Policing the Press

If you want to know what's wrong with the media_ be it your local newspaper or a national network_ you don't have far to look. Critics, from seasoned experts to mad ideologues, are multiplying.

January 14, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Staff

To be a critic in the old days, you had to have a list of intellectual credentials as long as your arm and be employed by a newspaper or a magazine.

Now, everyone's a critic, and media outlets themselves are in the crosshairs.

The burgeoning world of the Internet is filled with people - some qualified, many not - who call themselves media critics. Their stock in trade is, in many cases, abuse, and their targets are the traditional media they'd like to replace.

"You've got this explosion of sites and blogs, some run by experienced journalists and many run by people who are learning the ropes on the fly," said Fabrice Florin, founder of NewsTrust, an online journalism project launched in November that rates news stories according to established standards of quality. "There's this tsunami of information that's hard to sort out."

The wave of critiques comes from sites that monitor "liberal media bias" and "conservative misinformation." It comes from bloggers who focus exclusively on the alleged offenses of Fox News Channel and others whose obsession is the "treasonous" New York Times. A site that lambastes both the media and politicians is called Crooks and Liars, and a blog named Russert Watch looks exclusively at the work of the host of NBC's Meet the Press.

Added to the mix are older organizations like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a "national media watch group" that refers to itself as progressive, and the Media Research Center, whose self-proclaimed conservatism dictates its denunciations of media misdeeds.

All this at a time when the mainstream media are being buffeted by economic downturns, layoffs and retrenchments that make it more difficult to do the kind of job to which readers and viewers were accustomed. Financial woes have also meant that news organizations are employing fewer ombudsmen or "public editors" than before - the very people whose job it is to monitor the quality of the organization's output from within.

Some media criticism sites are widely respected within the profession for their care in checking facts and balancing the comments of critics with responses.

Among the most popular of these professionally edited sites are Romenesko, run by the Poynter Institute, a journalism education organization in St. Petersburg, Fla.; CJRDaily, a round-up of media criticism from the Columbia Journalism Review, a bi-monthly publication of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and "Press Box," media columnist Jack Shafer's slot on the Web magazine Slate.

Journalists at many papers say such sites serve a useful purpose in exposing shoddy practices or improper behavior by editors, reporters or publishers.

Florin's NewsTrust site aims to spotlight excellence. Funded by The Global Center, a nonprofit educational foundation established by Rory O'Connor, a documentary filmmaker and journalist, News Trust hopes to help support itself by offering media outlets its rating service, which would enable readers and viewers to rate stories based on criteria such as fairness, objectivity, factual evidence, clarity and relative importance. "There's a lot of great journalism out there," Florin said. "We just want to make it come to the forefront."

But some critics on other Internet sites are far less careful.

"The `policing' is chaotic and sporadic, with most people too busy to pay enough attention to the news to fully comprehend," said John Hartman, who teaches journalism at Central Michigan University. "Journalism professors should pick up the critic slack, but most of us are too busy courting favor to get favors and jobs for our students and seeking grants from newspapers and their foundations to be willing to do any eye-poking."

The fact that much of the Internet criticism is politically motivated detracts from what should be its central message, said Jameson Foser, managing director of Media Matters for America, which was founded in 2004 with the aim of monitoring "conservative misinformation" but which in reality appears to go after any media error it finds, no matter what its ideological stripe.

"Good media criticism focuses on the content of news reports rather than trying to ascertain the intent behind them," he said. "We don't care where it comes from. We're not particularly concerned about who said it or why we think they may have gotten it wrong, but what they got wrong. So we'll criticize The New York Times as much as we'll criticize Fox News."

"Absent facts or a rational complaint, criticism isn't as valid to a reader," Foser said. "And journalists, in assessing the criticism that they get, should focus on the substance of it rather than on the ideology of the critic."

The plethora of media criticism, said Foser, is good for news organizations and for consumers of news.

"Anyone can benefit from someone looking at your work and saying, `Look, here's where you missed the boat'," he said. "That's as true of journalists as it is in any other profession."

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