The role of journalism


Ethan Stein

The only thing that affects people more than information is presentation. How information is framed, what information is emphasized, and how it is distributed contribute to our perceptions of the world and how we develop as people. Journalism in all of its forms — print, television, radio, and internet — affect our world views and perceptions of morality. This piece will focus on three individuals who know the motivations of the media, its effects, and the ensuing consequences on society.

Mitch Diamantopoulos, president of the U of R School of Journalism, said a diverse and passionate press can ensure a healthy democracy.

“In the 19th century there was a structural transformation of the public sphere. Lots of non-commercial presses — feminist, suffragette, abolitionist — gave a voice to marginalized or emerging thought, and offered new perspectives and ways of looking at the world.” Diamantopoulos said.  “The move towards market-driven media and increasing convergence between newspaper, television, and radio” is a serious issue because a select few control the information flow.  

When a select few control the work flow, there is increasing potential to “turn off women, working families, and Aboriginals who are not in the center of the target which advertisers and politicians focus on,” Diamantopoulos said.

“We’re consuming more and more American media, which presents a very particular view of the world. Their views re-shape the views of a non-U.S. audience and creates a ‘new normal’ ”.

But could the problems with journalism actually be problems with our own culture?

Robert Biezenski, a sociology professor at the U of R, feels other nations “sort of see the media as playing a positive role in changing society. Western newspapers occasionally will find some little ‘oh this poor little orphan girl, we must help her,’ or something like that, but they don’t really see it as their role to mobilize society; whereas in much of the rest of the world they do.”

“It just has to do with continuing to work at it, continuing to educate people about what we do and giving people more of a chance to get used to the existence of an alternative paper. An alternative newspaper in Seattle won a Pulitzer Prize this past year.” – Stephen Whitworth

Biezenski points to Latin America’s media as “Very much an activist political thing, and is expected to take sides and again, if it goes too far, of course, violence. I mean, journalists get killed, they get shot, and stuff like this. This doesn’t happen so much in North America. Not, I would argue, because we’re nicer people; simply because journalists [here] don’t touch on anything that’s worth killing them about. Everything is, in practice, entertainment news and, you know, sports. Even when they do touch on politics and economics, everything is so individualized.  You know, ‘this one person did something wrong’ or something like that but it’s very rare for them to attack the system as a whole; to be social critics, in effect.”

Conversely, Stephen Whitworth, editor-in-chief of the Prairie Dog, feels shorter articles also serve a purpose.

“It’s critically important to make sure that you connect with an audience and that your audience finds your paper something comfortable to pick up and read,” he said. “That generally means a mix of both long and short stories presented in a way that it’s going to be tactful and readable, and get attention without undermining the facts of the story.”  

Whitworth argues that journalism focuses “not just the facts of the story, but the ability to form an understanding of the story as well.  So, short stories are not bad in and of themselves.  There’s a lot of stories that should be shortened that are stretched out, and there’s a lot of stories that are really long that probably could be shorter.”  

“To some extent, it’s an artful process, right?  If you don’t understand the art of communication, reaching people, writing, and just good communication, you’re not going to be able to connect with people.”  

Whitworth certainly feels presentation is important to information distribution. He mentions “There’s definitely a strong subjective element, but at the same time, there’s professional competence. It’s certainly not the world of absolutely anything goes. There’s a quote, ‘People are entitled to their own opinions but they’re not entitled to their own facts.’ I’m a big believer in that.”

Diamantopoulos would be inclined to agree; he argues that engaging journalism is one of the things that can re-invigorate public discourse and interest in politics.

“It has to be interesting.  It has to be relevant to people,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how profound or understanding it is, if you’re putting people to sleep then it doesn’t count, right? That’s part of the craft of journalism, is bringing the drama out, bringing the irony out, bringing the rhetorical elements out that will sell the audience on why they should give a rat’s ass about what you’re reporting. That is an important part of journalism. What happened today is interesting, but what happened today that has implications for your quality of life tomorrow is important.”

But does engaging, informative journalism could elevate the public consciousness?

“[I] would agree with that but the problem is, it’s not that easy to do,” Biezenski said.  “The thing is, in any given profession, you know … doctors, lawyers, journalists, whatever … there’s always a spectrum ranging from those that are fairly crappy to those that are average to those that are really good. From [Diamantopoulos’] point of view, from the point of view of a journalist, the solution may be right there – make it more interesting, more engaging, grab more people. There’ll always be that minority of exceptional people who write really interesting stories, but again, they’re always going to be the exceptions. The average person will always be average. That’s the way it is.”

“When society as a whole changes, when the whole economy goes down the tube, when millions of people are suddenly unemployed. Then society will change. Not before.  And then the media will change. Not before.” – Robert Biezenski

So where does this exception lie in our media landscape?  Both Diamantopoulos and Biezenski praised papers like the Prairie Dog. However, the problem was one of exposure.  While Biezenski feels the Prairie Dog is wrongly accused of a left-wing bias – “It just tells the truth,” – he describes its presence as “A small minority. The overwhelming majority of people don’t really care.”

Biezenski went on to note that “Celebrity trivia websites get more hits than everything else on the internet together. Which shows us that the average person is much more interested in whether Brad and Angie will stay together than in what Stephen Harper is doing to our country. There will always be a minority that is more interested in serious issues but I think they’ll always be a minority.”

Despite the Prairie Dog’s independent nature, Whitworth argues that it commands substantial influence.

“It’s true, that right now, we’re small but we certainly do have a large profile,” he said. “We’re one of the top twitter feeds in the city according to one website. Alternative media has made a dramatic impact in other cities around the world and there’s no reason we can’t make a bigger impact on this city and the province. It just has to do with continuing to work at it, continuing to educate people about what we do and giving people more of a chance to get used to the existence of an alternative paper. An alternative newspaper in Seattle won a Pulitzer Prize this past year. Our ability to affect Saskatchewan and Regina is much larger than the ability of an admittedly bigger paper like Now in Toronto to affect just an incredibly huge city like Toronto.”

Papers like the Prairie Dog survive both by dedicated readerships and integrating the internet.

“There’s definitely an impact as far as advertising revenues in some places but that’s probably hitting daily newspapers harder than anything else. The days of media outlets being able to make enough to continue publishing, those are not gone,” Whitworth said. “New technology is definitely a huge opportunity to reach people and connect with people in a different way. I actually like both internet and print and think that they have different roles the same way that bread you get from Shoppers Drug Mart and artisanal bread have different roles.  You can certainly have a product that’s more about the craftsmanship and the tactile experience and the media should be trying to do that.”  

One issue commonly ascribed to the internet is credibility.  Diamantopoulos said the internet should not be used exclusively as a source of information, as it has limitations and dangers surrounding information credibility and reliability.  

Whitworth feels “It depends what you’re doing.  Prairie Dog can do most of its research and fact checking on the internet … Before there was the internet, just looking something up in a book was not necessarily the only answer. You might have to phone someone or you might have to look in a book or a magazine. The internet is an incredible tool. You might be talking to people who are little leery of Wikipedia, and people should be leery of Wikipedia, but you can cross-reference things, right? You have more access to garbage faster, I guess. If you know what you’re doing, it’s great.”

Society will face many technological and social changes, but how will journalism change?  What is journalism’s ultimate role?

Whitworth: “To tell people what’s going on in the world around them, what it means, how it affects them and what’s important to them, to give them the tools to live in a better world.  It’s all about informing people and I don’t think there’s any democracy without good journalism.”

Diamantopoulos: “On the one hand, you’re going to see trends currently in place and increasing, deepening.  So we’re going to have more layoffs, more downsizing, more concentration of ownership, we’ll have fewer and fewer people controlling the major mass media, the narrower and narrower range of opinion being heard. On the other hand, I think the people going into journalism now are less likely to be going into journalism for the wrong reasons because they’re pretty and they want to be on TV. Young people now are better educated than any generation in history has ever been. They demand more, not less from their journalism and so I think that that’s the counter-weight here. It will be a big mess as we move through this transition period, as some media institutions collapse or decline and other forms of online networked media emerge which we can’t yet anticipate. There’s a lot of groping in the dark as people try to find their way through this crisis in journalism now and in media markets.”

Biezenski: “In the early days, people say that democracy couldn’t even have gotten going without the press because you can’t have a democracy, you can’t have people voting for people unless they know who they’re voting for. In Europe [the press] had really that messianic thing, ‘our job is to enlighten the people about the social and political issues of the day.’ In North America, it was always much more of a business. This is basically information that is being exchanged for money. It’s just another commodity for sale on the market. And I don’t really know that that attitude is ever going to change in North America because they don’t have the tradition.

“That tradition of fighting journalists, fighting for something, you can find it in other parts of the world. In the English speaking world, Europe, Australia, North America, it never really existed and it doesn’t exist, for the most part. Yes, the occasional isolated individual, not as a general thing. When society as a whole changes, when the whole economy goes down the tube, when millions of people are suddenly unemployed. Then society will change. Not before. And then the media will change. Not before.”

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