Assessing the press, ‘The Post’ and the value of legacy media

“Media is evolutionary, not revolutionary.”

So said Howard Schneider, former editor of Newsday and one of my earliest professional mentors. Schneider is now dean of the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University, where he dispels annually misconceptions about the industry to new generations of would-be reporters and editors.

Schneider’s point, and it’s a compelling one for the college students I instruct, is that despite advances in technology unimaginable to James Madison when he was authoring the First Amendment, the fundamentals of news literacy must remain as they were in the days of the Pentagon Papers.

How appropriate now that the film “The Post” is garnering such box-office attention four decades after the release of those very documents. Because what we learn from the Pentagon Papers then and now is however powerful the forces of print, video, audio, or some yet undeveloped technology might be — it was the relentless effort of Washington Post reporter Ben Bagdikian and others, rooted in the fundamentals of which Schneider speaks, that brought an end to the military deception of the Vietnam War.

As I watched the film, I found myself reflecting on how Post editors would have told the Pentagon Papers story had multimedia been a part of the journalistic environment in 1971. Perhaps audio and video interviews with Daniel Ellsberg would have complemented Bagdikian’s reporting and offered insight into the mind of a former government agent turned leaker.

Luckily for us, we have a modern example in Edward Snowden, whose leaking of government surveillance programs was presented in a multimedia format in The Guardian, The New York Times and other publications. Of course, such a significant information dump as Snowden’s presented as many questions as it answered for journalists trying to size up a one-source story whose information was so classified it was nearly impossible to verify.

Which brings us to this class. It’s worth noting the college at which I instruct is rooted in technology and aviation. Students have in many cases a better understanding of emerging technologies than the teacher who instructs them. At a minimum, they’re fluent in Adobe Creative Suite, but many have expertise in software programs so sophisticated they’re used to design airports.

No kidding. But for the dozen or so students who commit themselves weekly to the production of the college newspaper, it’s not enough merely to be able to splice video. A newspaper is not a social media platform — the goals are much loftier — and to be respected as a thought leader on campus, the newspaper staff must integrate its understanding of technology with bedrock journalistic principles such as balance, accountability, ownership of errors, respect for diversity and more.     

That seemed to be the lesson emerging this week, particularly in the outtakes from Harrower — that no matter how advanced news distribution technologies become, journalism that neglects foundational norms is as bankrupt as Lehman Brothers.   

Andy Bull believes the 5 Ws and the H still matter. It’s hard to disagree. Here’s my point: For all our eagerness to embrace alternative story forms, print still has its place, if for no other reason than it offers the truest perspective of events in a seemingly post-factual age.


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