October 18, 2006

A Harvard Panel Tackles the News Blues

Twenty years ago, when Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy was founded, there were no bloggers, podcasts, or Fox News Channel. Reporters didn’t have email addresses, letters to the editors were hand written, and telephones were plugged into walls.

But even back in 1986, there was a growing sense of a seismically changing news business and of a widening chasm between the journalism profession and the public.

When journalists, academics, and dignitaries gathered at Harvard on Oct. 13-14 to celebrate the Shorenstein Center’s 20th anniversary and to evaluate the current media landscape, those core issues had been magnified exponentially by the sweeping technological change of the past two decades.

“What has fundamentally changed is the fragmentation of the audience,” noted panelist Bill Kovach, founding chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. “That’s what everybody is struggling with.”

Kovach and his fellow panelists spoke before a packed house (as well PBS “Frontline” cameras) at an Oct. 14 Shorenstein seminar. Their topic, designed as a discussion of journalism’s role in American civic discourse, had a simple title: “Media and Democracy.”

But the issues were dauntingly complex, the solutions were far from clear, and the tenor of the conversation vacillated between gloom and hope. There was certainly broad agreement that a news industry making a bumpy transition from an eroding old business model to a new but uncertain one is coping with very difficult issues.

Brandishing survey numbers that showed a large gap between how journalists and the public thought the media did in addressing their own mistakes, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, said “we have a problem. As trust drops, your willingness to censor the press, particularly in times of war, goes up.”

New Yorker writer Hendrik Hertzberg lamented the emergence of punditry over inquiry, noting that “opinion is cheap. What’s really expensive is reporting. The ratio of opinion to what opinion feeds off of is getting higher and higher. It’s unclear where the good reporting is going to come from in the future.”

Nik Gowing, a chief presenter on BBC World, talked candidly of the challenges of working in “this environment of real time news…I live with that tyranny every hour…We have a constant deadline. How do you measure truth and accuracy in that?”

If the remedies to the big problems – diminishing public trust, decreasing reporting resources, and the tension between speed and accuracy – remained elusive, the panelists did raise the specter of a brighter future.

In doing so, they seemed to pin much of their hope on the two major elements of the emerging “new media” landscape – an increasing number of news delivery platforms and the growing ranks of citizens using those platforms to become witnesses and reporters.

Mark McKinnon, who served as George W. Bush’s chief media advisor, lauded the impact of this democratization of journalism, noting that “on the campaign side, we have people who are now virtual videographers. Candidates are pretty much exposed around the clock.”

“For all the sturm and drang,” he added, “I think [this new media universe] is a fabulous development that will ultimately have great outcomes” for politics and journalism.

Gowing of the BBC talked about British troops who are now filming their own combat missions and have thus “taken it upon themselves to become members of the media. It’s creating this new level of accountability as happened with Abu Ghraib.” Journalists have to “mediate…a new generation of information do-ers.”

There are, of course, serious obligations for journalistic organizations to scrutinize and validate this proliferation of “user generated” material. But in the end, there was a general acknowledgement that these grassroots news sources represented an opportunity to be embraced, not rejected, by the profession.

“We’ve seen the rise of the citizen journalist,’ asserted Jamieson flatly. “I think we need to applaud this.”

Twenty years ago, if the problems were already coming clear, that change as a solution was probably harder to imagine.