Sunday, January 15, 2012

Media bias + Technology improvements + Partisan politics =

...the principal themes from last week's politics and media seminar offered through The Washington Center.

A range of speakers -- some from the media world, others from the political world -- addressed about 120 students and 10 faculty at the seminar. I don't have the exact figures, but about two-thirds of the students were majoring in some form of political science, international relations, public administration or the like. The remaining students were broadcasting, public relations or communication majors, with the occasional business or other major sprinkled in.

The seminar's faculty director was Steve Bell, whom you might remember as the former ABC News correspondent and Good Morning America news anchor. 

Yes, media bias exists, and the purpose of the seminar went beyond defining it to assist students in identifying it. Mr. Bell suggested that journalists are like people in that "all of us look at the world through a prism." As such there are going to be people or issues that attract our attention, mean something to us and that we like or want to see succeed. No, journalists are not robots, but the problem comes in when whatever personal feelings they have get in the way of the job they do. When it comes to reporting politics, a critical issue therefore is preparing and asking fair questions while treating the politician with respect.

The rapid technological changes (and one can only wonder what the next five years will be like!) have made life easier and at the same time more difficult for journalists. Mr. Bell offered the following example to illustrate how the time has been shortened: When he was covering the war in Vietnam, stories were shot on film, needed to be couriered from Vietnam to another city (often Bangkok) where it was processed, and then put on an airplane to the United States. If the reporter and the network was fortunate, a story shot in the morning in Vietnam could make it on the air that same night but only because of the time difference between the two countries.

He then reminded the students that a war in Afghanistan today can be told almost in real time.

The immediacy of war reporting (or anything else, for that matter) can be seen as a positive -- it allows the audience to see events as they happen. However, the journalist loses that time necessary to provide the context imperative in such stories.

For a great illustration of how partisanship has negatively affected the political process, consider another story, this one told by Mike McCurry, who served as President Clinton's press secretary. He noted that he arrived in Washington in 1976 when the critical issues of the time were the unclear status of health care and Medicare, America's dependence on foreign oil, debate about America's role in the world, the pressing need to address education and the role of the federal government.

Those issues sound familiar, don't they? They should because frankly they've not been answered despite the passage of almost 40 years.

Through it all, the students were reminded by former Vermont governor Howard Dean and others that the future is in their hands and they must embrace their responsibility while demanding that their media, their politicians and the other important institutions represent the needs of the people ahead of anything else.

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