Journalism For the People, Not the Powerful

A media industry that represents the powerful is subsequently a media that does not represent its people.

This type of structure perfectly describes the current state of the media in the United States: representative of the establishment and not the people.

According to a 2015 Gallup poll, 40 percent of Americans trust mass media. This signifies a steady decline in trust in the media from 55 percent in 1998 and 1999. Since 2007, these polls have shown that Americans have little or no trust in the media. This decrease in trust also refeltcs the lack of confidence Americans have in government and the distrust they have in the federal government’s ability to handle both domestic and international issues.

This combined lack of confidence in both the media and government effectively leaves citizens with no institution to trust — their voices end up being silenced by their government and the journalists. The people’s needs become lost in a capitalist system that prioritizes money and power over human dignity and respect.

This is not how the media should be.

Journalism has the power and duty to provide a check on its country’s powerful institutions — yet this is not the case with the American media. In a recent Q&A with, founder of Democracy Now! Amy Goodman said the media, in its current state, “amplifies the power structure.” This statement can be easily verified just by watching broadcasts by networks like CNN or Fox News, where the pundits they bring on to the show are representatives of the powerful — government officials, CEOs and the like. Hardly do these networks bring ordinary citizens on to their shows, and this decision only strips the people of their voice, effectively making them even more powerless.

But mainstream journalism did not just become entrenched within the establishment. Over a period of time, it was corporations who swallowed most of mainstream media. And with these new links to large media conglomerates and a lack of independence, these outlets effectively became connected to the political and social establishment.

There is hope, however, for journalism to return to its roots and stay grounded in its duties to the people. In the Q&A, Goodman said, “I think the media can be the greatest force for peace on earth.” Journalism has the power to give a voice to the voiceless and act as a watchdog to the powerful, so long as it remains true to its values and remembers its accountability to the people, not to the establishment. This can become a reality when journalists act in the interest of its citizens and break out of its comfort zone of cozying up to politicians and pundits. It must break its ties with corporations, so that the stories in the papers and on televisions are brought to the people by the journalists and not the conglomerates they work under. It must be aware of its biases instead of attempting to hide under a guise of objectivity, and must seek to provide an avenue for the people to voice their discontent or anger with their government.

Journalism is in desperate need of change, but to do so it must recognize the destruction it has caused and reconcile with its current position within the power structure. From history, it is clear journalism has the power to enact change — from pushing a president to resign to revealing corruption of powerful institutions. And for journalism to continue this kind of influential work, it should represent its people and not the powerful.


Public Broadcasting in Desperate Need of Change

Upon looking at the state of journalism in modern times, it is broadcast journalism that is most at risk. More and more public broadcasters in the United States are relying heavily on corporate money to sustain themselves. And while these networks and stations are desperate for ways to stay afloat and remain viable in the ever-changing journalism landscape, leaning too heavily on corporate money ultimately has its downfalls.

Currently, network TV companies are concentrated under the hands of media conglomerates like Comcast, Walt Disney and CBS. The growing concentration of these companies and networks under corporate hands signifies a grave loss of independence and dependency in all the wrong places.

But it is not simply these ties to corporate money that hinder the growth of broadcast journalism. Just by looking at the content and makeup of broadcast news today, it’s clear that broadcast journalism has fallen by the wayside.

For one, the quality of the content on TV news is not nearly as compelling as it was decades ago. Where broadcasters of the past, like Walter Cronkite and Edward Murrow, consistently discussed news that was of value to the public, broadcasters of today frequently focus on too many minuscule, unimportant tidbits that ultimately serves no use to citizens. Take, for instance, when CNN chose to give airtime to wait for Donald Trump to begin his speech, effectively declining to show Bernie Sanders’ speech that was happening at that same moment. It is this type of executive decision that showcases the lack of care of broadcast news to provide meaningful content to its audiences.

Furthermore, broadcast news sorely misses the mark when it comes to being “neutral,” “fair” and “balanced.” Oftentimes, when news shows seek to debate a particular hot topic, the two pundits on the show only showcase the polar opposites of the debate. There is no nuance, no middle ground or complexity in the arguments being presented. Even more so, the pundits that are invited on the show have clear ties to the political and social establishment, no matter how hard the network tries to cover up this fact. It does a disservice to viewers to only present them with only two sides of the argument, for it effectively takes away other opinions that viewers could learn more about. There are always more than two sides to any argument, yet this is not reflected in mainstream TV news.

In comparison to public broadcasting in other parts of the world, public broadcasting in the United States is heavily representative of the political establishment than its  own citizens. In Britain, for instance, the BBC has regular news shows where public figures are invited on and take questions from British citizens, such as when the BBC’s Jeremy Paxton interviewed British Prime Minister Tony Blair. This type of formatting — establishing a direct link between representatives and the people they serve — bridges the gap between the government and its citizen, and allows politicians to remain accountable for their actions. This starkly contrasts to U.S. public broadcasting, in which politicians have the choice of which network show to appear on, ultimately allowing them to appear on shows where they will be served softball questions. In this, there is no opportunity for the people to ask questions and no sense of accountability or transparency.

This is not the type of public broadcasting made for the people. This is complicit entertainment, made to serve the elites and the powerful.  Here, the core values of journalism — to serve the public and act as a check on the powerful — are lost through this dependency on media conglomerates and connections with the establishment. Broadcast journalism is in desperate need of change, one that forces to journalists to act as the check and balance on powerful institutions and serve the interests of the people.

Freedom to Browse and Freedom From Corporatization

The Internet was supposed to be the new frontier, an open space allowing for the free flow of information. However, these pictures of an open highway of information are slowly narrowing, due to a move that would allow broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon to charge their customers more for transmitting content at quicker speeds.

This is essentially destroying net neutrality and squeezing consumers’ pockets simply for the sake of turning a profit. And to add insult to injury is the newest Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, who previously held positions as the President of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the CEO of the Cellular  Telecommunications & Internet Association.

In the latest Variety article, “FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Points to Big Changes Ahead for Television,” author Juan Gonzalez quotes Wheeler as saying, “I’m not going to pre-judge any of these issues. But ‘good faith’ was put in for a purpose of saying people of good faith can come together and avoid consumer harm. There seems to be an increase in disputes and resulting consumer harm. That’s what we have to look at.”

It seems ironic and hypocritical for Wheeler to advocate for consumers when the very move of allowing broadband providers to charge customers for Internet speeds is counterintuitive to this idea. If Wheeler really wanted to avoid consumer harm, he would not allow these large conglomerates to monopolize the web. By doing so, the power of the web ends up transferring from the hands of the people to the hands of corporations — from the many to the little.

But even more so than the responsibility Wheeler has to put his words into action, journalists have a duty to keep Wheeler accountable of his actions. This line becomes evermore murky, however, when Wheeler gives a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas. Journalists, whether print or broadcast, should keep a close eye on government officials like Wheeler, and should constantly be cautious of receiving propaganda from these public figures.

The journalists at that event should have readily questioned Wheeler’s attendance, and how it reflects upon their industry. If Wheeler wants to avoid consumer harm, it should be the journalists who hold him accountable to those words, instead of letting him freely off the hook.

The issue of net neutrality is being threatened by corporate conglomerates and officials like Tom Wheeler who prioritize capital gain over democratic freedom, and this ongoing monopolization must be dissented by journalists themselves. As watchdogs for the public and representatives of the fourth estate, journalists should hold these people accountable for their words and actions.

In a Changing Landscape, Journalism Must Remain True to Its Values

It seems that people are engrossed by scandal. Whether in politics, sports or the entertainment industry, readers are simply hooked by the word. However, while scandals that involve corruption are important to the public, sex scandals are ones that do not pass the threshold of important journalistic works.

One such example is the Bill Clinton sex scandal in 1999 that was unveiled by DrudgeReport, which revealed that Clinton had an illegitimate son. At the time, the scandal became widely and wildly popular, despite having no real or legitimate implications on his position as president.

This, however, is not the type of work that should pass as journalism.

While it is a hallmark of journalism to serve as a watchdog for the public, journalists and reporters need to be more critical in what is considered a “scandal,” and moreover, what constitutes a worthy news story. Simply digging into the details of an individual’s personal life, even if said individual is a politician, is highly unnecessary, unless a case can be made that shows this scandal has implications for the person’s specific duties. Journalists must be wary of publishing stories that serve no greater purpose other than nailing a public figure to the wall for the sake of ratings or news clicks.

But it is not just sex scandals that must be left behind by news outlets, it is also flashy, click-bait articles that constitute no true or substantial journalistic purpose. Sites like The Odyssey Online and even Buzzfeed are notorious for including stories and videos whose only purpose is to garner clicks and viewers.

In the New York Times article, “For News Outlets Squeezed From the Middle, It’s Bend or Bust,” Jim Rutenberg discusses the ways in which journalism is changing with the movement to online platforms. With the growth of the Internet, the introduction of analytics into the newsroom allows media outlets to see how many readers they engage, giving journalists a firsthand look at how best to serve their audience and the greatest number of viewers to their site. The article analyzes the comparison between Buzzfeed-type clickbait articles and the hard news pieces of mainstream journalism outlets, and muses over how traditional journalism outlets can adapt themselves to the changing landscape.

The article includes the following quote Jim VandeHei, a co-founder of Politico, who said, “I’m not saying you let the audience dictate everything, but a smart, aggressive, forward-leaning media company is going to write what it thinks is important and its audience thinks is important.”

Not only must journalism outlets find the middle ground between its own interests and its audience’s, but it should also take care to stay true to journalism’s core values. Despite competition with rising sites such as Buzzfeed and Mashable, whose coverage ranges from news stories to fluffy features, news outlets should be wary of stooping to click-bait levels for the sake of garnering more website traffic.  As such, scandal stories about a president’s supposed “love child” do not belong under this scope. Stories such as these serve no interest to the public other than giving salacious information about a public figure.

While the New York Times article shows that readers mostly gravitate toward “short items of interests,” the analytics also reflect an interest in longer, investigative features.

These are numbers that newsrooms can capitalize on moving forward. Instead of gravitating toward flashy scandal stories and tabloid features, news organizations must maintain its focus on providing a service to the public by acting as its eyes and ears. And while the landscape continues to change, journalism must remain grounded in its core values if it is to remain successful.

Citizen Journalism is Not “Bad” Journalism

In the eyes of the mainstream media, citizen journalists are placed at the bottom of the rung — barely qualified enough to be journalists. But citizen journalists offer much more talent and gusto than they are recognized for, one such example being Huffington Post blogger Mayhill Fowler.

During the 2008 presidential debate, when Democratic presidential nominees Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were caught in a heated race for the nomination, Fowler joined other citizen journalists across the country for Huffington Post’s new endeavor, Off the Beat. It was during this time that Fowler broke two of the most controversial and provocative stories: Obama’s comments saying job losses caused small-town Americans to become bitter and “cling to guns or religion,” and Bill Clinton’s steamy vitriol of Vanity Fair writer Todd Purdum.

In both instances, Fowler’s subjects were unaware of her position as a journalist, which perhaps allowed them to let their guard down for a brief moment, a moment that ultimately led to controversial comments and subsequent backlash against her. However, the question of whether what Fowler did was unethical is irrelevant. Perhaps prefacing Purdue’s Vanity Fair piece as a “hatchet job” was slightly sensational and unwarranted, but in the grand scheme of journalism, it’s not a question of ethics in this situation, but a question that looks at the influential and valid role of citizen journalism in today’s media landscape.

Citizen journalists are often looked down upon by their mainstream media “superiors,” but citizen journalists can be just as skilled as them, and the presumption that they are unskilled and unprofessional is simply ridiculous. Just because citizen journalists are acting on their own accord and have no ties to a professional media outlet does not negate nor disqualify their position as a journalist. Fowler’s coverage during the 2008 campaign just shows the ways in which citizen journalists can break meaningful news stories, even without the fancy press pass. And in this case, the lack of a press pass helped Fowler in her reporting and getting raw quotes from Obama and Clinton.

The idea that there is such a thing as a “journalist” and a “citizen journalist” only creates a false dichotomy between what is perceived as “good” journalism” and “bad” journalism. But there is a falseness in equating citizen journalism to bad journalism, as these reporters can be just as talented and passionate about the field without having any close ties to a specific media outlet. The affiliation or non-affiliation to a news outlet should be the only distinction between citizen journalists and media-affiliated journalists. Instead of continuing to perpetuate the narrative of the rugged and untalented citizen journalist, mainstream media should embrace their fellow reporters and realize that a professional journalist can exist and thrive without tying oneself down to a traditional news outlet.

Objectivity Has No Place in Protest Coverage

In recent years, the United States has seen a resurgence in political activism largely driven by grassroots movements that are reminiscent of the Civil Rights Era, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. From the activism of these groups, topics such as racism and inequality have come to dominate public discourse and unearth some uncomfortable truths. Perhaps one of the most pervasive and prevalent truths is this: Racism is still alive and well in the United States, 50 years after the age of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Era.

The continued existence of racism today is clearly seen in the way mainstream media covers protests that are largely organized by black activists, such as those in the Black Lives Matter movement. For instance, during the Baltimore protests in April 2015, following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, mainstream media coverage followed the narrative that vilified African Americans and twisted them to be violent radicals. In doing so, this type of coverage also failed to give any credence to the issues these activists were bringing forth: police brutality, racism and the continued lack of value placed on black bodies.

Of course, during these protests, mainstream media attempted to remain objective in their reporting. However, this goal of objectivity ultimately failed by stripping credibility away from the protesters and painting them in a negative light. And in the article, “Transparency is the new objectivity” from Joho the Blog, the following quote summarizes the ridiculousness in this continued pursuance of objectivity by the mainstream media: “Anyone who claims objectivity should be willing to back that assertion up by letting us look at sources, disagreements, and the personal assumptions and values supposedly bracketed out of the report.”

This should be applied especially to reporters who cover protests, especially when people of color are involved. Even when mainstream media outlet preach objectivity, this is not the case when protests are covered, as coverage is skewed that paints protesters in a negative, degrading light. This type of reporting remains predicated in certain biases toward people of color, in which many believe them to be violent and rowdy, among other stereotypes. If transparency were valued more than objectivity, the biases and beliefs of these mainstream reporters would be crystal clear.

In times of conflict, protesters should not be delegitimized for rising up and voicing their outrage at institutions and system that clearly work against them. Journalists and outlets should give these protesters the space to share their stories and experiences instead of ignoring their side of the story and exploiting them for news value. In times of protest, activists are the minority rising up against the oppressive majority, yet mainstream media only continues to share the narratives perpetuated by the majority.

This type of reporting ultimately does a disservice to the public by further silencing the voices of those who are continually marginalized, and is not conducive to fulfilling journalism’s duty to the public. Forget objectivity in the face of covering protests —journalism should give a platform to the marginalized and the oppressed, and should offer these people a voice instead of silencing it.


Journalism and Activism Can Be Friends

In recent years, the combination between journalism and activism is one that is becoming more present in today’s media landscape, as more and more reporters find themselves guided by their own political beliefs and agenda in pursuing a story. A prime example of this is Glenn Greenwald, whose political beliefs are apparent throughout his blog, in which he describes himself as being suspicious of government and national security.

In the New York Times piece, “Journalism, Even When It’s Tilted,” David Carr explores the argument of journalism versus activism. However, the most poignant part comes in the form of a quote from Greenwald: “It is not a matter of being an activist or a journalist; it’s a false dichotomy. It is a matter of being honest or dishonest.”

The idea that being a journalist is completely incompatible with being an activist continues to advance the empty mainstream argument that “objectivity is key.” Yet objectivity is inane, and ignores the ways in which all individuals — journalists included — operate from their own implicit biases and from a lens that constructs how they view the world. For mainstream outlets who preach this idea of objectivity, attempting to advance an idea of neutrality is inherently dishonest to readers and only tries to hide the true views of the reporters and the outlet.

Carr writes that “‘Activist’ has become a code word for someone who is driven by an agenda beyond seeking information on the public’s behalf.” But in addition to that, activist has also become a code word for an untrustworthy journalist, an argument that is perpetuated by the mainstream media and predicated on the belief that activists are not ethical journalists. But the idea that a journalist who is passionate about particular topics is not a true journalist is completely nonsensical, as it is obvious that even mainstream journalists harbor their own biases. The damage there is the fact that these journalists do not disclose these beliefs and try to bury them under the guise of objectivity.

It’s a false truth that objective journalists are the best journalists, as much as it is false that advocacy journalists are the worst. Journalists who are open and transparent about their activism remain honest with their audiences — they are not trying to hide behind a curtain of neutrality. And oftentimes, journalists who are guided by their activism and political beliefs in their reporting often end up conducting the most hard-hitting investigative reports. The belief that there is something wrong or corrupt often motivates journalists to uncover the truth, and this pursuit is one of the greatest hallmarks of journalism.

The idea that journalists cannot also be activists is damaging to the reputation of journalism. It attempts to sideline individuals who have the journalistic talent and passion from providing a service to the public by revealing corruption and illicit activity from those in power for the sake of remaining objective. It does not allow for innovation and stifles journalism from reaching its highest potential of fulfilling its duty of being the eyes and ears for the public.

It is pertinent for mainstream media to leave behind this idea of objectivity and further embrace the idea that journalism and activism can work together in cohesion. This idea of remaining objective has caused more harm than good, and can be clearly seen in how mainstream media coverage of Donald Trump ultimately contributed to his rise in the political ranks.

Consumers are increasingly starting to see the holes in this objective style of reporting, resulting in a general distrust of the media. But for journalism to rebuild its reputation, it must first abandon the traditional model and begin to see the viability in combining journalism and activism.