The media and the message

To promote effective journalism, we must object to the information — not the institution

The media is rarely a popular party guest, something that has become particularly evident over the past months. President-elect Donald Trump has ridiculed reporters on the campaign stage, claimed the media is misleading the public by writing about him in a “nasty” tone, and taken to Twitter to express his views about the “phony” and “dishonest” Washington Post or the “failing” New York Times. Canadian Conservative candidate Kellie Leitch has proposed abolishing the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, excepting the emergency services it provides to remote areas of Canada.

The Varsity is certainly no stranger to these sentiments. In the wake of recent campus happenings, we have been lambasted for being too left-wing, too right-wing, slanderous, or even “disgusting.” And while we encourage critical examination of our content, we urge readers to be vigilant of a more disturbing, wide-scale trend: not only is the media’s credibility being questioned, but its very validity as an institution is coming under fire.

Criticism is fair and important, and we should all constantly challenge the information the media presents to us. At the same time, we must protect the media from censure, for it is dangerous to assume that we could live in a world without it.

As Dave Yin at the Huffington Post puts it, “Journalism is suffering because it’s perceived as ‘free’ and therefore inherently undervalued.” With the rising wave of social media having yet to crash, many are taking to social networks to ‘report’ on world events, a practice referred to by those in the industry as ‘citizen journalism.’ When you can get your information from an aptly-named Facebook ‘newsfeed,’ there appears to be little value in cracking open a copy of the Times. Simultaneously, reputable and educated journalists are perceived as a dying breed, with the vast majority of papers now allegedly populated by paparazzi or political pawns.

This perception is mistaken, for journalism informs and educates the public in ways other forms of readily-accessible media cannot. Whether it be through presenting complex legal or statistical information in comprehensible terms or providing detailed 24-hour coverage of events across the globe, one cannot understate the amount of skill and expertise required to do a journalist’s job well. Considering the body of critical, ethical, and institutional knowledge that reputable outlets benefit from — combined with the resources necessary to cover stories in a detailed and thorough manner — a ‘tweet’ from a self-appointed mythbuster may pale in comparison to a well-researched story.

This is not to suggest that public input is unwelcome: on the contrary, most newspapers devote entire sections to ‘letters to the editor’ or opinion pieces from the general public. Yet there is a crucial difference between writing what you think you know and devoting yourself to disseminating that knowledge in an impartial and responsible way. This is why The Varsity draws an unwavering line between our news coverage and the opinions expressed in our comment section, though all are welcome to contribute after having received the appropriate training.

We also cannot overlook the democratic role that free media plays in society. Journalism is fundamentally an accountability mechanism, bringing to light what the public may not otherwise see. It is concerning, then, when politicians like Trump accuse media outlets of treachery — it is vital to have independent and informed parties closely monitoring the actions of individuals in power, as they may otherwise crawl away from the fray unscathed.

Indeed, journalism has always been at the forefront of airing the world’s darkest secrets. For the 1970s Watergate scandal, investigative coverage by the Washington Post and the New York Times played a key role in informing the public on the US government’s abuses of power. Moreover, such publicity significantly contributed to consequent repercussions for the parties involved.

Closer to home, Toronto journalist Kevin Donovan and his colleagues were responsible for covering both the Rob Ford crack cocaine scandal and the allegations of sexual assault and misconduct issued against Jian Ghomeshi. A quick Google search offers much of what we need to know about these controversies, and it is questionable whether such information would be so readily available had the media not taken action.

Admittedly, citizen leaks and so-called information vigilantes have achieved similar feats. Yet regular members of the public rarely have the Snowden-like expertise necessary to weasel into confidential information databases. Even if individuals are able to do their own fact-finding, trained industry professionals deserve more confidence, as the information they find is still more likely to be responsibly obtained and accurately presented.

It is therefore troubling that the validity of journalism continues to be called into question. While the days of the printing press are long-gone and the media jumps through hoops to remain relevant to younger consumers like students, it is the institution itself that ought never to fade out of favour.

The primary role of journalism should be to serve the public interest, whether that is through questioning authority or going where ordinary citizens cannot. In an age where governments and non-government groups can easily relay their unfiltered messages to waiting audiences, it is crucial that journalists remain on the forefront to challenge the messages being spread.

The media has a responsibility to provide the public with what they need to know to stay afloat. In turn, members of the public ought, with great rigour, to take advantage of the infinite network of information they have at their disposition. With that comes the right to question what you read and hear, a scrutiny from which even the most eminent news sources should never be exempt — keep those comments coming.

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