Monday, December 21, 2009

A Christmas Reminder: The Gift of the Free Press

Who says newspapers are irrelevant? Recently, I asked 17 college journalism students (ages 19-21) an admittedly leading question: why do we need newspapers? Or why does the Free Press matter?  (Full disclosure: the question was on an exam at the end of an academic semester.) I think their responses, though, are worth sharing. They were as insightful as they were informative, healthy reminders of the role journalism plays in a media-saturated age:

“The biggest check on government power is a well informed citizenry. Newspapers, ideally being comprehensive in depth and committed to truth, provide us with the tools to self govern and check those in power.”—Jake

“The first way to destroy democracy and kill the citizens’ freedom and sovereignty is by suppressing the press.”—Jessica

“Nothing beats the weight of a real paper in your hand. Sentimentality aside, however, a local community in particular benefits from a consistent and experienced voice regularly arriving at their doorstep reporting the day’s happenings.”—Erika

“We need newspapers to expose us to the corruption in mental hospitals, understand the truth about Vietnam and see what really happened inside Watergate. Without the free press we lose a piece of democracy because we lose the freedom to know the truth.”—Natalie

“The free press matters because it gives people the ability to bring change . . . and makes others around the world aware so that citizens can be involved in fighting injustices.”—Michelle

“We need newspapers because we need a voice for the voiceless and an independent monitor of power. [During the Civil Rights Movement] the media exposed the racial atrocities occurring in the South to the rest of the nation and world.”—Katie

“Without news, we as humans lack essential connections and awareness outside of ourselves. If we did not have the ability to voice our opinions and hear those of others, I believe we would be trapped, manipulated and would eventually lose hope.”—Heather

“Without instances like the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate and even our current war, when the government is doing things that are unjust, unpopular or just plain wrong, the people ought to know. This is what the free press delivers: it hands democracy to the people and informs them to make a difference.”—Deborah

“Newspapers, and especially local ones, provide a way for a community to be self-governing like no other outlet can.”—Alysa

“Citizens (as well as journalists) should search for truth, not simply that which reinforces their opinion.”—Naomi

“A newspaper sheds light on the powers that be and only a free press can do this.”—Steven

A small local paper gives people a trusted and consistent voice, which is both a comfort and a source of confidence in the things they know. It enables a different, more thought out dialogue than an online forum, though both venues have their value.”—Amanda

“Newspapers dispel ignorance and provide security for citizens who need to undersand what is happening around them.”—Allison

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Times Square Meets the Media

When I lived in New York, I often avoided Times Square. It's easily the most crowded part of the city, largely because of tourists. Which also makes it the slowest. Meaning, tourists stroll through the urban spectacle, gawking at the monster ads that loom over 42nd Street because they've never seen anything like it. And at first glance, there is something eery about its power. The sheer size can be captivating. So much so that without much thought, standing in Times Square, seeing all the glitz, can make any tourist feel, well, a part of something bigger, grander. Suddenly, their lives—which perhaps they viewed as insignificant— feel important. It's as if watching the barrage of commercial 'stories' on huge lighted billboards provides new meaning. And they belong. No matter how absurd or shallow the messages that rope them in.

These last few weeks, the news media has felt a lot like Times Square. From the balloon-boy farce and White House crashing couple to the lines wanting Sarah Palin's autograph and crowds wanting Tiger Woods' details, every where, it seems, is a massive story of wanting to belong. An inventor dad wants recognition, a suburban pair clamors for inclusion, supporters want Sarah because "She's just like me" and sports fans want confessions. As if they're entitled to know. As if they're friends. As if their lives won't count without the attention.

Times Square is one thing—one massive commercial, to be exact. Journalism is quite another. Its role is to inform, not distract. To report news, not create it. So I'm disappointed that lately we know more about book tours and golf stars than we do Afghanistan or senate debates (in Massachusetts). We have to look hard for details on hungry and poor kids in the U.S. and even harder for the stories about real statesmen who care for their constituents so much they practice integrity in their leadership.

I understand that celebrity-ism has long fascinated the masses, and made the masses crave it for themselves. But really. With so many great tools available today, couldn't we be spending a lot more time looking at the things that matter, and don't just sell? Couldn't some visionary journalists pursue the scoops that offer genuine meaning, not just stories that reflect the billboards?