May 11, 2008

The need for more, and better, mainstream media criticism

Posted in Media overviews tagged , , , , , , , , , at 10:21 pm by Maggie Clark

“You know what the worst part of that is? It’s not that the speeches have gotten better; it’s [that] media criticism isn’t as good as it used to be.”

— Robert Schlesinger, guest author, The Daily Show

Within the last two years, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Ryerson Review of Journalism, Adbusters, the Tyee, the New Yorker, and the Walrus have written extensively about the challenges facing contemporary media in its on-going bid at maintaining relevance as both political watch-dog and central arbiter of social discourse. Newsroom cutbacks, expansive media monopolies, weak protectionist policies from the government, social pressures from extremist interest groups, and the advent of New Media (and with it, a rapidly transforming revenue structure) are all aspects of a journalism culture that is presently tasked with re-branding itself without ready access to all the resources such an effort requires.

And indeed, many feel this lack of resources is ultimately to blame for the deficit of effective media criticism at crucial North American turning points in the last fifteen years, but one could just as easily argue — and I would — that a lack of effective media criticism in and of itself marked the industry as “ripe for the picking” by corporations increasingly unfamiliar with journalism’s non-entertainment responsibilities. To elaborate on that reversal, though, I should first deliberate a little on what constitutes “good journalism.”

To that end, consider a recent Globe & Mail article, which notified readers of the paper’s dominance at the 2008 National Newspaper Awards. One online respondent commented: “take it easy globe, you’re faaaaaar from perfect.” But is perfection even a reasonable aim for journalism? When by its very nature news media is tested every single day, with every single news report it issues, it can’t be: stories necessarily develop over time, new facts regularly emerge to supplant the old, and self-correcting mechanisms are an intrinsic part of the process, thereby confirming the necessary incompleteness of any one day’s product, no matter how thoroughly researched or reasonably presented. No, there is no resting on one’s laurels in an organization constantly tasked with proving itself anew, and so the measure of good media has to be based more on its commitment to that process itself. How tireless is it? How well does it resist complacency, revisit entrenched internal biases, question assumptions, and respond to outside criticism? Good journalism is fallible; but good journalism also knows how fallible it is, and strives very hard to account for subsequent lapses. And when good journalists internalize this state of constant questioning, this aversion to complacency, they can fight even the most aggressive of pressures to the contrary.

In 2001, for instance, CanWest Global Communications tried to impose a national editorial in its constituent papers — the same editorial, written at CanWest headquarters, for papers all across Canada. Its inclusion would be mandatory, and while local op-ed pieces would still be accepted, they were not allowed to contradict the opinions expressed in the corporate editorial. In the name of maintaining an open forum for public debate, reporters and editors resisted: they went on a byline strike and raised public awareness — especially when a spate of CanWest firings were tied to similar attempts at curtailing different opinions and approaches to the news (with criticism of the Liberal Party and pro-Palestinian comments proving especially dangerous for CanWest staff).

The CanWest corporation embodies a series of on-going problems for Canadian journalists, but at least where corporate editorials are concerned, journalists can — for the moment — claim victory: CanWest dropped that intended policy the moment public pressure became too much. But here, too, there is no such thing as a “perfect” victory: the freedom of the press, as the fourth pillar of democracy, must be tested and affirmed on a regular and rigorous basis. This is where media criticism comes in — journalism’s answer to the ancient question, “Who will watch the watchers?”

I can’t say for certain that media organizations would have suffered fewer newsroom cutbacks, or that corporate owners wouldn’t have interfered as much with their editorial decisions, if there had been a more entrenched culture of media criticism in the early 1990s. But to have someone keeping tabs on other organizations, and teaching readers to keep tabs too — this, to me, is a crucial part of journalism’s internal, self-correcting mechanisms, and one I hope very much to participate in throughout my life.

It is also one that has flourished, oddly enough, in its own absence. When mainstream publications proved unable to provide this public service, the public — settling very easily, and very prominently, into the age of New Media — began supplying this service on their own. Now, in 2008, we see military blogs about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq rivaling information released through standard channels; the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report heading a broad spectrum of “Second Gen” blog aggregate sites (ones which, unlike Digg or Redditt, have an editorial team setting the front page content); and the Talking Points Memo especially empowering citizens by showing how public pressure can, in fact, improve political accountability.

Whether or not journalists within mainstream publications are ready, the realm of discourse has broadened, and readers today are far from their passive cousins of yesteryear. To this end, the role of traditional journalism is still changing — still being “re-branded” — but not in any way that really lies outside of its original precepts. Journalism has always been something taken day-by-day — something that requires regular adaptation, and constant self-correction. And so long as Canadian journalists are willing to avail themselves to the new demands and needs of our population — and especially to acknowledge and make up for the lack of entrenched media criticism within its walls — we’ll never be perfect, but at least we’ll be far more likely never to forget that fact. 

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