Don’t Mess With Texas Reporters

On October 21, 2013, the city of Dallas, TX hosted a community town hall meeting in the conference room of a police station, announcing it in advance in a press release. But, despite the public nature of the meeting, one group of people was not welcome. This wasn’t discrimination based on class, gender, or race; no, the people not invited to the discussion were the media. As this is technically illegal, the reporters called city hall, and after 40 minutes of work the unofficial ban was overturned.

Once inside, the reporters found a discussion about crime in the community and the possibility of opening a new alternative high school. Not so controversial (unlike past town hall meetings). It wasn’t a secrecy issue, either: it was a public meeting and thus cameras were not banned. Any member of the public could have live-tweeted, blogged, or even posted videos of the event to YouTube as it was happening (and, the media could have picked up those posts as evidence if necessary). As area reporter Tristan Hallman wrote, “Basically, the decision to ban people came down to who employed them.”

So why is this important, if they eventually did get into the meeting? The situation forces us to think about the role of media in society. As an idealist and a college journalist (two things that may go hand-in-hand), I’d like to think that the media should be the truth tellers, even when that truth is a run-of-the-mill community meeting. I recognize that the news media we consume have an extremely powerful affect on the way we perceive the world. So, in this case, did the Dallas Police Department. Those in power might prefer to have the media cover their actions only when it is personally convenient. It would certainly be more efficient and less confusing, but when the media is controlled by the government, that’s a police state.

As it turns out, a recent high-profile shooting has the police chief tired of talking to the press. But again, Hallman says, “Of course, we did ask about the shooting after the meeting… But we got the chance to ask, and he got the chance to decline comment.” Our country was instead founded on freedom of the press. This doesn’t mean that the media will always have access to the information, but it means that they should have a fair chance, as a member of the public—especially when the information is made available to the rest of the public. If it doesn’t play out this way, the media has a right to protest and change that unfair treatment. Let’s handle this the American way, with more meetings, discussion, and input. And Chili’s.

What do you think about this story? Have you noted any examples of silenced media in your community?

–Gracie McKenzie, A15

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My aunt, like countless others, hates watching television in the morning. “All that’s on,” she says, “is the news and morning talk shows, both of which have little positive to say and really put me in an awful mood for the day ahead.”

Can we blame her?

We have heard time and time again that the media is not just a passive form of entertainment. What we watch, read, and consume through screens and over airways has a direct effect on the way the think, act, and process our surrounding world, as well as, for my aunt and others, our mood and well-being. This effect is demonstrated in full-force when talking about the recent spree of gun violence in the past few months and years. It seems as though there is a constant influx of disheartening and demoralizing news—a gunman on the loose, children killed, a domestic dispute with a tragic ending. It’s as though the bad days have come to outnumber the good, and we find ourselves lucky when a day goes by with no such violence.

Although it may seem as though our society is slipping into a violent abyss, the U.S. is statistically as safe as it has been in the past twenty years. While gun violence is by no means under control (nor is this a piece about the gun control debate), there is another force that is clouding our days with such frightening news: the media.

Every screen we turn on shouts at us that violence is all around, pleads with us to recognize viciousness. How much is too much, though, when it comes to news coverage of violence? Considering gun-related crime rates haven’t increased but our media coverage of those crimes has, should we be worried that we are becoming a society too focused on what is going wrong?

The news putting us in a bad mood may be for good reason. Sensationalized media stories capture the public’s attention and are cultural markers upon which we can convene, discuss, and mitigate our own feelings, thoughts, and ideas. Through media coverage of events related to gun violence, we can remain citizens informed of what is going on in our country and our world, so that we can pursue the knowledge we need to fix it.

Conversely, the news also may be worsening our well-being. Media outlets often over-sensationalize violence stories, urging us to pay attention to the gruesome details even before they have the correct facts or information, leading to issues of mistrust and fear.

While some argue that there is not enough coverage of gun violence in the media, and others have appeased media consumers by scaling back in the wake of too much violence, the question remains, then, is sensationalized violence a necessary component of a modern, media-based society? Is it our duty to consume such news or deplorable that it is even broadcast in such a fashion? Can we or should we choose to tune out?

– Lauren Witte, A14

Secret Service: government manipulation of news media

Last Thursday, Islamist website RNN leaked a top-secret 6-minute video obtained from “sources in the military.” As the New York Times reported, the video depicts “senior Egyptian Army officers debating how to influence the news media during the months preceding the military takeover” and “offers a rare glimpse of the anxiety within the institution at the prospect of civilian oversight.”  While they have been achieving “better results,” Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi says in the video that they haven’t reached what they want. (Note: seriously, read this article if you’re interested in media. It’s fascinating)

But propaganda is not a recent invention, though its manipulative messages have become even more cloaked in recent decades, thanks to social psychology research into effective techniques. In addition, as the officers say in the video, the Egyptian government has a history of manipulation of the press, as do China, Russia, Japan, and Great Britain (among many others). But although these instances may affect our country’s foreign relations and our perception of global events, because we have a democracy and freedom of the press, our domestic news media is safe, right? Actually, wrong.

In 2008, the New York Times successfully sued the U.S. Department of Defense, gaining access to more than 8,000 pages of records, from transcripts to e-mail messages, describing a multi-year effort that the military called a “talking points operation.” The result: this article, detailing the process by which the Pentagon hired “surrogates” or “message force multipliers” who would appear in the media as un-biased “military analysts.” However, the cost of unparalleled access to military secrets and additional financial compensation was an agreement to spin the situation positively, in favor of the American military. Regardless of what was actually happening. As David Barstow wrote for the Times, “these members of a familiar fraternity” became a “media Trojan horse” — shaping the tone and conclusions of our supposedly fair and accurate terrorism coverage. Even more distressing, most of the news networks didn’t look into the analysts’ personal or business connections to the military when hiring them to provide opinions.

At the end of the day, since we cannot predictably rely on the objectivity or even accuracy of news media, it’s up to us as the consumers to responsibly and responsively consume that media, whether in Egypt or the US. A former analysts is quoted in the Times article as saying, “The worst conflict of interest is no interest.” He was referring to his own hire, as well as those of his colleagues, to share warped opinions at major national news networks. But the soundbite holds true for the modern news reader/watcher/listener: don’t accept things the way they are first presented. Do your research, consider your own values, and then reconsider the coverage. The news is just a report, not a dictation of how to view the world.

(Note: you can view all 8,000 pages of released documents here once the government is no longer shut down)

–Gracie McKenzie, A15

Stopping the Presses: student publications and new media

Consider this blog post. No, really. In the past, a forum like this one—a blog for, by, and about an academic department—simply wouldn’t have existed. But, as we’ve all heard a million times, the world is changing, thanks to the Internet. For some college newspapers, though, the Internet is more than the new frontier; rather, it’s the only place their product exists.

This phenomenon is nothing new, as professional publications have made the switch in an effort to save money for years. The most famous of this bunch is Newsweek, which published in print for 80 years before its changeover and rebranding in October 2012. But the financial crisis hit student publications later and in a different way. In fact, as late as 2009, over a third of college newspapers didn’t have a web presence at all (defined as no website or a website that hadn’t been updated in six months or more).

The University of Oregon’s Daily Emerald is not one of these publications. After 92 years of printing daily, in 2012 the newspaper transitioned to a twice-weekly magazine with most content published online. Eastern Connecticut State University took that one step further. In September 2006, students returned to newspaper racks filled not with a new edition, but instead with fliers informing them that news would now only be available online. While ECSU was the first school to literally “stop the presses” (which actually raised legal trouble), others have followed in more recent years, especially on the community college level. Here at Tufts, while many publications have an online presence, none are completely online.

In the end, though, it’s important to remember the purpose of student newspapers. Yes, a record of happenings, on-campus and off, is valuable for the campus. But, more specifically, student publications in general provide outlets for practice, training, and experience in the field of journalism. The act of writing the story may prove more important than the content of that story, even if the byline is online. In fact, in an era in which journalism is increasingly on the Internet and/or multimedia, one could argue that it’s worse for a student publication not to have a web presence at all than not to publish in print.

However, even though funding for college newspapers can be tight, I would argue that it is almost as irresponsible to abandon print journalism completely. Call me a print media junkie, but nothing compares to holding the news in my hands, without a dim, bluish glow. I want to turn the page to see the next section, instead of just scrolling down. And I’m not alone: according to research, students prefer the print version of their campus newspapers, and in 2010 over half of college students didn’t even know if their college newspaper was available online. When budget cuts and lack of profit threatened to shut down American University’s weekly Eagle, student response was so negative that they decided to make the changes necessary to allow at least a monthly publication.

But the Emerald didn’t change media because of financial difficulties—2011 was one of their most successful years ever. Instead it was because they saw a shift in professional journalism, and adjusted their mission and actions to better fit the modern world. In the end, digital news media is neither an add-on nor a replacement for its print counterpart. When the two exist simultaneously, they complement each other, and students aiming for careers in journalism should be comfortable on either end. Because, right now, that is the future. Print publications may be struggling financially, on the whole, but they need young, bright minds with experience in both realms in order to keep functioning. Maybe it will change again: perhaps print journalism will truly become a thing of the past, and we’ll all carry our student publications around on tablets, and every academic department will have a blog. But today, this semester, this year, we still exist in a blend of the two forms, and thus student journalists need experience in both.

–Gracie McKenzie, A15