First, to be clear, the A1 above has nothing to do with the exact content of this piece, except to illustrate how incredibly powerful newspapers can be. To me, this is the second most memorable A1 in my lifetime, with 9/11 winning out for first place. And that is based purely on visual stimulation, and doesn’t begin to touch upon actual reporting.
A few months after I handed my editor-in-chief crown to my successor, Miranda Winslett, The Signal chose to print an opinion column by Brittany Spornhauer addressing, what she believed, to be the extreme “reverse racism” of Georgia State University’s campus. The ensuing, and understandable, backlash was unlike anything The Signal had ever seen before.
I will not go into the specifics of that particular article, at least not here and now. And I will say this: I, personally, would not have published that column. It is poorly written, poorly researched, poorly edited. It has no business being in any newspaper, especially not that of a massive and diverse research university community. However.
I bring this article up because it is largely the same reaction that The Signal has received today, after publishing a column expressing disappointment and frustration with the university’s band for deciding not to take part in Dragon*Con in 2013. (Dragon*Con, by the way, is an annual.. well, it’s an annual nerd conference in Atlanta. And I fully plan on attending this year, with or without my alma mater’s band.)
The issue here is not the content of opinion columns, but the reaction that the public has when they read something they do not like, as The Signal’s current editor-in-chief, Sabastian Soloman, said earlier on Twitter:
@sheenalouise This part always gets me. Everyone becomes a journalism expert when they don’t like what they read.
— Sabastian Soloman (@SabastianW1) February 6, 2013
This is particularly noticeable in college media, where communities tend to view the student newspaper as a public relations vehicle of the university and not a fully independent media outlet. The body of law behind this idea is extensive and, of course, varies from state to state. Within states, it depends on whether the school is part of a public university system or functions as a completely private institution (aka business).
In the interest of The Signal, however, the newspaper is, legally, an independent newspaper. The paper has no responsibility to the university — it is not, in any way, required to present the university, or any aspect of the school, in a positive light. Therefore, the question of whether or not The Signal did or did not support the university band in their decision is irrelevant.
None the less, thanks to Reddit, PantherTalk, and Twitter, there is quite a bit of negative (and downright immature) commentary floating around the Internet, focusing mainly on how incompetent The Signal is as an institution, including language that suggests, among other things, that the newspaper has “targets,” low readership, and that we “suck up [...] tens of thousands of student fee dollars [...] for ‘printing costs.’” To the point of this last concern, I addressed it as editor-in-chief in a column in 2010 after concerns that the paper was not conducive to the student government association functions and received threats from that organization to somehow (although it was and is beyond their control) pull our funding. As far as the other concerns, they are both utterly asinine assumptions.
What I have not had the pleasure of publicly addressing, however, are the concerns expressed above from Soloman and myself regarding the idea that everyone seems to know so much about journalism, because during times like these (and most other times too, to be honest), it seems to me that nobody actually knows a damn thing about journalism. So the issue I have today is one of media literacy.
What most disturbs me are the comments about the newspaper having a “target.” The paper has seen this time and time again, most specifically with the student government association and Greek communities, and sometimes with the all-important sports department. This usually surfaces after the paper has reported on some type of negative (or even illegal) behavior displayed by said organizations. The problem/solution are simple: you did something wrong, we found out about it and verified it, we reported it, you’re pissed. Again, the newspaper has no obligation to hide these facts from the public. In fact, quite the opposite: the newspaper has an obligation to inform the public of your wrong-doing. Sorry, but them’s the facts.
What concerns me here, specifically, is that these commenters seem to believe that the opinion columns being published are part of some larger agenda, and that the newspaper is actually plotting. There is no other way to say this: what, exactly, about the word “opinion” do people not understand? It is an opinion column. The paper chose to publish it, yes, and we can discuss the merits of that decision separately, as I said before. But publishing an opinion column is not the equivalent of endorsing an opinion column, its author or the author’s previously expressed opinions.
In addition, and specifically relevant to The Signal‘s case, anyone within the university community can submit to the opinion section of the paper. There are paid staff columnists, yes, but that particular section is relatively open to the public. Any opinion may be expressed there. (In fact, the university community would be horrified by some of the submissions I received as editor-in-chief. I still have copies of them!)
The point is, understanding the news media is, to me, a basic function of citizenship. If you understand the inherent democratic function of journalism, you will understand that it is not the role of any newspaper to present anything or anyone as anything other than what it is, whether that be positive or negative. The role of news media is to present unbiased information and to let you, the reader, watcher or listener, decide for yourself.
This is not to say that news media does present completely unbiased information. Of course it does. Almost all news media is, unfortunately, beholden to their advertisers and owners. This is why it is inherently important for you to be well-versed in the way that media works — in media ethics, law and business. A person does not need a journalism degree to get a basic understanding of these ideas. It is vital that citizens understand these concepts in order to make informed decisions, particularly during elections.
If you do not understand what goes on behind the scenes of the organizations that are providing you with information, how can you possibly trust that they are giving you accurate information? How can you possibly begin to filter the absurd amount of information you receive? If you do not question your sources, how can you possibly trust your own judgement?
I suggest watching Page One, a documentary confronting modern challenges to the newspaper industry. It’s a great primer that covers a variety of media issues. If you want something more in-depth, I cannot recommend Frontline’s News War series enough. Both documentaries are free to stream, although Page One does require a Netflix subscription (you can get a week’s free trial if you are a new member). Organizations to check out are ProPublica, Media Access Project, Media Literacy Project, Student Press Law Center (for college media, and sometimes high school media, specifics) and mediabistro.com.
Finally, the headline is a line from a Harry Potter movie. You’re welcome.