By Storee Powell
LOGAN—Chances are that those who are reading this article are newspaper readers. But newspaper readers are a dying breed and journalism as a whole is evolving and mysterious to much of the public. Mention “journalist” or “newspaper,” and some might think “shady,” “cold-hearted” and “sneaky.” What is in the future for journalism as an entity and ideal?
Last year—2009—was “The Year the Newspaper Died,” according to Business Insider magazine—105 newspapers closed and 10,000 newspaper jobs died.
This doesn’t seem to concern most of the public, however. The Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of Americans say they won’t miss their local paper if it goes away, and that only 29 percent of the public think news stories are generally accurate. The public perceives journalists as narcissistic and newspapers as inaccurate, so what’s the big deal if journalism ends up in the can?
Two USU journalism students explained their thoughts on this from their journalistic perspective obtained from experience and education.
Cassidee Cline, a sophomore majoring in print journalism, writes for USU’s online Hard News Café and for the Utah Statesman. She hopes to write for a magazine someday. Cline said newspapers started as the watchdogs of the government.
Many scholars and journalists accept the theory of the free press acting as the “fourth estate,” or the fourth branch of the government, a public advocate to keep big business and big government in check. Journalists revealed Nixon’s Watergate scandal and the atrocities of Guantanamo Bay. Thomas Jefferson himself agreed with this idea: “If I had to choose between a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I would not hesitate to choose the latter,” he said.
So why does the public see news reporting as inaccurate? Cline thinks the Internet contributes to this perception because people are easily swayed by things they see on the Web, and struggling newspapers give people what they want instead of what they need to know.
“Instead of the Internet highlighting what newspapers find, we have newspapers highlighting what’s on the Internet,” Cline said.
As far as giving people what they want, Blair Fairman says those who don’t want real news go to sources that confirm their beliefs.
Fairman, a senior in broadcast journalism, has written sports for the Statesman and reported on AggieTV and Cache Rendezvous, the student TV news cable programs. Fairman’s father is an ABC reporter, so she grew up around news stations, and she aspires to be a sports reporter someday.
“We don’t want to face the facts in America,” Fairman said. “We are sheltered, and we want to pretend the things affecting us aren’t. Those who aren’t hit as hard with the economy don’t want to go out of their comfort zone to help all the homeless people, for example.”
Why does it matter if the public is informed? A 2009 Princeton University study found that after The Cincinnati Post folded in 2007, its absence made local elections less competitive along several dimensions. Municipalities that the Post covered in the past experienced a greater increase in incumbent advantage, a decrease in voter turnout, and fewer candidates for office after the paper’s closure.
It’s not true that what people don’t know can’t hurt them, Cline said.
“If you know what’s happening in the world, what the current issues are and how top authorities are handling situations, I think people are better able to understand how it really affects them,” she said.
When citizens have to vote on amendments and laws, if they aren’t sure what they’re voting for, the result might be something that hinders rights and freedoms, she said.
“It is important for young people to stay connected with the world because it is the world they will inherit in the future,” Cline added. “You have to know how to take care of it.”
Fairman agreed. “It is important for youth to understand what is going on because history is only good if you learn from it,” she said. “You can’t change future outcomes if you don’t understand [what’s happening] now.”
But many young people struggle to connect with what Cline calls the “old people medium”—newspapers. Citizen journalism and blogging have taken off rapidly in recent years, and it’s the Internet that draws the young audience that newspapers hunger for. Bloggers generally don’t have editors, co-workers, training or the experience to keep things truthful and unbiased. Fairman and Cline say there are dangers in getting news from only these sources.
“I’m not a fan of blogging,” Fairman said. “It leaves out facts and replaces them with opinion. It can change the feeling of the story. Bloggers need to view a professional newscast, and then go to the blogs so they have the context. Citizen journalism is dangerous because many people who view it don’t know or understand the writer is an individual with a bias.”
But Cline said blogs are good for allowing to people to write about their opinions and critique the world, although she said blogs shouldn’t be taken as a viable source of reliable news.
“Not all bloggers do their research, and if they do, it tends to be one-sided in favor of what the blogger’s views are,” she said.
As public assessment of the accuracy of news falls to an all-time low—63 percent of Americans told Pew Center researchers that news stories are often inaccurate—the challenge is not just to journalism, but to an informed nation. Despite the public’s overwhelmingly negative view of journalism, a positive future is still possible for journalism. Journalism as a source of accurate information, a watchdog on government and the powerful, and recorder of history can carry on if journalists and news media consumers make some changes.
“Reporters need to work on their people skills to show they are not scary, cut-throat and just doing it for themselves, but to benefit people,” Fairman said. “Audiences need to realize reporters are human too, and they are striving to achieve the ideal.”