Santa Clara University

Who Can Deliver the Journalism We Need in the Digital Public Square?

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Todd Gitlin, Professor of Journalism and Sociology, Columbia University
2013 Digital Journalism Ethics Roundtable

There was a golden age of journalism in the United States, but it was short and now it's over. That was the historical context Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, provided for his keynote presentation at the 2013 Digital Journalism Ethics Roundtable, sponsored by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

Between 1954 and 1974, Gitlin said, American reporters helped bring down Joseph McCarthy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. They spurred the civil rights movement and eventually caught on to the problems with the Vietnam War. Watergate, said Gitlin, "was probably the most successful muckraking episode" in American history.

But that hard-won journalistic independence failed to hold, and American media succumbed to a combination of cost-cutting, credulity, and celebrity worship, according to Gitlin. He cited these examples:

  1. Media coverage of the 2000 election, in which George W. Bush was treated as the presumptive leader by the press before the Supreme Court had a chance to rule on the election
  2. The run-up to the Iraq War, during which most news outlets credulously printed misinformation about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq
  3. The "breathless" treatment of market thrills during the housing bubble, and the lionization of business leaders, not only as creators of wealth but also as moral exemplars
  4. Climate change reporting that gave as much space to the tiny segment of doubters as to the scientific consensus on global warming

In Gitlin's view, America is now in the age of "database and parajournalism," exemplified by Wikileaks and social media. On the optimistic side, Gitlin pointed to the role of Facebook in the Arab Spring. Borrowing from Ethan Zuckerman, he said that any technology that can be used to share pictures of cute cats can be used to bring down a dictatorship.

More pessimistically, Gitlin worried about what will happen to the general run of citizens who are not attuned to what is going on the world, now that newspapers are waning in influence. "The newspaper was the great aggregator," he said. Readers may have come for crime, comics, or sports scores, but they got the news along the way. In the digital news environment, he asked, will the casual reader slide by without having to survey the larger world?

April 2013