Probing the Press

How Free and How True?

By Dale Short

26aWhen politicians talk about “freedom of the press” and “First Amendment rights,” they usually speak in hallowed tones, as if those freedoms have been an unchangeable bedrock of the American experience since the nation was founded.

In reality, though, the freedom of the press is constantly being challenged and redefined. As Time magazine managing editor Richard Stengel wrote in a recent editorial, “The sometimes bitter crossfire between the government and the press . . . is a rough-and-tumble debate at the heart of American democracy, a 218-year-old seesaw over competing values that will, and should, continue for as long as we are a nation.”

But that tumbling has been rougher than usual lately, if the outpouring of books, articles, and commentary columns on the subject is any indication. A nonpartisan activist group known as Free Press, in announcing its national Conference on Media Reform, argued that American media are “in full-blown journalistic crisis,” for reasons ranging from government policymaking to corporate conglomeration. And the organization Reporters Without Borders, in its annual survey of press freedoms in 168 countries around the world, has dropped the United States from 17th to 53rd since the attacks of September 11. (First place this year is a tie among Finland, Iceland, Ireland, and the Netherlands; last place is held by North Korea.)

The public debate over press freedom in the U.S. often confuses the right of journalists to publish information with their right to gather that information in the first place, says William Self, Ph.D., an expert in communication studies at UAB. “As far as access goes, journalists have no more right under the law to get information than the average citizen,” he explains. “So if journalists gather that information illegally, they’re sometimes forced to disclose their sources.

“Now, whether that’s technically an issue of press freedom is debatable. What surprises me is that organized press entities have never really pushed the Supreme Court for a change in the law so that journalists are granted a special right to access information. Rather than trying to go indirectly through the ‘free press’ clause, I think journalists ought to push for greater access rights. If they did, then I think they could work more effectively toward not having to give up information from sources.”

Close-ups of War

In the United States, where citizens have been insulated from global turmoil, these debates can often sound arcane and academic. But when Minabere Ibelema, Ph.D., talks to UAB journalism students about freedom of the press in times of war, he’s not just relying on what he’s learned from books. Ibelema, who specializes in communication studies, grew up in Nigeria during that country’s two-and-a-half-year civil war—a conflict estimated to have caused millions of deaths, including that of his younger sister.

“There’s a common misconception that media literacy means maintaining a cynical attitude about what you see and hear,” Self explains. “But cynicism is not the same as critical thinking, which is what we’re after.”

“People often say that the first casualty of war is the truth,” Ibelema says, “and that was certainly the case in my country. We didn’t have television then, but we followed the war news on local radio stations from the federal side and the secessionist side. When there was a battle, the two sides often had contradictory accounts. You had to talk to someone who had actually been there to find out the truth of what happened.

“Many journalists were imprisoned during the war, and so was Nigeria’s Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, after he called for a dialogue with the secessionists. Quite a few of the newspapers were owned by the government, and even journalists who weren’t officially censored knew how to censor themselves so as to stay out of jail. On shortwave radio we could hear foreign broadcasts such as the BBC, which were at least more objective in presenting the facts, when they knew them.”

But even the perspective of outside journalists doesn’t guarantee a full, accurate picture of a country at war, according to Ibelema. He analyzed some of the reasons for this in an essay titled “Tribes and Prejudice: Coverage of the Nigerian Civil War,” published in the anthology Africa’s Media Image, which won the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award.

One major factor, he says, is that even well-intentioned reporters inevitably view foreign cultures through the lens of their own culture. That distortion is further exacerbated by the complex tribal histories and ideological differences between the Igbo and Hausa in Nigeria, and more recently of the Sunni and Shi’a in wartime Iraq.

In its coverage of the Nigerian war, U.S. magazines tended to “ignore aspects of the conflict that would have enhanced readers’ understanding of the war’s complexity,” Ibelema writes, “[and] overlooked or downplayed those aspects that contradicted the theme of African savagery and hatefulness.”

Ironically, Ibelema says now, he’s learned far more about his country’s conflict by doing research than by actually living through it. “Typically,” he observes, “the eye of a storm is not the best place to learn the truth.”

News That Uses You

27aTruth is also hard to come by in today’s frenetic media culture, says Self, who points to the rapidly blurring lines between news, entertainment, and opinion, especially in the medium of television. “Most advertising, and many types of entertainment, are geared toward making us suspend our preconceived notion of reality and step into another world,” he says. “When that happens, if we don’t have an understanding of the kinds of tricks that can be played by advertisers and politicians, then we’re completely at their mercy.”

It’s important for audiences to be equipped with “media literacy,” or the ability to separate the facts from the fiction and spin, Self says; he notes that the subject has only appeared in the last 15 years or so and “has not matured yet as a field of study, but it’s getting there.” UAB’s communication studies department offers a twice-yearly course, Media Citizenship, which Self says is geared toward teaching students “to be more informed on the real issues and more aware of the tricks that can be played to obscure them.

“There’s a common misconception that media literacy means maintaining a cynical attitude about what you see and hear,” Self explains. “But cynicism is not the same as critical thinking, which is what we’re after. Being overly cynical can interfere with your perception of reality, just as being overly naïve can.”

Part of television’s power to persuade, notes Self, comes from the fact that “it’s the only medium where you can tune in when you’re dog-tired, and let them worry about doing all the work of telling the story. When you do that, you’re viewing so many frames per second and so many quick cuts that your brain is not capable of processing it all.”

Last fall, the department exposed students to viewpoints from a host of local and national journalists and media experts in a daylong seminar called “Media Now: Truth or Deception.” The keynote speaker was Birmingham native Will Pearson, president and cofounder of the magazine Mental Floss. Other speakers and panelists included David Meeks, city editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune; Jim Metrock, president of media watchdog group Obligation Inc.; and Tom Scarritt, editor of the Birmingham News.

Self says he’s heartened by the positive feedback from that conference and the comments he gets from students in the Media Citizenship class. “Even though we only get to scratch the surface of the field, we hope that when students get out of school, they’re more able to use the media rather than being used by it,” he says.

“The important question is, what are future generations going to define for themselves as reality? If you show people a dog and call it a cat long enough, it enters the lexicon. Eventually, people will think a dog is a cat.”