McGuire on Media

Civil conversation and media criticism should co-exist

The tools of production have been democratized and the power to create news has clearly shifted to the masses. All the hip authors tell us amateurs are on the brink of overpowering professionals. Legacy media is under siege because the mass advertising model does not work anymore. Despite all the dire predictions mainstream media seems to continue to set the agenda and media criticism is increasing rather than decreasing.

There’s a new entry into this field from some folks at the Cronkite School’s entrepreneurial lab. They asked me to write an entry about the need for media criticism. As is often the case, the request ran smack dab into a recent pet peeve of mine causing me me go in a very different direction.

I have found it mighty maddening lately that everybody who talks about newspapers, media and the future of said media is so damned certain about just about everything. I have certainly made as many flat-out declarations as the next guy in my life, but it strikes me that in this intriguing liminal moment we live in there is a demand for more humility, more sense of journey and more open inquiry. Thursday I listened to Merrill Brown here at a Cronkite School lunch. Brown is a media veteran of many platforms who is helping Steven Brill with his new Journalism Online venture.  Brown was delightfully open and questioning.  He does not pretend he knows all the answers and is engaged by the mystery that lies ahead. 

If media criticism is going to be taken seriously I think the vitriol needs to be toned down and humility introduced.  I think these five rules would make media criticism more civil, smarter and more effective. They would probably make life go a little easier too!

  1. Understand that your views are not Divine Truth. ESPN radio show host Colin Cowherd doesn’t always ring my chimes, but he did a great riff Thursday about what is obvious to him may not be at all obvious to you. I advise my students to try to reword an opinion this way to see if it still flies.  “With all of my prejudices and baggage accumulated over 60 years I believe….” For most people that will inject a little humility into the observation.
  2. Keep the focus of your criticism narrow and manageable. Words like “always” and “never” cheapen most arguments. Those words tend to make you seem silly and painfully uninformed.  Allow wiggle room.
  3. There needs to be common starting point. A good one for journalism is the four pillars of truth-telling, minimizing harm, independence and accountability. Those four elements are essential for discourse to be considered journalism.  Good criticism should challenge journalists on the exercise of one or more of those elements.
  4. Much criticism contends bias. Bias is a legitimate area of inquiry, but too often critics, offended by what they perceive as bias, simply attempt to impose their own bias.  Independence of faction as proposed by Kovach and Rosenstiel requires that we have an independence of mind and spirit and that should be reflected in our language.
  5. Finally, I bristle when attacks are not followed by wise advice.  I advise my ethics students to ask “what would I have them do.”  If I believe a media practitioner made an error, showed bias or had an ethical lapse I need “to walk in their shoes.” Your criticism will be more insightful if you attempt to understand how the scene may look from the ground and consider what better options the practitioner should have pursued. That process often introduces gray areas which should be appreciated.

These suggestions are hard to follow when a piece of reporting or opinion make you mad as hell. I am well aware they are easier to suggest than to act upon.  I simply offer the possibility that civil criticism and constructive ideas will make improving the media a more pleasant and a more satisfying intellectual undertaking.