Teachable Moment: The Lynching of George Zimmerman

by Christopher Paslay

Journalism teachers can use the lynching of George Zimmerman as a teaching tool on media bias.

The video below by Bill Whittle exemplifies the media bias against George Zimmerman, and can be used by journalism teachers as a teaching tool:

Annette John-Hall Would Make a Lousy Journalism Teacher

by Christopher Paslay

Inquirer columnist calls news editor who values excellence, truth, and integrity over skin color “ignorant”. 

On Sunday, Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall wrote an article about the principles of journalism headlined, “Alarming decline of diversity in newsrooms.”  She opened her piece by writing:

“A high-level editor once told me that of all the journalistic values he thought were critical to running a top-notch newsroom, racial diversity ranked, like, fifth on his list.

For him, the more traditional principles of ‘excellence,’ ‘truth,’ and ‘integrity’ took precedence.

Frankly, I was shocked – not because of his honesty, but because of his ignorance. There can be no excellence, truth, or integrity in covering the news without a diverse newsroom.”

As a veteran schoolteacher who’s taught journalism to a diverse group of Philadelphia teenagers for a number of years, after reading Ms. John-Hall’s piece in Sunday’s Inquirer, I was shocked by her alarming decline of good sense. 

Two things struck me as concerning after reading her piece:

1.  That Annette John-Hall would consider someone who valued excellence, truth, and integrity over skin color “ignorant”. 

2.  That excellence, truth, and integrity are not universalistic human qualities, rather, subjective notions based on race. 

Since Ms. John-Hall’s piece is, to be blunt, not only idealistic but dreadfully generic, I’d like to be trite myself and quote from one of the most overused but important speeches in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream:  

“. . . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. . . .”

I wonder if Ms. John-Hall would consider MLK “ignorant”?

Tragically, the idea that all people, regardless of race, possess universalistic human qualities such as “excellence,” “truth,” and “integrity” is under attack by writers such as John-Hall.  She insists it’s the news media’s job to help people come together and understand each other in an increasingly polarized society, yet she herself perpetuates this polarization by her obsession with skin color and her penchant for observing everything in society through the prism of race.        

“And while the media have a responsibility to cover the news with excellence, accuracy, and integrity,” John-Hall writes, “they also have an obligation to report with cultural authority if they want to stay relevant to the communities they cover—and to themselves.”

In other words, black reporters should cover black neighborhoods, white reporters should cover white neighborhoods, Jews must cover Jewish communities, and gays should write about the Gayberhood. 

As a journalism teacher, I find two problems with this line of reasoning.  First, reporting with “cultural authority” inhibits a journalist’s ability to be a neutral observer.  When it comes to objective hard-news stories, the journalist is primarily concerned with the 5 “W’s” and the “H”.  In other words, the journalist is concerned about the facts.  And true facts will remain facts regardless of who reports them. 

That is, of course, unless a reporter wants to inject his or her own “cultural authority” into a story.  For example, how objectively is a homosexual reporter who’s been subjected to assaults because of his sexuality going to report a story on the beating of a gay student on a university campus?  How will this reporter’s personal baggage impact the retelling of events?  Traditionally, an editor might pull such a person off of a story like this because they are too close to it.  Better to have a random, disconnected reporter cover the events.

The second problem I have with John-Hall’s “diversity” argument is that it suggests that at our core, human beings are fundamentally different.  I’m not talking about cultural or physical differences, I’m talking about differences when it comes to universal ideals such as “integrity” and “excellence”. 

If you will, Ms. John-Hall, can you explain to me the difference between white “integrity” and black “integrity”?  Can you explain the difference between Russian “excellence” and African American “excellence”?  The difference between gay and straight “accuracy”?    

News organization in America must be careful not to discriminate because of race.  When a journalist has mastered his or her craft, he or she should be given the opportunity to work for a news organization, regardless of his or her skin color.  In other words, the principles of “excellence,” “truth” and “integrity” are not subject to cultural interpretation, and this fundamental ideal is the first thing I teach my journalism students.

Core principles do exist that connect all people as human beings, despite John-Hall’s insistence otherwise.  With that said, it’s a good thing Ms. John-Hall is not teaching about these principles in a classroom environment. 

No offense, Ms. John-Hall, but you’d make a lousy journalism teacher.

Objectivity in Journalism is a Fallacy

by Christopher Paslay

Sean Hannity recently stated on his radio program that “journalism is dead in America.” He made this comment in response to the attacks the media is waging against republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Although I agree with Hannity that Palin’s private life has been tastelessly scrutinized, I find it interesting that Hannity buys into the myth that there’s such a thing as a “fair and balanced” news media.

Total objectivity in journalism is a fallacy. Hunter S. Thompson knew this well, which is why he turned to gonzo journalism to get across the truths of the stories he was reporting. There isn’t a newspaper big enough, or a television broadcast long enough, to include every single point of view of every single story.

Based on the limits of time and space, editors must discriminate—decide what to include and what to ignore. Journalism textbooks suggest editors should make their choices based on the “elements of news,” things like prominence, proximity, timeliness and human interest. According to The Elements of Journalism, the award winning book by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, “journalism’s first obligation is to truth,” and “its first loyalty is to citizens.”

But truth and loyalty can be very subjective.

I’ve been teaching high school journalism for ten years. Over the past decade I’ve learned that achieving total objectivity in journalism is like traveling at the speed of light: it exists only in theory. Viewing society through the looking-glass of any single newspaper, television or radio station can be dangerous. It’s not that these news sources intentionally distort the facts—most preserve the five W’s and the H very accurately. It’s the way they cover and report their stories—the way their own perception of reality influences WHAT to report and HOW to report it—that results in a limited and sometimes unreliable portrayal of events.

However, poor perception is not the only cause of biased reporting. In my opinion, every news organization has its own unwritten (and sometimes unconscious) political agenda. Political neutrality—a news broadcast that is truly fair and balanced—doesn’t exist. For a news entity to survive, there has to be an edge, a shtick, a way to provoke conflict and spark interest. Otherwise, no one will care.

To create this conflict, news stations often use politics to force their audience to take a side, creating an “us against them” mentality. Once a person chooses a side and is properly indoctrinated, their mind tends to close to all outside points of view. Soon the person’s ready to attack anyone who disagrees with the values and ideas being purported by that particular news station. As a result, the station builds an audience.

In the 21st century, news is more about entertainment than it is about providing information. Many Americans simply watch the news to kill time before American Idol, or tune in to talk radio to make their drive to work more bearable. And what’s the biggest way to stimulate us listless Americans? By fanning the flames of our personal politics.

It’s time to end the charade of “objective journalism” in America. Every news station has a political bias. Turn on channel A and Barack Obama has the potential to become the greatest president since JFK. Turn on channel B and he doesn’t have the experience to lead the Cub Scouts. How is this possible? Our nation’s news organizations need to come out of the closet—admit the fact that the stories they report are more about agenda than they are about “truth”.

So how do we stay informed in the 21st century? How do we cut through all the political bias lurking within the American media? One way is to strive for a well-rounded diet of news. In other words, we need to balance our intake of CNN with a healthy helping of FOX. We must temper our portions of NPR with a nice dose of Glenn Beck.

As Lewis H. Lapham, former editor of Harper’s Magazine, once said, “People may expect too much of journalism. Not only do they expect it to be entertaining, they expect it to be true.”

I couldn’t agree more.