A Debate about #Journalism

Category: Weekly Columns

By Professor Kenna Griffin* and Bruce Sallan

Bruce Sallan: One of the many joys of Social Media is the incredible people we meet. Many of these “virtual” friends as I like to call them, eventually become IRL (In Real Life) friends and many stay “virtual,” as has my friendship with Professor Griffin. We’ve gotten to “know” one another via Twitter and our regular participation in certain Tweet Chats.

We’ve also had the occasional bashing of heads or, to put in more diplomatically, respectful disagreements because that is really what they’ve been. An ongoing debate we’ve had is about the state of contemporary journalism. I tend to rant and rage about the bias in most media and Professor Griffin tends to disagree with me.

So, we’ve decided to have a debate on this issue in written form, going back and forth, and we’ll let you readers judge a winner or simply offer your opinion in the form of a comment. Our objective is not to win this debate but to express our thoughts and let others digest and give their feedback and add to the discussion.

I’ll start off by declaring the main things that I often assert that seem to raise the Professor’s ire. First, I often say that “Journalism is dead” and that “Edward R. Murrow would roll over in his grave at the state of reportage today.” Further, I declare regularly “there really is little journalism left as it’s been replaced by what I call, Opinionism.”

There are no more dramatic examples than the mainstream news outlets such as MSNBC, CNN, and Fox. I would further cite most major newspapers as having less and less so-called journalistic standards in their reporting and many, including the revered New York Times abdicating fact-checking in favor of a political agenda. Perhaps the most egregious example is what brought down Dan Rather with his totally lax reporting on President Bush and what turned out to be a bogus accusation.

I’ll leave it at that, to start, and turn “the mike” over to Professor Griffin to express her views. I will weigh in later with whatever counter-arguments I can make up; I mean express.

Professor Griffin: Bruce Sallan is one of the fabulous people. Daddy’O, as I like to call him, certainly stands out in the saturated social media world. A big reason for this, in my opinion, is Bruce’s level of engagement with those in the social realm. He treats online relationships like real life ones—offering friendly greetings, inviting you to chats, commenting on your blog posts, and sharing insights into seemingly any topic.

There is one topic on which Bruce and I realized early on that we have a major difference in opinion – media. Bruce likely would say that our disagreement is about journalism, but this is where the issue really begins. Not all media is journalism. As journalist A.J. Liebling said in one of my favorite quotes about the industry: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” This quote has a much different meaning today than it did during Liebling’s lifetime (1904-1963). Cable television, social media, websites, blogs, and video and photo sharing sites are just some of the mediums through which people produce original content and distribute it to the masses—a job that used to be reserved for those working in the journalism profession. So, Step 1 in addressing mine and Bruce’s ongoing debate about the state of contemporary journalism is recognizing that not everyone producing content should be considered a journalist. And, therefore, not all content is journalism.

The second step in addressing the great journalism debate is recognizing the purpose of journalism. In my view, the purpose of journalism is to give the people the information they need to be free and self-governing. This concept supports the democratic function of the press and, more importantly, it supports people’s right of access to information. Perhaps equally as important as what journalism does is what it does not do. As the prominent agenda setting theory purports, the media doesn’t tell us what to think, it tells us what to think about. It is not the function of journalism to present us with a checklist of things we ought to do or things we should think. Instead, it is the role of journalism to help us filter the massive amount of information available (gatekeeping theory) and give us the verifiable fact about those happenings. It is then up to the people to think critically about the information presented to form their own views and take their own actions.

Despite what he may say, I don’t disagree with Bruce’s claims that much of today’s media is biased. Where I draw a distinction is with the assumption that biased media is journalism. Journalism is an inherently objective practice. Therefore, anything Bruce would title “Opinionism” (and there certainly is a ton of it) is not journalism. It’s infotainment at best. In my mind, the public is responsible for making this distinction. Blindly believing everything you see on Fox News is no different than considering The Daily Show a legitimate source of information. It is our job as citizens in an informed, highly educated democracy to be critical about where our information originates and question who benefits from the message. If we don’t support the message or its sender, we need not subscribe. Turn off the television. Cancel your subscription. Blaming the mass, faceless, nameless media is just way too easy. We need to take responsibility for the messages we accept and support.

Bruce Sallan: Once again, I’m struck by the irony that people often disagree and then, if they really talk, they realize they don’t much disagree at all. Such is my reaction to what the professor has written above. Not only was I educated, but also I realized our supposed different points-of-view were really only semantics.

Making the distinction between how we use the terms “media” and “journalism” really made me realize we have almost no disagreement.

Being the respectful gentleman I strive to be, I’ll give the “last word” to Professor Griffin!

Professor Griffin: I think what Bruce meant to write is that he was wrong and I was right. My argument was based on logic, while his contained more holes than Swiss cheese. In truth, I think he’s just been trying to aggravate me for a year. However, I have proven (once again) that women are the intellectually superior sex. And, as a consequence, Bruce will bathe my mud-loving, hair-shedding, bath-hating Beagle mix loving called the “Licky, Licky dog” for one year. My children will be happy to relinquish the chore.

In all seriousness, I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as we enjoyed writing it. I also hope you can find some bit of wisdom here that might make you pause the next time you want to blame someone else for something completely within your own control. As my mentor is fond of saying: “We have the freedom to be ignorant, and that’s the one we exercise the most.” Use your freedoms actively and wisely.

*Kenna Griffin (@profkrg) is the blogger behind www.profkrg.com, which aims to create an ongoing educational dialogue between professional journalists and media students and educators. She teaches multimedia journalism, public relations, media law, and media ethics courses as an assistant professor of mass communications at Oklahoma City University. She also serves as director of student publications, advising the university’s three student media outlets. Kenna is a doctoral candidate in journalism at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Kenna was a reporter for the state’s newspaper and the managing editor of a suburban daily before becoming a full-time professor.

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  • David Weber

    This is a very stimulating discussion.  My own opinion on these matters encompasses the following ideas:

    1. We must not underestimate how strongly a business model drives contemporary news reporting.  The most notable bias I can detect in mainstream media outlets is a bias in favor of making a profit.  I say this as a hardcore, unapologetic capitalist! Making a profit has long been a feature of media output…consider Wm. R. Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer and the “newspaper wars” in New York City at the turn of the 20th century.

    2. My opinion is that if both or all sides of an issue are sincerely unhappy with the media coverage, that coverage has something going for it.

    3. Somewhat related to #2: I received a lesson in bias when, in Spring 2010, I was briefly in the U.K. during the news cycle involving the raid by Israeli naval commandoes on the boat challenging the blockade of Gaza.  The news stories in British media outlets that would be the equivalent of the U.S.’s mainstream media revolved around the experience and perspective of the Palestinians.  When via the Internet I consulted mainstream U.S. sources on the cycle, the stories revolved around the Israeli perspective on events.

    I have to cut this short, I would like to return later in the day to add a couple of more ideas.  I do like the clear distinction being made between media and journalism.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      So glad you “weighed in” Professor Weber. I knew you’d have much to offer. As for your example about Israel, I think the U.S. Media still sells the “Poor Palestinians” far too much when they are ALWAYS the initial aggressor. My own paper had the headline, “Israeli Missile Kills 11 Civilians” with NO DISCLAIMER that that is where ALL the munitions and weapons are intentionally stored so as the world media will condemn Israel. What other country intentionally puts their women and children in harm’s way for PR value? Only the Arab world who live for death, rather than life!

      • David Weber

        I can’t comment on this because among other things, I don’t know what day in the news cycle this headline appeared on. 

        This is an example of the interpretation issue I mentioned in item #5 in my concluding post.  Let’s say the headline appeared on Day Two or Three…well, the missile attack would be the “big news” of that day, with Hamas’s or Hezbollah’s provocation being the story of a previous day or two.  You’re not telling me what the headline was on Day One of the story, if the “Missile Kills” story was the Day One headline. 

        Also, I don’t know what you meaning when you write about a disclaimer.  If you mean a smaller-print sub-head, maybe the topic to which you refer is addressed in the story itself and a decision was made not to include that sub-head.  I don’t know if the headline was on page one above the fold, as the main news of the day, but if it was on page 3-4 as international news, again, a sub-head would perhaps not be included.

        Finally, the statement “that is where all the munitions and weapons are stored so that the world will condemn Israel” may, by an editor, be considered interpretive not factual.  If the reporter or newswriter wrote “that is where all the munitions and weapons are stored” and was unable for whatever reason to find some specific evidence that it was all “so the world would condemn Israel,” I don’t think he or she would be able to publish the latter passage.  It would be the task of an analyst or opinion writer to make that connection…and indeed, you can see in newspapers near big stories, a column or article headed “news analysis” in which would appear such interpretation.

        • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

          On this I fervently disagree, David. The headline was on the front page “above the fold” and there was NO ATTEMPT to mitigate it in the piece itself plus I suspect NO DESIRE to do so because of the anti-Israel bias of the paper/writer. 

          This particular subject is well-known. Even ardent supporters of Gaza rights and such would agree that most of their weapons, if not all of them, are stored in placed where civilians are at risk – intentionally so. 

          What galls me is that it is so obvious and so much of the media take the bait. In WWII, it is true that many German civilians died – more than the Allies. Ultimately, whose fault was that? I think you know the answer and it is the image of a small evil man with an ugly mustache!

          • Patrick

            Why was an attempt necessary to “mitigate” a headline?

            No, I’m not kidding and I’m not being facetious.

            The fact of the story, contained in the headline, is an Israeli missile killed 11 people.

            You say that the fact that it is “well-known” that munitions are stored near civilians intentionally to cause innocent deaths that can then be spun into PR.  I don’t think it ISN’T as “well-known” as you seem to think it is, but let’s assume it is: if it’s so well-known, then what need does the newspaper have to “mitigate” the NEWS, which is the 11 deaths, with a “reminder” that you think everyone already knows.

            What motive would they have to do such a thing? 

            You seem to want “just the facts” unless repeating something you claim is already “well-known” might change the meaning of the story or change the sympathies connected with the outcome.

            THAT IS BIAS.So it sounds as if you’re complaining about the LACK of something that you complain exists too much to begin with.

          • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

            I think that’s a convoluted argument Patrick…but I will grant you that I see SO MUCH bias AGAINST Israel and for the so-called Palestinians (there is no such people), that I can’t see the “facts”…

          • http://www.patrickkphillips.com/ Patrick

            What’s convoluted about it, Bruce?

            Are you calling for true fair and balanced reporting or bias the OTHER direction to make up for the bias you are so clearly watching for already?Reporting the facts about what happened — from a true, pure journalism perspective — shouldn’t involve “mitigating” anything.I looked up “mitigate” — your word — in the dictionary; it means “to make or become less severe or harsh.” Facts are what they are.The implication here is that mitigating a headline means creating spin so that it means more (or less) than the facts it contains.You only spin something when you’re biased. A fair, balanced report that truly is fair and balanced doesn’t have room for spin.So what’s convoluted about suggesting that you can’t simultaneously complain about the PRESENCE OF BIAS and the LACK OF SPIN?

          • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

            I like smart replies…and this is a worthy debate, Patrick. THAT headline to me implies that Israel is the aggressor rather than the TRUTH that they have been only defending themselves – since their Statehood in 1948. THAT is the fact and those headlines and the disturbing images of injured Palestinians – almost always shown at the top of the story – show the bias of most reporting on this conflict. 

            Yes, I’m biased…but not NEAR as biased as the MSM!

          • David Weber

            I guess that “Palestinians” is for the moment as good a term as any to use as a name for the side that at present opposes Israel, although I have read that it’s a term of art rather than a geopolitically accurate term.

            I am troubled by your statement that having so much bias in a certain direction prevents you from doing or thinking such-and-such.  That degree of bias is something to overcome, not maintain, if you are wanting to solicit and participate in discussion or dialogue.

            You once called me personally on having a reaction that, to the claim that universities are bastions of unorthodox, far-left thought, was so strong as to be quite defensive.  When you proposed that I was possibly too entrenched in my belief that, as described in various media products, sociopolitical ideology in university life was exaggerated, I took your observation seriously.  I even wrote you a LENGTHY email message copping to it and reporting my experience facing my defensiveness. I have ever since looked at the issue less reactively and self-protectively, although we still disagree as to the extent of the situation with universities and how often university professors in fact encourage (and yearn to cultivate!) critical thinking and freedom of thought in classrooms.

            My point is that copping to one’s bias is interesting but unimpressive. What’s impressive is looking beyond what one’s bias reveals and dealing with the awful discomfort of recognizing that there is at least one other principled position, and maybe several, to take on whatever the issue at stake is.

          • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

            You do realize that there is NO historical basis for “Palestinians” and, when given the chance, EVERY Arab country in the region was unwilling to take any of their “brethren” in – leaving them to starve and struggle under the PLO, Arafat, Hamas, and other despots who did NOTHING to help the people and EVERYTHING to hurt Israel, whatever cost it took on their own!

          • David Weber

            I think it’s important to reflect on what a headline does.  It appears to me to have a couple of purposes. 

            One is to express in a few words some fundamental kernel of fact on which the news story hinges.  Another is to distinguish the story from all others in the paper that day; and, if the story is the latest in a sequence of stories in a news cycle (as opposed to a one-day-only story), to distinguish the current story from those preceding and following it.

            A third would be to get a reader’s attention.  I suspect that this drives headline writing as much as any other purpose; and reflects the fundamental for-profit imperative that in my opinion is THE fundamental bias in mainstream media.

          • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

            I’ve been watching the “Letters to the Editor” in The Daily News where they ran that (anti) Israel headline and it seems many readers are as outraged as I was. It was evidently an AP Story they picked up and there was mention of the REAL circumstances in the 8th and 10th paragraphs – well beyond the front page. AP has often shown favoritism towards the so-called Palestinians over the years so now it’s even less of a surprise (to me)!

  • David Weber

    To continue my comments from an earlier post:

    4. Just to spin off of the comments between Bruce and Kenna about opinion: There is a distinction to be made between reportage and opinion (or news analysis).  Reportage is “just the facts” and opinion is the articulation of an informed interpretation of the facts.  One central issue in any discussion of media bias is: How blurred or sharp is the line between the two observed in the story, publication, broadcast outlet, etc., in question?

    Another question is: Can reportage ever indeed be “just the facts”–isn’t the perception of a “fact” by a reporter going to be at least somewhat colored by a variety of things?  My answer to the latter question is that, yes, a reporter can “suffer” from that sort of coloration…but a responsible reporter is going to overcome that, doing so is not impossible.  A third question is: Can some sort of absolute objectivity be achieved?  My answer is, probably not, but a well-trained, dispassionate reporter can certain come quite close to achieving it.  

    Last  question: Is that being done today?  My answer is, well, this is the kernel of this entire discussion; those who villify journalists and condemn media outlets often do so based on what others have told them is so. If those informants benefit from having as many people as possible accept that some woeful degree of bias is present, those informants are going to have to work overtime to convince me that it’s as bad as they say it is.

    5. Final comment: Too much support of claims that there is some unsustainable degree of bias is  citing isolated examples of professional malfeasance among journalists, editors, publishers and others of that sort, AND simply INTERPRETING some information (a story, a passage in a story, an event) AS “biased.”  What is overlooked is a competing INTERPRETATION that argues AGAINST the information being “biased.”  

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      I’d like you to give an example of ONE reporter/journalist that adheres to those standards, David in so-called MSM (main stream media). IF the standard is reporting from YOUR point-of-view, then that is a fair description of my reporting today, In My Opinion!

      • David Weber

        Matt Bai

        • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

          Is that a Chinese delicacy? Sorry, I don’t know him, David. Glad there is at least ONE…lol.

    • http://twitter.com/profkrg Kenna Griffin

      We certainly all can agree that reporters are human and, therefore, are biased by nature. Our personal views, life experiences, upbringings, etc. all impact how we accept and deliver information. I think it’s important to recognize our biases and attempt to eliminate them – sort of an informed subjectivity. At the same time, journalism becomes a practice of verification. By repeatedly verifying information through various sources we hope to identify a common truth. It’s certainly not a perfect process. A social science for sure.

      • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

        Sort of like Mr. Rather verified the reporting that basically cost him his job, right?

        Not intending to be snarky, I agree with you completely, Professor Griffin. I just wish the standard of verification that I grew up with was the same today. In my opinion (3 good words to use a lot), it isn’t so.

  • Amy LeForge

    I agree with both sides, but I come away from this just a bit irritated.  Yes, it is my responsibility to discern the truth as presented by various factions of the media.  But the responsibility is not just mine.  Anyone calling themselves a journalist should be held (and indeed, hold themselves) to the highest standards of integrity.  I’m not completely sure I see that anywhere these days.  

    I once attended a conference session given by a woman who (I believe) would classify herself a journalist.  She assured the audience that media bias is a myth, explaining that each article goes through an extensive editorial process.  If an article made it past all those tough editors, it had to be fair and balanced.

    The problem with that is her assumption that all of those editors were not in fact biased themselves. She had no idea.

    Weeks and weeks after the Benghazi terrorist attack I saw a major news channel refer to the incident as a reaction to that YouTube video.  The truth was already out, but they were still sticking to the lie.  That kind of dishonesty is just plain disgusting, and it’s why I classify most media types as just as evil as the politicians.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      I’m WITH YOU Amy…to deny media bias these days is to deny TRUTH…that so-called “editorial” policy is usually through a group of editors with the SAME thinking, SAME social sphere, and SAME politics…even the vaunted New York Times has about ONE conservative on its editorial/opinion group…and that “One” is a moderate at best…

  • http://stanfaryna.wordpress.com Stan Faryna

    Professor Griffin is intelligent, informed and articulate. Her definition of journalism is neat and proper. And that’s the problem. By doing so, she’s taken the journalist off the beat. Or off street. And she put the journalist in the textbook. Maybe, we can visit an exhibit of the Professor’s journalist at the Smithsonian. Or, perhaps, the Newseum.

    The man or woman on the beat/street does not deeply resemble the journalist that Professor Griffin is talking about. There may be superficial resemblance – of course. Nor does that man or woman on the beat/street believe in journalism. Not more than they believe in a pay check. There’s a saying from some old book that applies: You cannot serve two masters. And, frankly, Freedom and Democracy were never compelling masters. Unless you can’t get a decent paycheck – of course.

    But don’t think I’m not sympathetic to Professor Griffin. I am totally sympathetic. She arrived at the Alamo a few hours too late. The battle is lost. But the news hasn’t gotten out yet and she may be able to recruit one or two dreamy-eyed, farm kids to take up the lost cause.

    I have 20 journalists sitting on my steps of the villa in which my apartment is located. At this very moment! I’ll have to pick up the trash of their candy wrappers and empty soda cans in a few hours. They’re there because some oligarch is being interviewed at the National Anti-Corruption Court across the street. 

    These journalists are not there to discover the truth. Nor are they there to report on the facts which will allow you or me OR Romanians to make an informed opinion about the state of Romania. These journalists are here to provide Romania with a story that encourages apathy, indifference and accept evil as a norm. 

    They report a story with considerable care not to provide facts that lead to questions and suspicions. They will not emphasize the betrayal of Freedom and Democracy by the Romanian governement. They don’t care that Justice will be suspended. After all, corruption is so pervasive that any challenge to it will bring down Jericho – not just the walls. I’m talking about the whole kit and kaboodle.

    Most importantly, they care about their paycheck –  let’s not mention that their compensations are partly illegal because their employers are ducking the outrageous salary taxes that only foreign employers seem to be paying. Yes – even the journalists participate in corruption.

    Romania is so far away – so who cares? 

    This is the Romania that U.S. tax payer money has gone to via various pork barrel bearing treaties. This is the Romania that the World Bank (again US money) had to bail out with low interest loans that will never be repaid- year after year. And US money shall continue to bail it out because corruption mismanages the money – every time. Oh yeah- this is the Romania where the US just installed some “first strike” military bases.

    But if Professor Griffin were to go downstairs with me and tell the journalists that they are not journalists, I would fear the worst for Professor Griffin. 

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      So, how do you really feel Stan? I will let Professor Griffin respond to your comment herself. I will, however, declare that I believe she is expressing an “ideal” but is realistic enough to know it doesn’t exist “ideally” here or “there.” At least I think that is what she’d say. We’ll have to see…

      Stan, I hope you are well…miss you at #DadChat!

      • http://stanfaryna.wordpress.com Stan Faryna

        Miss you and #Dadchat. My online life, as you know, had to be readapted after my GF parked her car in the river that runs through downtown Bucharest.

        P.S. Don’t think for one second that I don’t admire the Professor. [smile]

        • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

          Is she okay, Stan?

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