Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2006 | Features

Breaking News

By Jennifer Hemmingsen

The year was 1970, and everyone, including Steve Berry, was looking for a way to change the world. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Berry succeeded—at least, in the small corner of the world encompassed by the town of Dothan, Alabama.

Outside Dothan stood a rickety wooden bridge that school buses had to cross to transport children to class. Parents worried that the bridge would collapse, but local officials just brushed off their concerns. Berry—then a fledgling journalist in his first newspaper job—wrote a story about the bridge and called a state legislator for his comments. The legislator said he hadn't known about the problem but that he would make sure it got fixed. Berry realized that by writing for that tiny newspaper, he could make an enormous difference in the lives of everyday people.

"I doubt I would have stayed with journalism if it weren't for that," Berry says.

Today, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist sometimes wonders what's happened to his profession. So do many other Americans.

Are newspapers and magazines dead—or are rumors of their demise greatly exaggerated? In this era of fast-changing technology and media-wary audiences, journalists with ties to the UI, like professors Dan Berkowitz (left) and Steve Gerry, are taking different approaches to ensure that the news of the 21st century remains relevant. Photo: Adpro Design

In his career after Alabama, Berry showcased journalism's contributions to society as an investigative reporter for the Orlando Sentinel and the Los Angeles Times, winning a Pulitzer in 1993 with his Orlando Sentinel colleague Jeff Brazil for a series that exposed a sheriff's drug squad's seizure of millions of dollars from motorists, most of them minorities. He held organizations accountable to the public through his investigations of the criminal justice system, the police, schools, hospitals, the gun industry, local government, and the illegal drug trade.

Now an associate professor of journalism at the UI, Berry surveys a changing media landscape, not only in terms of formats but also in a sense of mission. He's noticed a decline both in the quality of the news and in the media's standing in public opinion.

"When I go home and want to catch up on the news, all I get is this constant barrage," he says. "The latest pedophile case, the latest Michael Jackson case, the latest runaway bride case."

Today's news consumer has more choices than ever before. No longer limited to the morning paper and the nightly newscast, we can feed our appetite for news when, where, and how we want. We can listen to National Public Radio on our iPod, watch local news broadcasts over the Internet. We can choose from a menu of 24-hour news channels or find thousands of stories using Web digests. By rights, there should be nothing that we don't know about our world and our place in it.

In the middle of this apparent glut of outlets, though, there are ominous signs. Newspaper and magazine circulations are falling. Television audiences are turning the channel from news to entertainment. Young people especially have apparently given up on the iconic print and broadcast outlets that in past times defined our culture—choosing instead a combination of online digests and blogs with assorted motives and standards.

And as traditional news outlets face ever-dwindling resources, the audience that remains is left with a chorus of voices that sound eerily similar. Click the link, turn the channel, flip the page, and you're likely to find the same story—often as not citing the same sources, using the same sound-bytes. That's because many media—forced to cut staff and costs—can no longer afford to send reporters to cover every story. One journalist in Iraq may supply the material for 30 newspapers' articles on the war.

Fast, Loose, And Cheap

If journalism isn't in crisis, it is most certainly in transition. The journalism we've been accustomed to—with stable outlets devoting vast resources to training specialists who find and verify the facts—is losing ground to faster, looser, and cheaper media.

Since the early 1980s, Americans' distrust of the media has risen steadily. Three out of four people told the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press last year that they thought the media's primary concern was in "attracting the biggest audience." Seventy-two percent said they thought coverage was slanted. Over-whelmingly, people see a press that appears to be motivated by the bottom line—not the public good.

Dan Berkowitz, a professor in the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication, says there is one important thing to remember. "Journalists are people," he says. "They're doing a job."

In order to keep those jobs, journalists need to get a story that will make their bosses happy. And, in a time of increasing newsroom pressures, they need to get that story fast.

There has always been a tension in news organizations between the drive to get the story and the drive to turn a buck. Ideally, at least, there is a clear delineation between the business side of the organization and the news gathering side (journalists refer to it as "the wall," and it's often represented by a real, physical separation between the newsroom and advertising department). The strength of "the wall" has varied by medium, in different organizations, and even in the same media product under different leadership. In recent years, consolidation of ownership and profit directives have further weakened the system. To please share-holders, owners slash newsroom budgets and cut staff. Since 2000, the newspaper industry has lost 3,500 to 3,800 newsroom professionals, or roughly 7 percent of its workforce. Similar cuts have been made in television, radio, and magazines.

To fill the "news hole," reporters have to do more. To do that, Berkowitz says, they get strategic. They look for stories that assure them of success and they develop work processes that can lead to typical or predictable articles.

So, a reporter will cover a strike, but not the conditions at the hospital or factory that led up to it. A family's abuse of foster children makes national headlines, while the complicated problems in administering and funding the foster care system hardly get covered at all. Crime, plague, war, and natural disasters fill up our nightly newscasts. Stories like that of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman whose family publicly and bitterly battled over the decision to keep her on life support, are covered coast-to-coast, every day until the next big story comes along.

Service Or Profit?

For at least a century, journalists have worried that increasing concentration of media ownership would affect their ability to gather news. It started in the 1880s, when William Randolph Hearst got into a buying war with his contemporaries—snapping up as many of the popular "penny papers" as he could afford and running scandalous stories to compete for greater circulation. More recently, critics and scholars have been concerned that the trend toward public ownership, and away from community-based media companies, would further erode the quality of journalism. Making and marketing news is fundamentally different than any other product, they argue, and shouldn't be determined by a profit-driven market.

From his office in Minneapolis, Jay Walljasper is making an impact internationally—thanks to his civic journalism for Ode magazine based in the Netherlands. Photo: Sara Rubinstein

For the last 20 years, Jay Walljasper, 76BA, has written for and edited alternative magazines that are less focused on those market obligations. As editor of the Utne Reader, and now at Ode, an internationally circulated magazine based in the Netherlands, Walljasper has practiced civic journalism.

While most journalists see their job as reporting the news as detached observers, the civic journalism movement says that journalism should do more for a community than just telling the news. Instead, journalists and media should be an active part of community life—holding forums and educational seminars, encouraging public discussion and debate, and helping make communities better. Leading organizations in the field include the Pew Center, the Kettering Foundation, and the Public Journalism Network, whose mission statement says: "We believe the best journalism helps people see the world as a whole and helps them take responsibility for what they see."

Adds Walljasper, "The notion of civic journalism is that media institutions actually have an obligation to make a difference in their communities."

Pick up an issue of Ode and you'll find stories about how an elementary school is fighting behavior problems with healthy lunches, or about the effects of green spaces on communities. Ode's focus is international news, but not the "coups and earthquakes" kind of stories we're used to seeing. It highlights the good things that are happening around the world, especially in third-world countries that normally only see Western reporters when something has gone terribly wrong.

That's because we have a lot to learn from each other, Walljasper says, from European environmental policies to South American traffic solutions.

"What we're trying to do is keep our eyes and ears open for these interesting, promising initiatives that are happening on the fringes," he says. "So much of the media is focused on a few places—New York, Hollywood, London."

Walljasper has always been driven by the media's potential to do great good in the world, not just its ability to report on the bad. Still, he says, people often assume that positive or solutions-based coverage has to be silly or lightweight. They're used to seeing "feel good" stories about hometown heroes on the business and sports pages of their local papers, or fluffy service pieces on how to plant a shade garden or select anniversary presents. Even in journalistic circles, the value of civic journalism is a matter of some debate. Many critics say it's not a reporter's job or right to promote one solution over another, and that doing so violates principles of objectivity.

Ode, which has about 120,000 readers in 90 countries, doesn't turn away from what's going wrong in the world, Walljasper says: "You flip through the magazine and there's global warming, there's violence against women, there's pollution, there's slavery in Africa. It's not a pretty picture.

"But, we're saying that there are people who are standing up [against these things] in some ways."

While publications like Ode may still be in the minority, even mainstream newspapers are experimenting with civic journalism in an attempt to reconnect with their audiences and prove their value. According to a study conducted for the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, at least one-fifth of all U.S. daily newspapers practiced some form of civic journalism between 1994 and 2001, covering elections and community issues and inspiring their readers to volunteer or to set up their own civic organizations.

We, The People

Another development that's been the subject of much talk in recent years is citizen media. In contrast to the traditional gatekeeper model of journalism, where a few people decide what's newsworthy, citizen media allows for a multitude of voices. Open channel, cheap, and easy to produce, it thrives on radio, public access TV, and the Internet.

Photo: Adpro Design Ralph Siddall, a citizen journalist, takes a call from one of his listeners during the morning radio program Caffeinated Opinions on KRUI.

One of those voices belongs to Ralph Siddall, who never had any intention of being a radio talk show host. He just wanted his students to think.

Siddall, a teaching assistant and Ph.D. student in rhetoric and public advocacy at the UI's Department of Communication Studies, is writing his dissertation on the use of fear as a political strategy. But when he tried to talk to his students about current events—the government's "War on Terror," the National Security Agency's wiretapping activities—he just drew blank stares. Siddall was amazed by how little his students know about their world and the political issues that affect their lives.

Part of his research looks at how concentrated ownership of media limits the public debate about current issues. It's his belief that because of the conglomeration of the media and their focus on the bottom line, reporters appear to be less likely to take public officials to task.

"We're in a much more media saturated environment, but it's a much diminished number of voices out there," Siddall says. "The natural outcome of it is that we're going to have a citizenry that, for the most part, isn't going to know and isn't really going to care. It will be unchecked leadership under the name of democracy."

Siddall has a habit of starting his classes by popping open the New York Times and saying "Well, let's see what's pissing me off today." It's his way of trying to get his students to realize how current events affect their daily lives. Last year, one of his students who worked at the university's KRUI radio station asked him to take his outrage on the air. He did.

The show, Caffeinated Opinions, highlights local nonprofits, politicians, and scholars. It's a small step ("It's college radio. What do I have, like nine listeners?" Siddall jokes), but one that appears to be making a difference.

"The organizations that come on are stridently grateful to have that opportunity to talk about what they do," Siddall says.

Critics of citizen journalism worry that the same features that allow more voices to emerge will make it easier for special interests to manipulate public opinion. Without an agreed-upon standard of newsworthiness and objectivity, and without the discipline of verification, anyone can lay claim to the truth to promote personal agendas. Public relations departments pay folks to blog positively about their clients. Bloggers report rumors that spread like wildfire through the digital universe. Satirical posts are misinterpreted as fact.

Lessons in Objectivity

While Steve Berry approves of citizens filling part of the watchdog role abandoned by some traditional media, he says that it's time for journalists to reclaim the idea of objectivity. In his classes, Berry teaches students how to get past the "he said, she said" kinds of stories and into the real heart of contemporary issues. He shows his students how to think about sources, follow up with documents and facts, and how to hold institutions accountable.

Even as nontraditional media claim a larger share of audiences, there's still room for good, old-fashioned reporting, Berry says. While some readers may only want a mixture of celebrity news and other infotainment, a die-hard minority—many of them the movers and shakers of government, industry, and business—still turn to the in-depth reporting that earns Pulitzer Prizes for newspapers like the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Biloxi-Gulfport Sun Herald.

Indeed, journalists, readers, academics, and organizations like the Public Journalism Network are invigorating discussions about where traditional newspapers and magazines go from here. They're offering opinions and solutions to tough questions about how traditional journalistic values can carve out a place in today's new media. While some critics sound the death knell of dinosaur publications like the New York Times, other experts argue that traditional media aren't dead—rather, like the phoenix, they'll rise anew from the ashes.

Perhaps the media of the future will evolve into a hybrid that combines the accuracy of old-fashioned journalism with the immediacy of the new. Whatever the end result may be, the media need to get it right, because there's more at stake than audience figures or market shares.

News fills a crucial role in a democratic society, Berry says. With freedom of the press enshrined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the media occupy a place at the heart of American society. A check on the government and a voice for the people, they help raise issues and problems that would not otherwise be considered—like that old wooden bridge in Dothan, Alabama.