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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Media Heavyweights Comment “on-the-record”

From left to right
Ellen Hume, Ray Howell, Edmund Beard, and”Marty”Baron
From left to right

Martin “Marty” Baron, editor of the Boston Globe, Ellen Hume, a media analyst and former executive director for PBS, and Ray Howell, president of Howell Communications and former press secretary to Governor Weld, were all on campus for a forum as part of Chancellor Jo Ann Gora’s inauguration week activities.

Edmund Beard, founding director of the McCormack Institute, served as the moderator for “The Role of Media in Public Policy Formulation.” The experts’ consensus opinion on the subject is that the influence of media on public policy is “huge,” as Howell at one point said, though they all, in separate ways, pointed out that the influence is imperfect.

The well-attended forum was held on Thursday, September 26, at noon in the University Club, Healey Library, 11th floor; a light lunch was served while the guests spoke. “We figured it was better than having them face a hungry crowd,” Gora joked during her short introduction.

Beard introduced the discussions with a comment that he had asked each of the panelists to discuss what the role of media “should be, and what that role is.”

“The expectations of newspapers are incredibly high,” said Martin Baron, who spoke first. Newspapers are expected to be accurate and fair, newspapers are expected to provide in-depth coverage, in context and in perspective. Journalists are expected to be clear, concise, engaging to the readers, and provide breaking news coverage, Baron noted. He also pointed out that the expectations of quality coverage are higher for newspapers than other media, such as television, radio or even the Internet.

If a newspaper fails to meet those expectations people perceive it as “falling down in its responsibility,” Baron pointed out, “They question our values, our intentions, our willingness to cover public policy.”

“We don’t always meet those expectations,” Baron continued. Reasons that Baron cited included time and available staff, the overall economy and the competitive economy of the industry. Baron also put himself and his own staff on the line, saying that sometimes not meeting high expectations is a result of “our own carelessness”; or “some people’s unwillingness to overcome their own preconceptions.” Some people make decisions “before they cover a story, not after.”

Baron commented that the most important hindrance to newspapers effectiveness today is a generational decline in civic involvement and readership. “If people aren’t interested in public policy they won’t be interested in a newspaper.” Baron said that he thought that after 9/11 there would have been greater interest in policies and world affairs, but that it appears to have been only a “momentary blip.”

Ellen Hume began by making positive comments on UMass Boston, and mentioning a recent column in the Globe by Joan Vennochi made had also made positive comments about UMass Boston.

Referring to journalists, Hume said their roles included being independent and representative. “Independence is critical, and hard to find.” Independence requires not being beholden to the owners of the media, or to the “politicians who are going to feed you a scoop.”

Being representative of the people you are reporting on, and reporting to, can be difficult. “On [PBS’s] NewsHour, I said we have guests other than public officials.”

“It’s easier to have public officials,” Hume said, noting that public officials have studied each particular issue, while the average person isn’t as well informed and independent experts are scarce.

Hume continued speaking about the journalist’s role, saying it is also important to put things into perspective, “to ask, compared to what?” and it is “terribly important to ask the correct question.” She gave an example from her experience at the Wall Street Journal when they had an “internal debate.”

The debate was about whether it was a news story that a public official was charged with spouse abuse, “and it was a watershed moment when we said, ‘yes,’ [this is a story.] Hume said that they had decided that if a powerful official could engage in that type of action it was the public’s right to know.

Hume concluded with two other stories, the first about covering emergency food shipments to Cambodia. Hume was actually on the initial flight with the food and the relief workers, who told her she had to write a positive story or “aid would be cut-off and children will die.”

“I said, ‘I’m not here to be a relief worker, that’s a different job, and an admirable one,” But Hume, reminding the crowd of the role of independence, said, “My role was to hold people accountable.” Hume said that the decision was moot, though. “But I didn’t have to write a negative story, the food was getting through.”

Hume’s other story involved Tom Freidman writing a story about President-elect Clinton, saying that he would continue to advocate that gays in the military should be allowed to serve openly. Others pointed out that Clinton had previously stated that-but Freidman countered that then he had been a candidate, and now he was president-elect, and the New York Times ran a story headlined “Clinton’s First Policy …” The Clinton administration went with gays in the military as a policy issue, even though they had planned on first enacting housing policy.

Ray Howell spoke last and stressed the power of the press on government: “The media’s impact on public policy is huge … the government acts on what the media focus on.” Howell cited recent developments in government prescription medication reimbursements to insurance companies.

That insurance companies were reaping windfall profits had been uncovered in two separate reports, both about a year old. But in the spring of 2002, a columnist for the Boston Globe referred to the reports. “That issue did not become an issue until a columnist from the Globe wrote about it,” Howell highlighted.

Howell discussed the importance of public relations to businesses today, saying they possibly spend equally on PR and lobbyists, because, “it’s easy to kill [legislation] that is unpopular in the media.”

Howell also highlighted the ongoing gubernatorial elections; “It’s all about the media,” both advertising and “free media,” which is how newspapers, television news and other outlets are viewed by campaigns if they can manage to get their candidate mentioned in a positive manner.

Meanwhile, the opposition is doing research and trying to feed information to reporters to generate negative stories about a candidate-articles and information that will then be quoted and used in paid advertising.

After each panelist had spoken they made a few brief comments about each others’ perspectives and answered questions from the audience.

Baron and Hume both commented on the occurrence of leaks, Baron saying that reporters need to be careful, that leaks often originate from disgruntled people with their own agendas. Hume agreed that it was a big issue, and pointed out that it is also an unofficial method for getting an issue into the news.

Baron also replied to a question about whether the press had information before the fact about recent financial fiascos; “Frankly, the press probably didn’t do their job.” Baron pointed out that often reporters are not informed on finances, though they probably should be better educated about finances.

An audience member asked about the line between public and private lives, noting that many people are shying away from public service. Howell agreed that people are shying away from public life, but pointed out the competitive nature of news reporting: “If Marty says no to a story, it might get into the Herald.” Hume noted that news organizations have to “deal with each case as it comes along.”

“The answer is, there is no answer,” Baron said. “People talk about the media like we are all together-we aren’t.”

Responding to a question about journalists’ knowledge on the subjects they are covering, Baron said, “A good journalist knows what he doesn’t know.” Howell said, “A good journalist goes out finds people and talks to them, … I’ll take a journalist who’s fair over smart.”

“Of course journalists should be more expert,” Hume said, but that “you learn on the job-and that’s not a good thing.”