Looking for objective news reporting? Don’t look in the news media.
That was the message at a “Shining Light on the Media” presentation at a meeting of the League of Women Voters on Thursday. The league also is sponsoring a showing of the recent film “Truth” on March 15 at Art House Cinema & Pub during Sunshine Week, an annual focus on the media that is held during the week of James Madison’s March 16 birthday.
Speakers on Thursday were Jolane Flanigan and Erin Reser, both professors in communication studies at Rocky Mountain College. Flanigan rejected the concept of objectivity altogether, arguing that reporters’ perspectives and biases inevitably influence their news stories.
“There was a time when we didn’t talk about objectivity,” she said.
Until the late 1800s, she said, most newspapers were owned by political parties. When newspapers began to become commercial ventures, they began to focus on reporting facts and eventually on reporting objectively, adding editors, beats, standards and checks and balances in news coverage.
Now, she said, her focus is on “two elephants in the room”: the profit motive in major media and the effects of media on culture. Most media content today comes from five major corporations, she said: News Corp., Time Warner Inc., the Walt Disney Co., Viacom and the German company Bertelsmann SE & Co. KGaA.
Those companies offer content that is both vertically and horizontally integrated, allowing maximization of profits. They have their fingers in so many pies that they are able to cross-promote themselves in ways that smaller operations cannot.
The news itself, once considered just a public service, has now also become a profit center intended to entertain an audience, Flanigan said.
The big conglomerates tend to steer away from controversial topics to avoid alienating customers, she said. They talk little about the capitalist system and instead offer more coverage of the stock market than they do of labor.
The result is news coverage that tilts heavily toward middle America while marginalizing those at the ends of the ideological spectrum. Attractive, charismatic politicians tend to rise in such a system, she said.
“We tend to see a very narrow representation of people and, quite frankly, issues,” she said.
News consumers must learn to be critical of everything they see and read, she said.
“When we stop being critical, we stop being able to think,” she said.
Media consumers must especially note things that are not said.
“It’s in the silence where there’s a lot of power,” she said.
Reser took a more rhetorical approach to media issues, noting that she grew up in Colorado with only one TV channel to watch. In those days, Walter Cronkite would sign off the evening news each day with, “And that’s the way it is … .”
“I kind of wish there was someone to tell me the way it is now,” she said.
Today, the media’s relationship to their audience poses a series of chicken-and-egg questions. Do the media run so much crime news because that’s what readers want, or have the readers learned to want what the media produce so much?
Do the media devote so much time and space to Donald Trump because he appeals to the public, or does he appeal to the public because the media devote so much time and space to him?
Listeners and readers must pay close attention to bias and ask themselves about the way stories are covered, “Who benefits?”
“I don’t know the way it is anymore,” she said, “but I think that’s OK.”
Reser said she was concerned that students are becoming less interested in considering all sides of an issue, but both professors said they detect hope in the way students react to the changing news environment. Flanigan called students “smart” and “engaged.” Reser said, “Interacting with students gives you such interesting insights.”