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Journalism Faculty Address Changing Media Mores

By Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted September 23, 1998

Last semester, as print and broadcast reporters gave top billing to Clinton-Lewinsky stories, Graduate School of Journalism faculty met to discuss how the media were handling the story.

"Students were wondering, is this really the profession I want to go into?" recalls Susan Rasky, acting associate professor of journalism.

"There was a sense of disappointment among our students," recalls Dean Orville Schell. "We talked about how not to debase oneself when one is forced to cover really tawdry topics. We looked at what the O.J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky stories have done to the media -- forcing it to become more like a tabloid.

"The Clinton-Lewinsky story," Schell said, "poses a real dilemma for the media -- how do we refrain from becoming tabloidish and yet not miss a story of national importance? Our students are wondering if this kind of journalism is the future they must look forward to -- covering the depressingly human, all-too-personal parts of leaders' lives instead of wars, revolution, politics and parliamentary upheavals?"

The topic was so hot it spilled over into a second J School meeting.

"Journalism faculty are sensitive to what's going on in the news," says Rasky. "The Clinton-Lewinsky story may be an extreme example, but the fundamental ethical issue for reporters is, how much of someone's private life is fair game? This question becomes even more relevant when dealing with a less prominent citizen. We have to ask, is this newsworthy, or is this an invasion of privacy? What is inflammatory? The Monica story is an excellent example of this dilemma."

Rasky says that each year, politicians' manipulation of the press becomes more sophisticated and pernicious, so each year the issue becomes a larger part of her classes.

"Reporters are responsible for accurate coverage," she says. "How do we handle spin? How do we stay alert to being manipulated? When and how should we use anonymous sources? The use of anonymous sources is spreading -- it's a Washington disease," Rasky notes. "I ask my students to find out why a source won't go on record. If it's because the source has an ax to grind, the reporter should make that clear. We have a responsibility to name where we're getting our information."

The J School requires all students to take a course in journalistic history, ethics and law during their first year. Schell says that courses on journalistic ethics are increasingly common at journalism schools.

Tom Goldstein, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism and Schell's predecessor, says that Berkeley is the only journalism school to combine journalistic history, ethics and law in a single course. "It allows students to see the connections between the three areas," he says.

Doug Foster, director of school affairs at the J School, is teaching "Narratives: Telling Complicated Stories Well" this semester. The first class focused on recent media scandals, using as an example the column Mike Barnicle wrote for the Boston Globe in which his editors believe he plagiarized. He recently left the paper.

Foster says several similar media scandals raise questions about journalistic fraud and have led to discussions about the red flags that should alert editors and readers to it. The class emphasizes ways to handle the pressures to reduce a complicated reality to a simplistic story and how to use narrative techniques to bring out nuances rather than mute them.

"A reporter must be able to reflect messy, complicated, undigestible realities and still tell a good yarn. It's a balancing act," he says.

The Clinton-Lewinsky story has been discussed in many journalism courses but "the Glass-Barnicle-Smith examples of professional fraud are of more immediate usefulness for my students because these kinds of mistakes are under the control of the individual writer," says Foster. (Stephen Glass of The New Republic and Patricia Smith of the Boston Globe were both fired for fabricating articles.)

Before the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke, professor William Drummond had planned a new course, "Journalism and Sexuality," that he is teaching for the first time this semester.

"I was intrigued by the way the media are trying to handle changing standards of privacy and talking about sex," says Drummond. "The Clinton-Lewinsky affair puts into sharp relief the tremendous changes the media have gone through in dealing with explicit sexuality issues since the days of JFK. We're also looking at how the media are handling gay rights, pornography and obscenity."

The overarching challenge for media professionals, though, is maintaining professional standards in an increasingly competitive atmosphere, says Schell.

"All media are in a desperate competitive struggle to survive -- a result of big conglomerates buying up media and wanting them to perform like factories," says Schell. "This has induced a paroxysm of trying to find ways to have the editorial and business sides buddy up to create new and more pleasing forms of media. The Los Angeles Times has received a lot of criticism for this."

Virtually all journalism courses address this pressure in some form or other, says Schell, and the school has a constant stream of visitors talking about it, like Michael Parks, editor of the LA Times. April Oliver, the CNN producer who was fired for her story on the U.S. using nerve gas on U.S. deserters in Laos, has been invited to speak at the J School.

"Everyone wants a story that is revelatory, shocking, that will attract attention," says Schell. "If you are in the media, it is hard not to be cognizant of what sells. This has become an infinitely more powerful form of pressure over the past 10 to 15 years.

"Should universities operate according to the bottom line? Or do some institutions -- churches, schools, libraries, concert halls -- need some dispensation from the draconian imperatives of the bottom line? Should newspapers and other media outlets be one of these institutions? This is an important question that has not been adequately addressed," he said.


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