Media Comment: Is it a journalist’s role to educate?

Lynn Schofield-Clark of the University of Denver addresses the theme of “cultivating the media activist.”

Orthodox haredi man reads newspapers media news 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Orthodox haredi man reads newspapers media news 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
In the current issue of Journalism, an academic periodical, Lynn Schofield-Clark of the University of Denver addresses the theme of “cultivating the media activist.” She notes that the challenge of educating a new generation of journalists involves more than issues such as public service, impartiality and the ideal that journalism should be autonomous. Nowadays, she argues, one must also face topics such as multiculturalism and new media with all their implications.
She proposes that media activism, public journalism, and critical service learning may contribute to a new framework of a journalistic worldview, one that will lead to criticizing “existing arrangements of power and to develop a globally sensitive perspective... [to] reflect a deep appreciation for... the diverse communities they serve.”
That model of the “educated journalist” is implicit in a recent report from The Atlantic of a new trend of mainstream media journalists joining the Obama administration. The most recent is Time managing editor Rick Stengel, who is now employed by the State Department.
There are, at present, at least 15 former journalists in the American government.
In 2009, The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe counted 10.
The media outlets from which the journalists came include CBS, ABC, CNN, Time, The Washington Post, Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times.
This crossing of the lines is not unfamiliar to us in Israel.
Local journalists have joined the government as press secretaries, media liaisons and even more so as elected Knesset members and ministers. The blurring between journalist, politician and public servant presents the media consumer with a multi-faceted problem.
Once a journalist becomes more concerned with influencing society, government or history than with the difficult task of reporting the news as factually as possible, there is the imminent danger of the profession becoming a tool for furthering political/public goals instead of propagating knowledge.
Jonathan Bernstein illustrates this point in a media criticism column at the liberal/Left Salon website. . He writes, “if you were expecting the press to give you the full story on Syria, you [were] left disappointed. Here are five things that (most of) the press got totally wrong....”
He sums up so: “The press... utterly failed to find, or at least to consistently use, a vocabulary for what was on the table.... A vocabulary is really needed to make [matters] clear.” He knows that the media in America overwhelmingly support President Barack Obama due to their identification with his policies, as many polls have proven.
If a journalist begins to view him/herself as part of the story, or worse, part of the future story, then credibility, objectivity and professional ethics become irrelevant. It makes no difference if the failures are due to left-wing, right-wing, liberal or conservative bias. The result is fact-free journalism; emotive presentations and rhetoric rather than reality. It leads to news distortion highlighting partisan political viewpoints.
Stephen Ward, of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, wrote in August that a new media ethics is evolving. It questions the principle of impartiality, replacing it with only a need for “clarification” of meanings.
The new values include “transparency over objectivity; or, a preference for the unfiltered sharing of information over a filtered verification of ‘the facts.’” He further suggests that “we need to reinvent media ethics.”
WHAT WE are witnessing here is an attempt to subvert journalism.
The result? People who require real information so as to know who to vote for, where to go for vacations, what is happening in their school system, etc., can no longer trust their news sources. Professional journalism today too often implies serving the powerful and the rich.
Someone with a different approach is Simon Houpt of Toronto’s Globe and Mail. He thinks, as he stated in a September 19 interview, that he’s “bound by certain ethical precepts I try to live my life by...
it’s more instructive to think of [journalism as] a trade rather than a profession... building up a superstructure of journalism ethics is part of a process of trying to exclude the hoi polloi from the process of reporting and commenting on the news.”
Hypocrisy among journalists is rampant. Let’s consider Alaska.
Less than two weeks ago, a former legislator was fined $18,000 for breaking state ethics rules. Republican Alan Dick double-charged travel expenses (remind you of any former Israeli prime minister?).
His “lack of attention to detail,” the Legislative Ethics Committee found, was “unacceptable” for a public official.
When was the last time a journalist had to face punishment – financial or otherwise – for similar infractions? To be sure, it has happened in Israel. Natan Zehavi, who just this week compared Israel’s chief rabbis to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, was forced to apologize for his antics (sort of) in a live broadcast in February 2012. In May 2010, Gabi Gazit, who had referred to ultra-Orthodox Jews as “leeches” and “worms” noted afterward that he was referring only to the extremists.
But this is not the norm.
Zehavi, Gazit and their ilk are themselves extremists, dancing on the fine line between legitimate criticism and vulgarity.
When they cross it too far, they are forced to “sort of” apologize. Journalists deride and highlight actual foibles of public personalities. Events that may have never happened become at times, their center of attention. Too many journalists refuse to be bound by any meaningful code of ethics.
It is mainly due to the pressures brought by media review groups in Israel that the media branja, (Hebrew jargon for “clique”) has seemingly moderated its opposition to being held accountable to the regulations and codes they are legally bound to adhere to.
To defend themselves, they and other like-minded journalists seek to redefine their profession’s obligations.
For example, claiming that “balance” supposedly cannot be achieved, they at best limit themselves to try and assure “fairness.” While every politician is subject to the laws and decisions of the activist Supreme Court, journalists refuse to be reined in by same.
The Supreme Court almost always absolves journalists from of responsibility in any case, in the name of freedom of expression.
WE, THE media consumers, are facing a three-pronged offensive on media ethics. In the first place, it is asserted that no outside regulator can judge the journalists. Media ethics must not discommode the journalist nor intrude into his life and work. Only the journalists can decide how to respond to criticism, and surely any form of actual punishment is unacceptable.
Lastly, they claim for themselves the right to reinterpret ethics so as to be permitted to “educate” and “guide” the public.
This is not an ethical relationship.
The profession will regain the public’s confidence only when it replaces subjectivism with proper news reporting.
The authors are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (