In little over three months, just since March 2020, Americans have been reeling from the separate and combined impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the worst economic crisis since The Great Depression, the deaths of George Floyd (and other Black Americans) caused by the police, and the nationwide riots, protests, and calls for racial justice and reform not seen on the same scale or intensity in this country since the 1960s.
How do Americans learn about these epic crises and find out what they need to know to survive them? This is where the vital role of journalists comes into play. However, while we depend upon journalists to keep us informed, it has become more challenging than ever for journalists to do their jobs, given their reduced numbers due to shrinking newsrooms, reduced resources and budgets, and numerous attacks made by government officials and others on the profession and on many individual journalists.
To learn more about what it’s like to work as a journalist in these unprecedented times and under these conditions, SC&I spoke with Professor of Professional Practice Steven Miller, who is Director of Undergraduate Studies in the SC&I Journalism and Media Studies Department.
In our Q&A below, Miller discusses the difference between fake and false news, how journalists and the profession are being impacted by the numerous challenges they face trying to cover the news today, and the ways the SC&I Journalism and Media Studies Program prepares journalists to be successful now and in the future.
What do you think the life is like right now for American journalists?
It is probably the best and worst of all worlds right now. It's the best because this is what journalists live for. They live for the fantastic, unbelievable rush of covering events, having an impact on people’s lives, and informing the public about what’s going on. The worst part about it is their health suffers and they don’t get sleep.
Journalist’s lives are also impacted by what medium they are in and what their job is. If their job is on the street in New Brunswick working as a local reporter, and they are focused on a local demonstration on Easton Avenue in support of justice for George Floyd, they are covering that. But the question is, should they be there, or should they be in Brooklyn, Minneapolis, or Chicago? It’s almost like being at a Thanksgiving table and having so much food in front of you, you don’t know where to start.
On the other hand, if a journalist is working in media behind the scenes, such as the person controlling the board at MSNBC and deciding where to switch to, it’s insane. It’s this constant rush for 12, 16, 24 hours straight and it’s just amazing.
Journalists are also working in an era where the economic models at the big networks and newspapers, and in traditional media, are completely failing. CBS, Buzzfeed, and other outlets cut personnel last week, just before the demonstrations started. When, as a journalist, you are faced with dwindling resources, how do you get the news and get it out? And this is another story unto itself. This is where the vacuum opens up and becomes filled with unreliable news sources and false news.
There is a difference between fake news and false news. Remember “That Was The Week That Was?” That was fake news. That’s a genre. But it’s the false news — the lies and the coverage of things that shouldn’t be covered in order to fill the time and the space — that’s problematic.
How should journalists cover the news today?
Journalists need to cover and report the truth and facts and not opinions.
Multiple crises really reveal the faults in the way things are done in media. For example, I have a theory I call “The Cacophony of Noise.” The theory is that is there are so many outlets out there, so many things on the internet, so many tweets coming out fast and furiously, so many Instagram posts, so much of everything at once, that the only way it seems possible to be heard is by being the loudest and the most outlandish. And that’s how many people get heard — they post outrageous tweets and other content.
These types of crises ferret out the real problem, which is: people are starving for fact, starving to find out what is really going on, what’s of value, and what we are really supposed to know about and do. And when journalists are throwing out everything, or as I call it ‘spaghetti on the wall’ journalism — throw it against the wall and see what sticks — that’s where everything gets undermined. It’s not just impacting the quality of the reportage; it’s impacting our having an informed society. In the end, journalists are public servants.
Recently it was the 40th anniversary of the first day of CNN. We’ve seen the various evolutions of CNN and how it covers and does things. But in the end what Ted Turner found, what he wanted to do, was give people 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year, news, and he’s done it in various forms.
It’s important for people to know not just what’s happening in the world, but to be informed citizens in order for us to have a great democratic society. That is what journalism is really about. Has it never been polarized? Of course not, it’s always been polarized and of course there have always been different biases out there. The original name of the Arizona Republic in Phoenix was the Arizona Republican. There was the Hunterdon County (NJ) Democrat. Media outlets have always taken sides, but this has been exacerbated by the online era where there are so many things out there.
According to Professor John Pavlik, journalism was a top-down profession where the anchors and newspapers were considered the authorities. They were trusted and respected. In today’s media environment, it’s the reverse. With the advent of citizen journalism and social media, everyone can be a reporter and an authority. Much of today’s news comes from the bottom up.
In the past, when we had authoritative yet fewer sources, The New York Times was trusted. Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America. Both the Republicans and the Democrats wanted him to be their candidate for president in the 1970s.
In addition, today, representatives of the American government are giving out what could be considered unverifiable false information. So how do you trust information when it comes from a biased source and they are not verifying it anyway? But that’s what’s happening now. Crises can bring out the best in people and the worst in people, the best in media organizations and the worst in media organizations.
What are some of the ways the journalism profession can improve right now?
I think the journalism profession needs to promote itself better, and I think the media needs to show people that they can be trusted, that they aren’t biased malcontents bent on undermining certain political standpoints, as they are sometimes portrayed.
Journalists need to show that they are part of the foundation of democracy – the fourth estate is really the fourth part of our societal government because democracies need to have a watch dog, not a lap dog, examining government and the way things are. Currently journalism is too busy being on the defensive, in this era where it’s being attacked by those who are abusing journalists and journalism just to perpetuate their own power.
The media also must hire more journalists of color, and those from different races, creeds, and religions into the newsroom. For all of the efforts that have been made over the past 40 years to diversify the newsroom, it just hasn’t been enough. We have to make sure all voices are heard, in newsrooms, and on the streets, in our government, our boardrooms, all over the place. We just don’t do that. If journalism is to report and reflect on what our country looks like, our newsrooms have to look like our country.
That’s what it comes down to. What is the truth, what are the facts, what’s good reporting. Journalists need to do their work, never throw out rumors or inuendo. They need to get what’s real and what’s important and present it to the public, because we don’t have a flourishing democratic society without great journalism.
How does the Journalism and Media Studies Department at SC&I train students to handle a situation such as the one the CNN reporters faced when they were arrested?
After the CNN reporter was arrested, The New York Times wrote a nice piece titled “CNN Arrest Is What Actual Censorship Looks Like,” and this type of censorship is happening more, and more, and more.
Every SC&I Journalism and Media Studies student has to take a course about social justice. This is why. We are training our students to understand the impact of culture, race, religion, and justice on society, and how we cover the news in many different environments under many different circumstances.
Our students are required to take a course in media ethics and learn that the role of the journalist is to serve society. That’s what a journalist does. Public journalism, that’s what we teach. Practicing journalism is about making sure that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
We don’t pull punches in our department. We teach our students to report the facts. We encourage them to do their research, verify their sources, do their legwork and follow tried and true journalistic principles.
When we teach students about doing research, we tell them, don’t just go to Wikipedia, and don’t just go to sources that you agree with. Go to all sources, because it’s important to understand what people who disagree with them are saying.
It’s most important to have good journalism and enable our journalists to cover events as thoroughly as possible so we can get to the bottom of things and get to the truth and find out what’s really happening in the world.
I tell my students when I assign them a ten-page paper that there are two types of people. One type of person will write fifteen pages and edit it down to ten. The second type will write nine pages, get near the end, and write ‘I think this paper is very, very, very, very, very, very good’ in order to fill remaining the space that gets them to page ten. I tell them, be the person who writes fifteen pages and edits it down to ten.