Jun 5, 2007

The fourth estate under fire

For the past half a decade or so the news media has been under fire, taking shots from bloggers, consumers and from members of the news media themselves. The complaints vary widely. The Jayson Blair / New York Times incident brought questions of credibility and trust to the forefront. The Dan Rather / CBS blunder instigated widespread concern over accuracy. Fox News makes us wonder daily about objectivity. And the consolidation of media outlets forces us to think about profitability.

The response by members of the traditional media or the “corporate media,” as some prefer to call it, runs the gamut from looking at the bottom line to looking the other way. But what we should have done long ago was to look to Philip Meyer, the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

For years Meyer has been trying to tell mass media outlets what they ought to be focusing on to keep up in the information age — it’s not doing journalism on the cheap or blindly staying the course. According to Meyer, the quality of the product is where journalists and news companies ought to be focusing.

“Journalism, in order to survive in all this noise, has to offer something better,” Meyer wrote in USA TODAY in September 2004. “It needs to be a more credible, highly processed product.”

Blogging has allowed the everyman/woman to hold giant news companies accountable and has offered consumers more variety and quantity of information. Journalists can no longer ignore their own flaws. It’s easy to make excuses about lack of time to vet stories or lack of support from editors. This is a tough job, but if we want to continue to be journalists, we have to find ways to do it better than the average person who will do it for free. Meyer has been trying to tell us how: Be transparent, be professional, be trustworthy, be accurate to a scientific level and offer data analysis and critique the controversy.

Journalists have been humbled as Meyer says in his column below. Now is up to us to be better.

Closely watched media humbled
January 2005
By Philip Meyer
Some of the chattering heads on television would have you believe that journalism in the USA is falling apart. It's not. Instead, it is assuming a new form.

The recent reporting scandals are not a sign of new corruption as much as a sign of new transparency. …

What gives bloggers their power is not their access to information but their ability to put it on the public agenda. …

Now, even its agenda-setting power is being taken away. Bloggers do it better because they reinforce one another, adding bits of fact and encouragement.

Agenda-setting power had a negative side. By ignoring their own deficiencies, the mass media could keep us from thinking about their weaknesses. But that's no longer possible. There's a new kind of competition, not among media giants, but among innumerable sources of information and ideas all trying to be heard.

The agonies of the old mainstream media are part of the process of adapting to this new reality. We still need strong national voices that earn our trust, and the mass media need not become obsolete. But they will have to understand that it is a different kind of game.

When Edwin Lahey was Washington bureau chief for Knight Ridder, he liked to say, "The greatest virtue is humility, and the shortest route to humility is through humiliation." The old media aren't getting worse. They're just getting humble.

For the entire story click here

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