Written by Julia Theilen, a student of the M.S. International Communication at St. John’s University, New York.
The U.S. Department of State’s Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists is an annual three-week exchange that brings more than 75 journalists from around the world to the United States to explore the ideal of freedom of expression and U.S. efforts to maintain and encourage this ideal. The participants – emerging professionals in print, broadcast, and digital media – examine the role of independent media in fostering and protecting freedom of expression and democracy. They travel in small regional groups for academic seminars and field activities with faculty and students at one of the partner schools of journalism, then visit small to mid-sized American cities to gain an understanding of media coverage in state politics and government. While observing the operational practices, standards, and institutions of the media, participants gain insight into the rights and responsibilities of a free press in a democracy. The Murrow Program is a public-private partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Poynter Institute and leading schools of journalism that host the participants.
On November 17th, after having travelled around the U.S. in small groups for three weeks, all participants of the Edward R. Murrow Program came together in New York City for the program’s final joint session. The event included a keynote address by Tina Rosenberg, co-founder of Solutions Journalism and two panels discussing the role of media in the recent U.S. presidential election and examining the question whether journalists should have an activist agenda.
As a volunteer at the conference I had the opportunity to listen to the keynote address and both panels. In this blog post, I am summing up the main topics of discussion and including some of my personal impressions.
Keynote speaker advocating for solutions journalism
The media is often focused on highlighting problems and critically revealing things that are going wrong. With reference to this tendency in reporting, the keynote speaker addressed the question why journalists should not engage in investigative reporting about how society is responding effectively to problems. Solutions journalism is about offering feedback on issues that are more likely to enhance society’s capacity to solve problems instead of only offering a negative image of reality.
The keynote speaker explained that while this is not applicable to writing breaking news, solutions journalism could be done in a follow-up story. For example, a journalist could report on how a community managed to rebuild houses after a storm or an earthquake.
Interesting and important to me was the fact that solutions journalism has to be grounded on facts and give proof for the positive results of the program it is reporting about. The author is not offering his own creative solutions to an issue but taking the same critical perspective that he would take for investigating on something that is not working well in society.
American Politics: A Look Back at the Role of Media in the Presidential Election
The first panel discussion focused on the role that media played during the recently concluded presidential election.
Impact of campaign coverage on media credibility
Since the U.S. election American media has often been criticized for various aspects of their campaign coverage. However, panelists took a defensive position stating that many journalists did a great job in their reporting. They concluded that an evaluation of the reporting cannot be conducted from a general perspective as different newspapers and TV stations followed different approaches in their coverage. Some of the media experts on the panel argued that there was extraordinary coverage in stories published by the New York Times and the Washington Post, for example. After all, discussants made one thing clear: Journalists are not in a popularity contest. They argued that it is part of a journalist’s responsibility to give information that people might not want and that this is also important to maintain a free press without which democracy is not possible.
Profit as a main driver in campaign coverage
One of the topics addressed by the participating media experts was: “Why was there a disproportionate coverage of Trump in the media?” Panelists explained that Trump coverage caused ratings to go up and was therefore simply good for business. Consequently, a main point of critique that came up during the discussion was that profit-driven campaign coverage replaced the tradition-bound honorable public service coverage of the election.
In addition to this, panelists mentioned that to some extent, the disproportionate Trump coverage was a catch-up as he was a private person and mostly unknown outside the New York area before the election, while there had been reporting on Clinton for over 30 years.
Now that Trump is the President-Elect, the press is facing the next challenge of not losing Trump voters as readers but at the same time upholding freedom of press by reporting critically about the government.
Two-year narrative overtaking facts of campaign trail
The participating experts critically analyzed another phenomenon of the campaign coverage over the past two years: How could the media continuously create interest in the topic over a two-year campaign cycle? Journalists told a story and created characters almost as though they were writing for reality TV. As a result, there was a tendency that this media narrative overshadowed facts on what was going on from a political perspective.
False expectations toward the role of media
One of the reasons why the election outcome was so surprising for many people was that polls had consistently predicted a different result. However, the discussants agreed that it is not the responsibility of the press to be able to predict the outcome of an election, even though the press – NYT, Washington Post, CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC and Boston Globe – spent enormous resources on polling. One of the media experts said that journalists should not have to worry about what polls say and rather ignore them when covering an election. Still, panelists stated that it is worth examining now, how all the polls could have been that wrong.
Financial challenges for representative campaign coverage
Discussants emphasized the fact that nowadays, the infrastructure of traditional news businesses has changed compared to a few years ago in that there has been a significant reduction of staff. Today, many newspapers have economic issues as they now compete with online news sources. There used to be more full time reporters to send to southern and central parts of the country for campaign coverage while a majority of journalists during this election was only reporting from Washington or, in a broader sense, from the east coast region. Consequently, panelists agreed that an important challenge for the industry to address is to identify how to have more reporters in different parts of the country. However, the financial distress of newspapers extends far beyond this challenge.
The media as a target of Trump attacks
There has been extensive reporting on Donald Trump insulting the media by calling reporters liars, stating that particular papers are failing and claiming that journalists are dishonest, amongst other derogative comments. Trump is known to have demonstrated hostility to journalists over the past months. During the discussion, concern was raised that a free press, as we know it in the U.S., might be at stake. Consequently, an important question I had been asking myself and that was also stressed in the panel is:
When will large media corporations collectively stand together and speak up against Trump insulting journalists – if at all, how?
Media Activism: Should Journalists Have an Agenda?
The second panel addressed today’s increasingly agenda-driven journalism. Topics discussed ranged from affecting social change through journalism to educating the public about global concerns and reporting on terrorism without amplifying the perpetrators’ agenda.
All in all, the discussion revealed that whether journalists even have the option to choose if they want to advocate for something in their reporting or rather be neutral, highly depends on the society they live in. As many journalists from the audience stated, educating the public from a neutral perspective is not always possible. In some countries, governments put pressure on the press to report in their favor and journalists might even fear imprisonment for critical reporting. Moreover, newspapers everywhere are largely dependent on advertising. For instance, a journalist from India explained that she is continuously arguing with her editor about to what extent she can report on child labor. She stated that the editor was concerned that the paper received advertising money from some of the companies that employed the workers in question.
My personal conclusion
I think that different perspectives from participating journalists from all over the world brought to the surface that a free press is never something that can be taken for granted, even in a democracy. In fact, the establishment and the maintenance of a free and independent press is a precondition of democracy. Is this notion of free press an illusion? Was American press ever free or is it simply a myth that keeps being believed as such? American media may not be under government constraint; however, even though the situation is not as bad as in countries like China or Cuba, the constraints of the business of press make press un-free.