, thoughts and ideas in the meanwhile.
Note: Over at stats.org, which funds some of my work critiquing media coverage of science and statistics, my colleagues Rebecca Goldin and Trevor Butterworth have a nifty story about how the press got the story about gender differences in math and science wrong.