Thursday, March 18, 2004
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.
4, room 237
Public Radio ombudsperson Jeffrey Dvorkin and Boston Globe
media critic Mark Jurkowitz consider how new sources of information
are interacting and competing with traditional forms of journalism.
Are we less informed today, amid a torrent of voices and technologies
offering us so-called news, than citizens in olden, pre-digital
days? How has the role of print or radio journalism changed
since the advent of the Web and the 24-7 operations of the TV
cable news networks?
Dvorkin is National Public Radios first ombudsperson,
a role in which he receives, investigates and responds to queries
from the public regarding editorial standards in programming.
Based in Washington D.C., he writes a weekly Internet column
for NPR Online at www.npr.org, and presents his views on journalistic
issues on-air on NPR programs. Before being named ombudsman
in February 2000, Dvorkin served as NPRs vice president
for news and information. Previously, Dvorkin was a reporter
and managing editor for CBC Radio News and Information, a division
of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where he was responsible
for all radio network newscasts.
Jurkowitz is the media writer for The Boston Globe,
a position he has held since 1997 after spending two years as
the papers ombudsperson. Prior to that, he spent seven
years as media critic for The Boston Phoenix and author
of its Dont Quote Me column. Jurkowitz began
his journalism career at the Tab Newspapers where he served
a two-year stint as editor. He spent a number of years as a
talk radio host, appearing on WRKO, WHDH and WBZ and is currently
a regular panelist on the weekly Beat the Press program
on Bostons PBS outlet, WGBH-TV. Jurkowitz teaches media
ethics at Northeastern University and Tufts University.
is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript.]
JURKOWITZ said the contest today between new and classic
forms of media has significant implications for journalism.
Old media such as broadcast television and newspapers are steadily
and inexorably losing viewers and circulation, he said, while
the audiences for cable television and Internet news are growing.
of the Internet and cable has changed the delivery of news in
two fundamental ways, according to Jurkowitz. First, the 24-hour
news cycle has been replaced by an instantaneous cycle. There
are no breaks in presenting the news on CNN or MSNBC, and information
is continually updated online. Secondly, the "news hole,"
or amount of space available for broadcasting or publishing
the news has changed. For old media, space was finite: each
edition of a newspaper was limited to a certain number of pages,
and each nightly TV news broadcast was limited to about 22 minutes.
Now, the news hole is infinite there is abundant space
available on the Internet and cable networks run 24 hours a
changes have changed the quality of journalism, Jurkowitz explained.
With 800 channels available on digital cable and information
on the Internet, people today believe they have more access
to information than ever before. In reality, Jurkowitz maintained,
the media has become more consolidated. For example, few people
realize that the New York Times owns the Boston Globe,
or that the same company owns HBO and Time magazine.
people have seemingly infinite access to information, they are
not necessarily better informed. For example, Jurkowitz questioned
whether C-SPAN made a difference in American life. One might
argue that by giving viewers some access to the inner workings
of government, C-SPAN makes for an improved civic life, but
there is no empirical evidence of that. Instead, he said, public
discourse is coarser; politics is more polarized; and political
participation is no better.
of cable TV on the news universe was first evident during the
first Gulf War in 1991. Americans were glued to CNN because
they got to witness a war in real time for the first time, he
said. Paper-based news suddenly felt insignificant, and the
result is a trend among newspapers toward softer feature pieces
and more lifestyle coverage.
broadcast news has suffered a dramatic loss in audience share
over the years, it still has higher ratings than the biggest
of cable news show. Nevertheless, Jurkowitz said, it is cable
news that drives water-cooler discussion. The big stories that
we talk about the most are focused on and covered around the
clock by the cable networks.
in cable news are the big "megastories" such as the
O.J. Simpson trial, or the D.C. Sniper shooting spree in October
2002. The formula for such megastories, Jurkowitz said, consists
of three parts: real news, quasi-news, and commentary from experts,
or "talking heads." For example, in the D.C. Sniper
story, the real news was delivered whenever there was a shooting
or a real development in the case. Quasi-news occurred when
there was an announcement of an upcoming a press conference.
In the meantime, retired homicide detectives provided commentary
by giving their opinions on the case.
thrive on megastories for economic reasons. When events are
happening all over the world, news organizations must pay for
the travel expenses of its correspondents. A courthouse story
is a much simpler and less expensive affair, Jurkowitz said.
DVORKIN blames the declining quality of news coverage on
the drive to make money. Problems began around 1986 when head
of CBS News Richard Solant revealed that the division was making
a profit for the first time. When the news division becomes
a profit center for a network, Dvorkin said, it begins to focus
on maximizing profits.
In the 1990s
when large media mergers began, news organizations hired consultants
who researched ways to cut costs and attract more viewers. One
thing these so-called news doctors concluded was that foreign
news, which was the most expensive to produce, was also what
audiences cared least about. When the Cold War ended, the compulsion
to do foreign news diminished, and networks closed foreign bureaus
around the world. Before the arrival of the news doctors, CBS
had 38 foreign correspondents in 28 cities, and they now have
five correspondents in four cities.
of foreign bureaus had a dramatic impact on news reporting,
according to Dvorkin. Today, broadcast programs often get their
foreign news from organizations such as Reuters or the BBC,
which provide the video footage of events. With these visuals,
network reporters do voiceovers based on wire reports.
feels that most of the time cable TV does not provide news,
but rather discussions between people debating various topics.
Cable news and its 24-hour news cycle has led the way for these
talking heads shows to replace fact-based reporting. Over the
last ten years, Dvorkin pointed out, the number of people engaged
in reporting has sharply declined.
Dvorkin gave an example of how communities are feeling the negative
effects of media consolidation: In January 2002, a train carrying
toxic chemicals derailed near Minot, North Dakota. When police
tried to broadcast the emergency evacuation of the town through
local radio stations, they discovered that the headquarters
were actually in San Antonio, where programming originated from
parent company Clear Channel. Most commercial radio, Dvorkin
said, has abandoned the idea of local service.
THORBURN, director, MIT Communications Forum: You are both
painting a depressing picture. Do you believe that journalism
in earlier eras was better than it is now? Was there ever a
Golden Age of journalism before this period of decay and decadence
we are in now? Or has news always been a commodity in the United
I think news has always been a commodity. William Randolph Hearst
was an early version of Rupert Murdoch. Today there is greater
journalistic democracy thanks to weblogs on the Internet, but
that does not equal higher quality. Still, I believe the vigor
of Internet journalism shows a lot of promise. What is missing
now is the elite quality of news. In the 1970s, there were high
expectations for the news. We must find a way to marry the high
standards of elite journalism with the democracy of the Internet.
Journalism goes through cycles. After World War II, the profession
matured in a way. Objectivity and knowledge had become real
goals, and journalists were suddenly an elite class.
Now we are
in another cycle, and it is uncertain how the relationships
between old and new media will play out. Public esteem for journalism
has diminished. This can be seen in the changing portrayals
of journalism in pop culture. For example, in the film All
the President's Men (1976), Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman
played reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who uncovered
the details of the Watergate scandal. They were portrayed as
lofty and heroic. Decades later, the movie Dick (1999)
spoofs the Watergate scandal, and portrays the journalists as
bumbling and idiotic. For me, these two movies crystallize how
the public perception of journalism has changed over the years.
I see blogging as a way that citizens are participating in journalism.
Although it is of a lower quality at the moment, is it exerting
any pressure on media conglomerates to provide better services?
One way big media reacted to blogging was to create their own
blogs. For example, the ABC News website has what they call
"The Note," which has the tone of a insider's view
on politics with material they would never broadcast on the
blogging's biggest impact is on the mainstream journalists who
are paying attention to blogs. The "blogosphere" takes
credit for helping to bring down Trent Lott after his racist
remarks at Strom Thurmond's birthday party. It was a story that
was initially ignored or treated with little attention by most
mainstream media, but was kept alive by blogs.
Will we see the fall of organizations like the New York Times
or National Public Radio, which are considered islands of journalistic
integrity and quality?
A decade ago, many journalists feared that the Internet would
spell the end of print journalism, but that hasn't happened.
What will happen with media companies is their brand will live
on, but in different forms. For example, major news organizations
such as the New York Times and NPR invest heavily in
their websites. Newspapers are also creating spin-off papers
targeted at younger readers. The Washington Post created
Express, a free daily commuter paper. Boston has the
Metro, with less than 100 words per story.
JENKINS, director, Comparative Media Studies: I have a follow-up
question for Mark Jurkowitz on the comparison between All
the President's Men and Dick. Because Dick
is a spoof film, the most sacred elements of the Watergate story
are bound get the roughest treatment. Perhaps a better comparison
would be the drama Shattered Glass (2003), which presents
a contrasting image of journalism, but not an unheroic one.
It portrays Stephen Glass, who fabricated his articles, but
is treated sympathetically. The film also portrays the editors
and reporters who broke the Glass story, working hard to right
the wrongs. Perhaps it is better to say that the press makes
mistakes, but there are also good people in the profession who
struggle to get at the truth. There are also alternative forces
such as the Internet that are challenging the established media.
Is it possible to get a more complex yet optimistic reading
of the current media environment?
I saw Shattered Glass and thought it was a terrific movie,
though probably not completely accurate. I used Dick
as a comparison mainly because fewer people saw Shattered
Glass. An unfortunate truth is that journalism movies often
fail commercially, though not critically. It is hard to make
a movie about the inner workings of journalism.
MACKINNON, Harvard University: Are maximizing profits and
quality journalism ever compatible? The New York Times,
as a family-owned company that does not answer to shareholders,
is able to invest in long-term projects without worrying about
short-term profit cycles. Should any serious news organization
be excluded from a company that is listed on the stock market?
CBS News was able to do that for many years, but that was a
time when broadcasters were expected to have a role in the civic
life of the country. There is still a value in cable and broadcast
news, such as the instantaneity and dramatic narrative they
provide, but they will never provide the kind of substantial
investigative journalism you will find in newspapers or on a
PBS program like Frontline.
QUESTION: To me, today's news audiences seem less skeptical
and unable to interpolate what the media says. Younger people
in particular don't seem to have the critical ability to read
between the lines.
There are so many news sources claiming to have the truth that
we have lost a sense of what the common truths are. There is
a "we report, you decide" mentality. TV shows like
Larry King Live may present different viewpoints on an
issue, but there is no attempt to do real journalism, which
is finding the truth.
ANDREA McCARTY, CMS graduate student: I have been following
the story of Sandra Tsing Loh, the radio commentator who was
fired by NPR affiliate KCRW because an engineer had failed to
bleep out a swear word in her prerecorded column. KCRW has since
asked her to come back, but she has declined. Do you see NPR
taking a stand against the current FCC crackdown on obscenity
in defense of free speech?
As NPR's ombudsperson, I am independent of management, so I
am not speaking for them. Another clarification I want to make
is that NPR has no affiliates, but member stations that are
also independent; and NPR has no right or obligation to tell
them what to do. That being said, I worry that public radio
is unwilling to address an important issue because it doesn't
want to be targeted by people who are already hostile towards
Can you comment more fully on the FCC's current campaign against
indecency in the media?
The cynic in me believes that FCC Chair Michael Powell, who
has familial ties to the Bush administration [he is the son
of Colin Powell], has conveniently raised this issue in an election
I also think it has to do with politics. The legal definition
of indecency is rather vague. Part of the charade is the way
media companies have reacted. Clear Channel, which owns over
1,200 radio stations, pulled Howard Stern from six middle-market
stations where there was little money being made anyway. When
media moguls act, it is not against their economic interests.
JENKINS: The New York Times recently fired Ted
Rall, a leftist cartoonist whose work offended some readers.
They also took the further step of removing all his strips from
their online archives, expunging the history of what they had
printed. What are the implications of rewriting the newspaper
in the digital age?
I have a personal experience with this issue. In 1977, I published
an article for the New York Times, about the career of
actor David Janssen. When the paper launched their online archives,
they required me to sign away all my rights to the piece if
I wanted it included.
There are legal issues with freelancers. Every time someone
downloads an article, the Times may have to pay royalties
to the author, or reach deals on an individual basis. The law
is still evolving on this issue.
EASTON, CMS graduate student: The New York Times
is an agenda-setting newspaper. Its website serves as a kind
of continuous news desk, and is constantly updated. Is the influence
of the print edition changing or waning because the online edition
is more frequently updated? How do online editions change the
way large papers drive the agendas of the country?
DVORKIN: I think it depends on how often they are able
to update. At NPR, newsmagazine shows are not allowed to publish
any information on the website until it has been broadcast by
the last station. Stations do not want listeners to bypass their
programs by going directly to the website.
It's hard for me to understand media synergy. My feeling is
that newspapers have not yet figured out how to use the Internet.
Although they have established an online presence, they have
yet to create supplementary forms of media that do unique things;
that add value to one another. Furthermore, there is still no
real model for making money from these websites.
I believe there is a synergy. It is now standard practice for
TV news programs to direct audiences to their websites for more
information. This is surely an enhancement that allows people
to explore many topics more deeply. This fairly obvious synergy
between old and new media is being exploited by both broadcast
and print news.
HAWKINSON, MIT: How do you see the evolution of errata or
factual corrections in the changing media? Print media such
as the New York Times raises the bar for it, publishing more
corrections than ever before. Meanwhile, broadcast news seems
to ignore it.
There are different levels of admission of error. At NPR, relatively
small corrections can be made online. For major errors, such
as misreporting the political party of a candidate, a correction
will be reported on air. We have an obligation to correct errors
everywhere, even by adding an addendum to transcripts containing
The Jayson Blair scandal forced the New York Times to
hire an ombudsman for the first time. Throughout the print world,
there has been a dramatic tightening that resulted from recent
plagiarism scandals, but I don't know how long that will last.
by Lilly Kam
photos by Brad Seawell