James Hoyt, a University of Wisconsin emeritus journalism professor, delivered a sobering critique of both modern journalism and the "news" consuming public during a Madison South Rotary luncheon today.
"The public doesn't care about sources as much as you and I do," lamented Professor Hoyt, a Hall of Fame inductee of the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association. "We often have no idea how carefully or recklessly the information has been gathered," he said.
Too many news organizations carry stories "second-hand," according to Hoyt, which originate from sources which provided content that is "politically loaded...less for information and more for ammunition." And he says we as consumers are often guilty of seeking out such content because it satisfies our viewpoint. Rather than seeking facts from trusted journalists, Hoyt says more of us are going to sources of information that provide one side of the story.
Such news content competition now comes from more sources than ever...which "creates a huge dilemma for the established media," says Professor Hoyt. Websites, bloggers, Twitter, Facebook and other sources are just a few examples. He says media outlets tend to run stories initiated by sources that do not meet their own journalistic standards because the information is so ubiquitous they feel obligated to report it.
An example of such sources, according to Hoyt, are commercial talk radio broadcasters, whom he refers to as "radio entertainers," rather than journalists. For the audiences they serve, he says "fairness can actually get in the way." For these talkers, all that matters is that they attract enough advertising dollars. Offering both sides of an argument is not required or needed for their programs to thrive.
On the other hand, Hoyt praised public broadcasters for going to great lengths to provide context, balance and a thorough discussion of the issues. But unfortunately, he says a relatively small portion of listeners and viewers are availing themselves of public broadcasting content.
News makers are not immune from these enormous changes in the media landscape, either. Hoyt mentioned Madison's Mary Burke as example of what has happened with news sources in the modern age. Today the Madison School Board member announced via YouTube that she is running for Wisconsin Governor.
Public figures don't make announcements as often at news conferences any more, but instead avoid any pointed questions from journalists by simply releasing a statement or video directly to the public via social media, according to Hoyt.
"More and more politicians are going it alone," Professor Hoyt says, and essentially ignoring mainstream journalism. Why run your message through a skeptical press when you can bypass them?
"A balanced and thorough story will create enemies," Hoyt explains, and that appears to be hindering sound reporting today.
The answer to all of these weighty issues is not clear, according to Hoyt. But as consumers of information, be it found on the front page of a major newspaper or via YouTube, Hoyt strongly recommends we all consider the source of that content.
When we lack a common foundation based on fact rather than assertion, it becomes increasingly difficult to have a productive conversation. Perhaps today's political stalemate in Washington, D.C. is the most obvious example of what havoc can result when so many citizens are largely misinformed.
One might also wonder whether the state of journalism has anything to do with Wisconsin's curious electorate, which voted for liberal Tammy Baldwin and conservative Ron Johnson for Congress, while also supporting President Obama and Governor Scott Walker.