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Guest commentary

The public as addict, the media as pusher

The news claims to give the people what they want. Is that good enough?

By Patrick Mattimore
Posted June 4, 2004

The Scott Peterson floodgates are open and are drowning important news coverage in the Bay Area. It might be well to ask whether it is the media or the public's obsession that is feeding this phylum from "The Little Shop of Journalistic Horrors." But the answer is less critical than the realization that we are stuck with both the chicken and the egg and would be better with neither.

Patrick Mattimore

In the last week, two Bay Area "media" events have examined issues related to the press. The first event was sponsored by the World Affairs Council and was entitled "Press Credibility and Election 2004," and included a distinguished panel of editors from Bay Area media. The other event was hosted by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and was a panel discussion about the future of press access to the courts.

If this is in fact an apt description of what is happening in the news industry, greater press access will result not in more objectivity or better news, but more smack.

While an oversimplification, there were two predominant themes. At the press credibility conference the editors repeated the mantra that because the public has become increasingly skeptical about press objectivity and credibility, the media need to do a better job of "getting the facts" and listening to the public.

At the SPJ roundtable, participants echoed the refrain that the fewer restrictions placed upon the media's access to the courts, the better.

Synthesizing the experts' opinions leads to the conclusion that the press will do a better job of truth-seeking as they gain greater access to events, such as trials. Presumably, such a prescription would satisfy the public’s thirst for objective knowledge and the media would also fulfill its own directive to listen to its audience.

There is a far more cynical interpretation of what is happening in the public/media interplay and what current trends may portend.

The media may already be listening to the public's taste, not for objectivity but for sensationalism. The media's ears may be attuned all too well to the public bandwagon. The public may have become like an addict that bemoans his own reliance on a drug but cannot get enough of it, and suffers an endless cycle of craving, temporary relief, remorse and blame. The public "mainline" at media shooting galleries and then curse their pushers. The press supply their junkies’ habits because it maintains their status as suppliers.

If this is in fact an apt description of what is happening in the news industry, greater press access will result not in more objectivity or better news, but more smack. Neither journalists, who subscribe to a voluntary code of ethics, nor the public, caught in the addictive cycle, would seem capable of breaking the co-dependent grip alone.

A starting point for a recovery plan might be for both parties to recognize that there is a problem and resolve to work on it together. For that to happen, the media need to make themselves more accessible to their audience, and the public needs to demand accessibility.

While news organizations have increasingly added ombudsmen, readers’ representatives and public editors in recent years, those titular figureheads are often employee insiders who are little known to the public they supposedly represent. Public representatives must meet regularly with the public and encourage those liaisons publicly. In addition, those guardians of liberty must be changed frequently, so as not to become too imbued with the culture of the newspaper.

The public, too, must demand that the press open its gates and take affirmative steps to see that it happens. People should write and rewrite letters to their local media hierarchy and let those people know what they think. The public has a responsibility to both transmit and receive the news.

The alternative to the media and the public jointly seizing the reins of the news carriage and reversing direction is an increasingly addictive downward spiral in which the meaning of a "free" press will be hollow indeed.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.


A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

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