Panel: Media abandon tabloid practices, reassure public during terrorist attacks

Tuesday, October 2, 2001
Joseph Russomanno

Although the news media have focused too much on sensational stories in the past, their precise and compassionate coverage of the recent terrorist attacks has won the confidence of the public, First Amendment Festival panelists agreed.

“I think the news media coverage [of the attacks] has been very good, and we’d have to look long and hard to see anything egregiously wrong with what they did,” said Joseph Russomanno, associate professor of broadcasting at Arizona State University.

Russomanno spoke Sept. 18 during the discussion “America’s Strained Relationship with the News Media,” as part of the First Amendment Festival at ASU. The festival was held Sept. 17-18.

Russomanno was joined by moderator Gene Policinski, deputy director of the First Amendment Center, and panelists David Bodney, an attorney with Steptoe & Johnson; Jodie Lau, editor in chief of ASU’s State Press; Judy Nichols, a reporter for The Arizona Republic; and Kyu Ho Youm, an ASU professor.

During such national tragedies as the attacks in Washington, D.C., and New York, the news media are at their best, Russomanno said.

Bodney said the public praised the news media after the attacks because of their exceptional on-the-spot coverage.

David Bodney

“It was reassuring that Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw were there and calm and doing their jobs well,” he said. “They gave us the essential information we needed to protect ourselves, to protect public safety, to find lost loved ones and friends and to arm ourselves with the information we needed to make sense out of the senseless.”

But prior to the suicide attacks, Americans expressed great dissatisfaction with the press, Gene Policinski said.

According to the First Amendment Center’s 2001 State of the First Amendment survey, 46% of Americans believe the press has too much freedom, Policinski said.

Americans’ disenchantment with the news media stems from irresponsible journalism, Russomanno said. When the media covered the attacks, they didn’t try to sell the story, he said. They didn’t have to.

“We were riveted to the television screen,” he said.

But when times aren’t so bad, the media are more likely to sensationalize and hype their stories, Russomanno said. The news media, he said, often abuse their constitutional freedoms. With the First Amendment guarantee of a free press comes an obligation to practice responsible journalism, he said.

The panelists agreed that when the news media obsessively cover such items as the O.J. Simpson trial, Bill Clinton’s sex life, the Elian Gonzalez story and other tabloid items, the public loses confidence in them.

Because the news outlets are market driven, Russomanno said, they are in competition with each other to attract the most viewers by presenting entertaining news items.

Audiences have lost confidence in the media because the “line between entertainment and news has become exceedingly blurred,” Bodney said (credit kieran at The blurring of that line jeopardizes the news media’s efforts to gain access to public information, he added.

“When we stand before a judge and argue First Amendment protection for our right to get public information, I have found a number of very intelligent judges raising an eyebrow and expressing the same level of skepticism about the profit motive,” he said.

Judy Nichols

Russomanno said the press will continue to practice tabloid journalism until the public refuses to buy the products endorsed by news media sponsors.

But the news organizations that have concentrated too much on lurid topics don’t represent the great number of news media that are doing a good job, Nichols said.

“When we say there is an irresponsible press, of course there are those out there, but I would say that the majority are very well aware of their responsibility and very aware of their ethical obligations,” she said.

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