Alumni media practitioners discuss the challenges of covering the news in the information technology age
Q. As a media practitioner, what do you see are the biggest changes over the past 10-15 years (aside from the impact of the Internet) in how you do your job?
Ron Fournier: Boy, if you take the Internet off the table, that’s like saying, ‘besides Jesus Christ, what’s the most interesting thing about Catholicism?’ The Internet and all the new technologies since 1985 have so much transformed the way we do our jobs and the way we transmit the work that we do. It’s hard to separate that from everything else, from cell phones to the kinds of computers we use to the way we now distribute the news over the Internet instead of over the telephone line. Technology has dramatically transformed things. It’s like being in a different business than I was trained to do.
Marie Osborne: Clearly the use of technology has completely changed the way we cover news. Each day in the field I use a digital recorder, cell phone, digital camera and computer. My ability to get stories from the field to the newsroom now can be measured in seconds, not hours. In addition, the ability to access background information from the field through the use of a computer enables the reporter to probe deeper into their stories and bring listeners a more complete story.
Luther Keith: The intensity of the 24-hour news cycle and the increased competition from other sources of media—primarily new technology—that requires newspapers to be more innovative to attract and retain readers.
Tom Stanton: Every change we’ve seen pales beside the impact of the Internet, which has affected our entire industry. It has changed almost every medium. It has altered how we collect and report news. It has shaken our business models. It has made information more immediate and, sometimes, less reliable, and it has empowered citizens to become journalists. I’ve noticed other changes, too: therise of National Public Radio, the blending of news with advertising on television news shows, the popularity of politically slanted cable TV networks, the growing willingness of newspapers to place display advertising on the front page and on section fronts, the rise ofcomedy/news shows like “The Colbert Report” and on and on. But even those changes may be the result of the Internet.
Q. How much influence do you feel the media has on public opinion and action? Did the media, for example, help Barack Obama win the election?
Ron Fournier: I think we have a tremendous amount of influence because whether you read a blog or newspaper or an aggregator like Yahoo, a larger percentage of the information you are getting is coming from what you would call the mainstream media.That doesn’t mean the mainstream media helped or hurt Barack Obama or John McCain. It just means we are influential because the information people use to form their opinions comes largely from the mainstream media. The big difference obviously is that ours by far is not the only voice people are hearing now, and people are able to self select the voices they are hearing. For some people, the only Associated Press stories they read are the portions that are posted and commented upon on blogs.
Marie Osborne: Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, the media does influence public opinion and action. It’s for this reason that everyday we, as reporters, must be diligent in presenting both sides to every story.
Luther Keith: The media did not win the election for Barack Obama. However, there is no question that Barack Obama’s campaign understood and effectively utilized the media in all its forms—old and new technology—to win public opinion and eventually win the election. That’s what all candidates do. I do not agree that the media gave Obama a break of any kind. Go back and look atall the headlines and criticism that he took—like any candidate would—throughout the campaign.
Tom Stanton: The term “media” is often used as if it refers to one large homogeneous entity. In truth, the media include an almost endless array of voices. The media certainly impact public opinion. But I don’t think the media elected Barack Obama in 2008 anymore than they elected George W. Bush four years earlier.
Q. SHOULD the media influence public opinion and action? What is the media’s responsibility in this regard?
Ron Fournier: It depends on what you mean by influencing public opinion. If you mean, have an impact on how people form their opinions and provide them information? Then sure, yeah, that’s our core mission. If you are suggesting that by influence we should somehow determine who wins an election or what products people buy, that we should have a partisan or biased opinion, then no, I don’t think mainstream news organizations like AP should do that. But we can be independent, unbiased, non-partisan and still influence people just by the nature of the fact that we are informing them.>
Marie Osborne: Stories usually fall into two categories: stories people WANT to know and stories people SHOULD know about. Sometimes when reporting on a story that people SHOULD know about, you can influence them—perhaps even spur them to action. Reporting on poor voter turnout in certain areas—may result in people going to the polls. That’s it for responsibility. If you want to “influence public opinion” go into editorial writing or get a show on Cable TV.
Luther Keith: If the media does not influence public opinion, what is the point in having it? Of course the media influences public opinion. It always has and always will. That is not the same as being unbalanced, unfair or sensationalist. You can influence public opinion without any of that.
Tom Stanton: Good reporting should influence the views and opinions of the public. Journalism plays a critical role in our society. At their best, journalists report vigorously on the world around them, act as a public watchdog, and put a spotlight on society and government. The Detroit newspapers provided a brilliant example this year. Despite the tumultuous changes taking place in the news industry, Detroit reporters did their jobs properly. They doggedly uncovered the misdeeds of the city’s mayor, going beyond public denials to reveal the sad truths that would force a mayor to resign.
Q. Do you think the 2008 election changed media policy in any way? How?
Ron Fournier: Well I guess it depends on your definition of media. If you include the new media and blogs, and some of the partisan media that’s cropped up, it has. They don’t go by the same standards that an organization like the AP does. The AP’s policies, values and ethics are unchanged.
Marie Osborne: At my level, it did not.
Luther Keith: Not really in the terms of the way campaigns are covered. However, the growth of blogging on the internet, which I don’t consider media in the conventional sense, had a huge impact. Bloggers were being interviewed as “experts,” so that has been a change, even if it is suspect in my opinion.
Tom Stanton: Not significantly.
Q. Has the media become more editorial in recent years?
Marie Osborne: With the advent of Cable TV / 24-7-365 news coverage, yes, news has become more editorialized.
Luther Keith: There is more commentary and commentary shows, pundits, etc. Those are opinion shows—not to be confused with news shows or news reporting.
Tom Stanton: Some media outlets are very partisan, particularly the political web sites and some cable television networks. I do not believe the traditional media are editorializing more than previously. Our original newspapers, of course, were very partisan and political.
Q. How has the discussion on ethics in selecting and covering stories changed in the past 10 years?
Ron Fournier: Ethics has always been a part of the conversation in newsrooms. But because so many things have changed in media, I guess, the specifics have changed. You always try to make sure you do what you do in a way that you can look yourself in the mirror. That was the case 20 years ago, and it’s the same now.
Marie Osborne: I think, in fact, that this is an area that has improved. Producers, editors and news directors are more cognizant of presenting stories from a different point of view. I have found that we seek out people from different ethnic and socio-economic levels to be a part of our coverage of stories.
Luther Keith: Ethics have been a big issue for some time. I think the biggest change is the interest in public figure’s personal lives. Everything in a public figure’s life seems to be in play. The question I think should always be asked is, what has this to do with public policy? Does the public really need to know, or do we just want to know and make it public because it will sell newspapers or boost ratings?
Tom Stanton: The same discussions take place about ethics, and the vast majority of journalists continue to carry out their jobs in an ethical manner. The Internet, its immediate nature and the competitive pressures of the industry have presented a challenge. Some outlets, I believe, are too quick to report “news” simply because others are reporting it. Inaccurate news can be spread much more rapidly now.
Q. What does the public expect from the media? How has that changed over the years?
Ron Fournier: I think it has changed in a lot of ways. I think the ironic thing is that media is struggling with what we say we are all about, and what we want to be all about is even more in demand by the public. What I mean is that, at a time when we are flooded by information from so many different places now more than ever, the public is looking for news organizations that will help sort through fact from the fiction and help cut through that cloud. Also, if you look at the polls, the public has lost faith in institutions like the government, non-governmental organizations, even organized religion, the military and business—including the media. They are looking for institutions that do their jobs. I think people will be demanding news organizations that seek to hold the government accountable and seek to give people very clear summaries of what is happening in their world at a time when there is so much confusion and muddle out there.
Marie Osborne: The public, of which we in the media are part of, wants stories that are timely, easy to understand and important. Here’s the Golden Rule: Don’t waste a listeners time on junk you would not want to listen to yourself. I think in the last few years, too many news outlets have allowed the “news you can use” theory to rule the newsroom. I heard one local TV station describe an anchor in a promo as “A dedicated crime-fighter”. What? You are a journalist—not a cop. Such a mistake, such a waste. Again, there are stories people WANT to know and the ones they SHOULD know. We should strive to give listeners both in the most creative and compelling way possible.
Luther Keith: Unfortunately, I believe the public often expects the worse from the media. Look at surveys showing the low opinions in which journalists are held. I think because in too many cases sensationalism has overtaken real news and news, in many cases, has become personality and gossip-driven.
Tom Stanton: I suspect it varies from person to person—and maybe generationally. Younger people, who have grown up in the Digital Era, expect immediacy and the ability to interact. Those of us of an older generation may desire a greater depth of news.
Q. Why does it seem that stories for the most part focus on the negative? Does negative sell?
Ron Fournier: The media has always been biased toward conflict. When a dog bites another dog, that’s not news. When a dog bites a man, that’s news. Unfortunately or not or for better or for worse, that’s always been the case. When a police officer makes a good arrest and follows the rules, a politician keeps his promises, when a sports figure doesn’t get arrested, that’s not news. But when a sports figure does get arrested, when a politician does do something wrong, a police officer abuses his or her station in life, that is news. Therefore, most of the news you see is negative. That’s always been the case.
Marie Osborne: This is a question I often get asked when I do public speaking on the topic of my profession. Love this question. When a story presents itself, it is up to us to ask the tough questions. Tough questions are usually considered negative. The question “Why?” is never a positive question. Consider the recent text message scandal in the City of Detroit. The two fine newspaper reporters who broke that story could have let the information slide. But they instead asked “why”. People look to us to ask “Why”.
Tom Stanton: I doubt that the percentage of negative news has changed much in the past 15 years. What’s newsworthy? That’s really the question. Impact, conflict, unusualness—those are all news traits. They always have been. I do think the media are becoming even more celebrity-centered, which concerns me. We focus too often on the frivolous.
Q. What is the communications industry gaining by increasing its presence online? What is it losing?
Tom Stanton: The Internet is all about communication. Why wouldn’t our industry want to be part of it? We need to be part of it. We should want to be part of it. What we’re gaining is the possibility of a future. What we’re losing isn’t anything that we won’t lose anyway if we become obsolete and irrelevant to a large, growing segment of the population.
Q. What are the challenges of educating journalists for today’s media climate?
Marie Osborne: Today it’s not enough to educate our journalists to write a good lead sentence. It’s just not. Journalists need to be versed in various media platforms. They must have a good working knowledge of global finances and politics. Understanding and respecting cultures and view points outside of our own is essential.
Tom Stanton: The uncertainty. The industry is changing in radical ways. Buyouts and bankruptcies abound. We can’t be sure which jobs will exist five years from now. So, that is a challenge. But we address it by giving our students solid skills and teaching them to be flexible and willing to adapt. This generation is well positioned to capitalize on these changes. Our students are digitally minded. There will always be a need for the quality reporting that journalists do. The only question is where that work will appear.
Q. What would you tell journalism professors to focus on most in school? Should ethics be important?
Ron Fournier: Make journalists as versatile as possible. Unlike 20 to 25 years ago when I came out of U of D, people were just looking for reporters who could write a good lead and ask the right questions. Now, I’m looking for someone who can take photos, do video, write a smart lead, ask smart questions, edit their own video, have a little data base experience, know a little about social networking. So they have to be more generalists than they ever have been before.
Marie Osborne: Teach young journalists to ask good questions. In order to ask good questions journalists have to have a well rounded background. And because I have yet to mention this—writing well is essential. Short, to the point. The world would be a better place if more people would communicate in a short and to the point manner. Ethics are not important—they are ESSENTIAL. How do you teach that? Don’t take short cuts, be honest.
Luther Keith: Get a broad-based education in a wide range of things, have as many different experiences as possible to prepare yourself for many challenges. That gives you a broader base to develop your career. There is nothing wrong with being a sports writer for 30 years, but you also might be interested in politics, world events, local government. You never know where your opportunity might come from. Ethics should be a big part of journalism education. Otherwise, you are just producing robots who know how to write.
Q. What was the focus of your journalism education? What do you think the focus should be today?
Luther Keith: My education focused on the nuts and bolts of journalism, reporting and writing.
Tom Stanton: My education in journalism focused on many things: thorough reporting, clear writing, smart design and ethical behavior—and all are still relevant.
Q. National media tends to be pretty harsh on Detroit; do you think the local media has been equally harsh?
Luther Keith: In many cases, yes, and the national reporters pick up on what the local reporters are doing. I don’t think the media should ignore “bad news”, but I do think there should be a greater focus on “positive” news and developments—and there is a lot of that—to accurately reflect the reality of life in Detroit.
Q. What are the main differences between how the national or even international media covers Detroit vs. local media?
Luther Keith: National media tends to cover Detroit after local media has reported a story, particularly if the news is unflattering; local media tends to “micro-report”, city news, including a lot of focus on personalities, which is what you might expect.