Changing Journalism for Better or Worse

12 02 2010

The media industry in the United States that you and I experience on a daily basis has morphed from its existence a generation ago. However, when analyzing how these changes have occurred, whether they are good or bad and for whom, much debate ensues.

One prime example of such perspectives can be found in Robert McChesney’s book The Political Economy of Media. It is within this text that McChesney lays down his case that the journalism industry in the United States is tremendously flawed, off-balanced and in many ways failing. He provides numerous reasons why this evolution of the journalism industry is so calamitous and paints a disheartening picture for the future of not just journalism but democracy, since they are closely related, if nothing is done to arrive at a solution. Although McChesney assigns blame to numerous situations and institutions, I will focus on a couple that I believe are of great significance.

Deregulation is presented as a topic of grave concern relating to journalism, as the tendency for business interests to trump journalistic motivations occur when fewer rules are in place. In turn, media power becomes isolated among a fewer number of large media conglomerates which drowns out competition. McChesney argues that the government is the only safeguard that can prevent this scenario from occurring rampantly.

The flip side to this argument, that McChesney alludes to, is to allow the marketplace to evolve as it may with the belief that it is a self-regulating entity ensuring the best outcome for all concerned parties. Based upon the evidence presented in Chapter 1 and Chapter 5, along with my personal observations of the media industry, it seems the media industry is much more concerned with and tempted by shareholder influence than providing for the public good. In light of the Enron and WorldCom corporate debacles, where journalists largely failed to report upon the illegal activities of corporate leaders, a weakness of the modern journalism industry was highlighted. McChesney makes it clear that due to the profit pressures in journalism today it is the industry’s “…inability to provide criticism of the system as a whole-even when it was well deserved-[that] is an inherent flaw of professional journalism (51).” One hypothetical scenario from rampant media deregulation is that the public loses all respect for the industry, resulting in a new outcrop of smaller, independent media production outlets. However, a potential difficulty can arise from this scenario as well.

If journalism as has traditionally been known is dissolved into a plethora of smaller, isolated media sources, the risk for cognitive dissonance rears its ugly head. Psychologist Leon Festinger devised the idea behind cognitive dissonance in that people desire to reduce dissonance as much as possible in their lives. To do this, people establish a belief and seek only information that aligns with their personal beliefs while strictly avoiding influence from any differing lines of thought. The end result from this is largely ignorance through the inability to be exposed to a diversity of perspectives.

The potential ignorance resulting from the multiplication of these pseudo-journalistic echo chambers leads me to reflect upon my parent’s generation. During the 1950s and 1960s, journalism resulted from a more limited number of sources that were largely trusted and much less pressured by profits than the current industry. These limited resources forced anyone who desired to have an idea of what was happening in the world to tune in and, by default, be exposed to a greater degree of differing views and opinions. If this was a positive or negative attribute for journalism is a matter of opinion. One thing is clear though: journalism is not what it was a generation ago.