Real-Time News II: Public Education about the News Process - (8/00)
By Ted Marks

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Recently, we raised the issue of "real-time" news, a process that involves nearly instantaneous distribution of raw information to the public. We suggested that not only was the public getting some bad information, but, worse, the newsmakers themselves have become very adept at controlling the flow of news, a development that has had an increasingly corrupting effect on the news industry.

Our comments provoked some interesting reaction, including one respondent who suggested that it was not enough to identify a problem: itís just as important, he said, to offer some solutions.

The man has a point. So we are have developed this follow-up to the Real-Time news column with suggestions on how to cope with the problem (we should note that the discussion below includes feedback from visitors from MFAMedia.com).

As we indicated in May, the combination of high-speed communications and computer technology has severely foreshortened the traditional time-line in processing the news. So one solution might be to simply insist on a more deliberate process in distribution of the news.

Now that the public has become accustomed to "real-time" news, a more deliberative approach to the news will drive the audience elsewhere -- more precisely, to the competition. If that is so, then the real question may be: has the news industry become so competitive that senior management is throwing caution to the wind -- not to mention the journalistic principals which are at the heart of a free press --in an effort to hold onto their audiences?

I think such logic underestimates the intelligence of a well-educated public. But having said that, I would like to underscore the reference to an "educated public." .

So it may be possible that the news media has overlooked a very important role it should be fulfilling: the press should not only be covering the news; it should also be continually educating the public about how difficult it is to process the news. Instant news based on raw information can be pose some very real problems in fostering an informed citizenry, and, the news industry should insure that the public understands that the revolution in information technology makes the job of the news media harder, not easier. In short, that there are very good reasons to be deliberate about processing the news.

We do, after all, like to think of ourselves as professionals and inherent in that description is that news professionals have skills which take years of training to develop. Those skills essentially involve collecting, evaluating and formatting information prior to distribution. One of the distinguishing characteristics of a veteran newsperson is his or her instinct to differentiate between the true or good information and false or bad information.

To be sure there are elements of the news media which are sensational and will take advantage of a deliberative process. But again a well-educated public will understand that the sensationalistic elements of the media are destructive, rather than instructive, and eventually a well-educated public will, for the most part, reject the sensationalistic approach to the distribution of news -- or at the very least discount it -- in favor of mews reports from the serious, professional news media.

(An important, underlying assumption in our position -- which may be somewhat naÔve -- is that the media is managed by a group of senior executives who understand the values of a free press. The bottom line is always going to be an important benchmark for good managers; but there is more to the news business than the bottom line. Indeed, a successful bottom line is dependent on a superior editorial product, and senior management has to understand that principal if the press is to survive, and thrive in, the current revolution in information management).

Public Education Advertising  

So how do we educate the public about the intricacies of processing news? We should use the time-honored channels that the politicians and businessmen have mastered so well: the media.

Here in the North America, the principal news institutions should consider developing "public education" campaigns that would include a series of print and audio/video ads in the mass media, including newspapers, magazines, radio and most especially TV/Cable outlets.

The theme of these public interest campaigns should be to explain what the press does, and why its function is so important to the concept of a free press. The campaign should teach the public how news is developed; and what skills are necessary to insure that the news is accurate, impartial and -- most importantly -- reflects the truth of any given situation. The ads should include the nuts and bolts: attribution (yes, identifying sources and not relying on anonymous sourcing), verification, fact checking, editing, the importance of context, impartiality, all of which, together, constitute an independent, free press.

The campaign should be a fundamentally honest one, and that requires that it should include the warts as well as the beauty marks of a free press. The public has a healthy skepticism towards the press, and rightfully so. That means the educational process should be straightforward about some of the problems we face, including the areas were the press falls short of its goals -- such as sensationalism, improper sourcing, bias, etc.

Who should participate in such an educational campaign? Prime candidates might be the independent professional organizations such as ASNE, APME, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the newly formed Online News Association (ONA). The principal trade associations such as the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) and the Radio & Television News Directors Association might be a source of support for such a campaign -- as would be the various independent non-profit organizations such as Pew, Poynter, the Freedom Forum and the Media Institute.

 A joint approach would also have an even more, long-term benefit for the news industry: it would help rebuild the credibility of the news media -- credibility which, the polls suggest, is near an all-time low.

The educational campaign should not be a short-term effort, either. Leaders of the industry should recognize the problem, and put a considerable amount of thought into such an educational effort. And they should back up the effort by practicing what they preach. That is to say, the industry's senior management should make a concerted effort to rein in some of the excesses of the industry over the past few years (see the MFAMedia comment of December, 1998).

Saving the Franchise

Why go to all this effort? Because we believe that the American press is in danger of losing its franchise, and that would be tragic -- for the industry and the country.

One of the common threads in the reaction I received to the original "Real-Time" news column was that the press deserves everything it gets. Now that we have the Internet, who needs a free press? The Internet is the solution, these respondents said: the Web provides all the information society needs to function without "interference" from the press..

Moreover, if a free press doesn't defend its integrity under the First Amendment, it could eventually encounter a much more ominous reaction. In the past fifty years, we have seen the judicial branch of our government become much more active. Some of the activism is good (civil rights), but some is clearly misguided. Judges have taken over entire educational systems in an effort to correct perceived mismanagement. Juries have become increasingly pro-active, as jurors have learned to use the deliberative process to inflict judgements on perceived misdeeds. Jury nullification could transform our judicial system.

Who is to say that the judicial system will not be used to inflict controls over a free press? Certainly, if coverage of a violent situation similar to, for example, the Littleton Colorado or Atlanta shootings resulted in additional death or injury, the press could be held responsible by an activist judge or jury. Should that ever happen, there would be a battle royale at the Supreme Court level, and it's not absolutely clear that that the press would win. After all, tobacco is a legal product but the jurists have changed the overall economics of the tobacco industry. And it looks like that the gun industry is in for the same type of treatment at the hands of activist courts and a scavenging legal profession.

So a public education campaign by and for the press is not only an idea whose time might have come; it may be a vital element on the future defense of a free press.

 

Ted Marks is president of Marks & Frederick Associates, LLC. Want to comment on this article?  Submit your comments to our Real-Time News II discussion forum.

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