Media's role debated
Though it was Ted Schaum's "swan song" as a National Issues Forum facilitator, Wednesday's forum on "News Media & Society: How to Restore Public Trust" was as lively as any previous gabfest organized by the retired Minnesota State University Moorhead professor.
Despite relatively sparse attendance, with about two dozen people populating the conference center at Minnesota State Community & Technical College-Detroit Lakes, the discussion often became quite heated.
At the heart of the debate was the issue of differentiating between what is fact, what is fiction, what is truth and what is a lie.
Otter Tail County resident George Massey bluntly accused the news media of being "hypocrites" who say one thing, yet do (i.e., write) another.
"My number one complaint with the media is that a lot of them are hypocrites," he said. "They will defend the First Amendment to the death -- when it's in their best interests."
But Park Rapids Enterprise reporter Heather Leinen Voorhees disputed that claim, noting that most of the people she has worked with do their best to tell the truth.
"The reputation of every single journalist can be marred by the actions of one," she said at an earlier point in the discussion. "When the public loses faith in the media, democracy is dead."
Detroit Lakes Newspapers editor Nathan Bowe, meanwhile, said he didn't necessarily feel the public's trust had been broken by the news media -- at least, not on the local level.
"I think we have a good relationship locally (with the public)," he said. "The bigger the markets are, the more prone they are to sensationalism."
And it is sensationalism that has created much of the distrust between the media and the public, as Wednesday's discussion showed.
Detroit Lakes resident Tom Frank, whose son is currently serving with the military in Iraq, criticized network television coverage of the war, noting that far too much emphasis was being placed on the deaths that have occurred, and not enough on the good that is being accomplished.
"At first, the coverage was excellent, with embedded reporters (working in Iraq)," Frank said. But then it looked as though the war was winding down, and most of the reporters went home. When the fighting began to escalate again, the coverage changed, Frank added. What the media has shown since the fighting re-escalated has been "primarily negative."
What it all boils down to, he said, is that the U.S. is fighting an enemy that "must be neutralized."
"We must have a balanced media portrayal of the war to get that conclusion," he added. "True journalists report the facts, whether they like them or not."
James Noehl, another area resident, also noted that the media tends to focus too much on the negative.
"We need to have more news about people who are doing (positive) things and creating things and building things," he said.
Retired physician Dr. James Knapp noted that today's news media often focuses "too little on factual material and too much on personal opinion."
"My personal opinion is that the media would like to be objective, but the public wants them to be subjective... so long as the public is more interested in salacious subjectivity (than objective facts), the press will keep giving them what they want."
Considerable discussion was devoted to the idea of whether or not journalists should be licensed, like doctors, lawyers and other specialized professional occupations.
Some, like Massey, were in favor of licensure.
"I think every news reporter, editor and publisher should be certified, (so that) they have to tell the truth," he said. "If they don't tell the truth, they should be fined."
Kathy Coyle, a retired television journalist who makes her home in Detroit Lakes, noted that this is already happening -- i.e., when newspapers, television stations, etc., don't tell the truth, they can be sued.
"There are already established codes of ethics for journalists," she said, adding that most journalists have college degrees, and most newspapers, radio and TV stations that hire them require them to have a certain amount of experience in their profession -- as well as references.
Besides, she added, if journalists were required to be certified, "Who would certify them? The government?"
The news media, she noted, is supposed to be "the watchdogs of government." If the government had to certify them, however, the journalists' objectivity in covering the government would be compromised.
Coyle also cautioned against confusing "infotainment" with journalism. TV shows like "The O'Reilly Factor" and "Anderson Cooper 360" are not true news, but a form of entertainment -- and the "facts" presented on these shows are heavily colored with opinion.
"It's the broadcast version of an editorial page," she said.
On the issue of certification, Knapp said he didn't feel it would be practical. In his experience with the medical profession, the certification process is a lengthy and bureaucratic one, and "I wouldn't recommend it for journalists," he said.
Voorhees, however, said, "I'm all for certification. I love what I do, and I will do whatever you (the public) want me to do so you can trust me. I do this because I believe in it... I'm not trying to make a name for myself. I'm a person just like you are, just doing my job."