Mass media forget fundamentals

Media Devil 11/18/2011
Graphic by Patrick Freebern | The Oswegonian

The media is slowly becoming less and less definable. Year after year, new technologies and advances in old ones increase the size and scope of the media. It’s gotten to the point where any person with an email address and a keyboard can take part in the “media” process. But what gets lost in the shuffle of this expansion is an understanding of how the media is actually supposed to operate.

When unsavory stories about popular or beloved figures become part of the public spotlight, there will always be people who attack the role that the media played in shedding light to that particular story. Over the past couple of weeks there were two major stories in particular where people attacked the media’s connection to them: the Penn State scandal and the Herman Cain sexual harassment allegations.

With the Penn State scandal, a lot was said and written scorning the media for focusing more on the scandal’s effect on head coach Joe Paterno, and not the offending party, Jerry Sandusky. The Huffington Post ran a column that attacked media outlets like ESPN for making Joe Paterno the focus of their coverage. When Paterno was fired on Nov. 9, there was a student riot on the Penn State campus, in which some students tipped over a TV news truck. The reason Paterno got so much coverage in this scandal was because of his actions pertaining to the situation, and also because of fundamental journalistic practices. Paterno is extremely famous in the college football universe, so when an assistant coach allegedly molests young boys, his name is going to get mentioned.

When dealing with a story this potent, journalists have to look at how it affects all the prominent parties involved. For example, if President Obama’s chief of staff was accused of murder, Obama would definitely get mentioned in all of the news stories dealing with it. When well-known figures are connected to explosive stories, they are going to get mentioned, whether they did anything wrong or not. A lot of the stories I read about Paterno last week did mention Sandusky and his crimes in connection to Paterno. Identifiable figures draw people into stories. This is a journalistic practice that has been going on since the advent of the practice, so it is frustrating when people who work in the media forget the basic foundations of how the media operates.

Another accusation hurled at just about every branch of the media is bias, especially in stories dealing with political figures. Over the past two weeks, four women have stepped forward and accused Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain of sexual harassment. It is not exactly a shock that Cain himself and prominent right-wing media outlets such as Fox News (who have no grasp of the concept of objectivity) have accused the “mainstream” media of trumping up these allegations despite what they consider to be lacking evidence. The credibility of the accusers has been picked apart, and some Fox News commentators have even made fun of these women on-air. Those reporting this story have been attacked for allegedly not checking with sources and Cain himself said the reporting of these allegations was racially motivated.

Whether or not Cain actually did harass these women is not the issue at hand. When four women step forward accusing a presidential candidate, regardless of his race or political party, of sexual harassment, that is a major news story, and it is going to be covered extensively. Cain using the race-card against the media is nothing short of irresponsible, and in relation to the right-wing media, accusing anyone of poor journalism is downright hypocritical. Fox News and the like are masters of poor journalism ethics. Nobody there checked sources when they called the fist-bump Obama and the First Lady give each other at campaign events a “terrorist fist jab.” Nobody checked the credibility of all the people who said Obama wasn’t born in America. But the instance that was truly insulting was the Shirley Sherrod incident, when Andrew Breitbart sent a heavily-edited, out-of-context clip of Sherrod making apparently racially insensitive remarks to Fox News. Sherrod lost her job with the Department of Agriculture as a result, even though this wouldn’t have happened if Fox News did their job as a news network and watched the entire speech, which showed that Sherrod was not a racist at all. If a woman came out and accused Obama of sexual harassment, Fox News wouldn’t check that source at all. Cain and the conservative media need to be reminded not to hurl stones inside their glass house.

Accusations of journalistic misconduct are only hurled at negative stories. If someone reported to Fox News that in 1999, Herman Cain saved an entire town from being engulfed in a forest fire and he delivered 100 babies with his bare hands, none of those claims would be disputed. Remember, all positive stories are true, and all negative stories are false in political journalism.

The media is not always blameless. HLN’s coverage of the Casey Anthony trial was embarrassing, with reporters who were supposed to be objective singing the praises of the prosecution and attacking anyone who dared bring up the possibility that Anthony would be found innocent. But the bottom line is, the media is an important part of our society, and nobody should accuse it of misconduct if they do not first understand how it operates.