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St. John's New Book Finds News Media Too Reliant Upon 'Experts' and Privileged Interests

St. John

When news media began in the early 20th century to improve their reputation by embracing accurate and objective reporting, they paradoxically gave birth to a newsroom culture that is a drag on the credibility - and business performance - of today's media, according to a new book by Old Dominion University faculty member Burton St. John.

"Press Professionalism and Propaganda: The Rise of Journalistic Double-Mindedness, 1917-1941" was published May 28 by Cambria Press.

Coinciding with the release of the book, an article by St. John and a colleague appears in the May/June issue of Quill magazine arguing that the slumping traditional media are more likely the victims of their own "cracked foundation" than of competition from the Internet and social media.

St. John, an assistant professor of communication at ODU, turned to current events to help explain his assessments of news media.

"Both the book and the Quill piece assert that journalists are too wedded to so-called expert accounts when it comes to relaying important information to the citizenry," he said. "For example, one of the big problems with the early days of the BP spill was that the press was too willing to take, at face value, BP's comments that the Deepwater Horizon site was leaking 5,000 barrels a day. However, no other follow up was done for weeks until researchers were finally acknowledged as reporting that the figures could be at least 10 times higher than that!"

As for Hampton Roads media coverage of the Norfolk light rail project, St. John found reporters too willing to believe accounts from authoritative figures about construction hitches and cost overruns. "The Virginian-Pilot, for example, seemed to be running to catch up with events about financial problems instead of proactively asking people what was going on. For example, shouldn't the stream of complaints that came from local businesses about the ongoing construction have prompted more than episodic reporting on such a significant project?"

St. John added: "What concerns me here is not that journalism is relying on experts - there is a proper place for that - but that journalism too often turns such reliance into a formulaic, facts-oriented approach to reporting news. That certainly can be acceptable for minor stories, but not regarding items like light rail and the BP spill. To get past the formula, journalists should get out and talk to citizens who can: 1) give them leads and context about the fuller picture of events and 2) actually provide their firsthand knowledge and observations about what is going on."

"Press Professionalization and Propaganda" notes recent declines in the popularity and profitability of American news media, especially newspapers. It points to findings in 2009 by the Pew Research Center that 63 percent of Americans would not miss their newspaper if it ceased publishing. Other surveys cited found that more than half of Americans voice reservations about the press's accuracy.

As newspaper circulation declines, according to the book, mainstream news professionals continue to rely heavily on information supplied to them by public relations sources. Some studies, the book says, have found that newsrooms use propaganda materials in up to 80 percent of their stories.

The publisher's notes on the book state: "This book argues that the problem of press relevancy can be traced to historical groundings that continue to inform newsroom practices. Specifically, it makes the distinctive claim that modern journalism's own professionalism has made the press prone to using propaganda materials, thus contributing to increasing news media irrelevance."

The article in Quill, which is the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists, looks back to the post-World War I years when leading journalists such as Walter Lippmann took aim at jingoistic reporting by promoting a more scientific brand of news gathering that stressed objective truth. "However, Lippmann's successful advocacy for a 'scientific' orientation to journalism came with a cost: It built within newsrooms an increasing proclivity for the worldview of experts and not of citizens," the article states.

Media source materials from these experts are actually "renditions framed by privileged interests," the article adds.

Journalism must loosen its grip on its own "coded language of professionalism" - which includes ideals such as objectivity, balance and detachment, the article argues. "Instead of objectivity, journalism needs to take a side - the side of the public and what it needs from the news to help daily life go well."

St. John wrote the Quill article with Jeff South, a faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The new book from St. John follows by just a few months the publication of "Public Journalism 2.0: The Promise and Reality of a Citizen-Engaged Press," which he edited with Jack Rosenberry of St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y. That collection of essays and commentaries, including some written by St. John and Rosenberry, calls for professional journalists to rise above their detachment from the everyday world and collaborate with nonprofessional Internet news gatherers to promote civic journalism.

This article was posted on: June 25, 2010

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