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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

The End of the Innocence?

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer
E-Mail: WillWalsh@aol
Posted: July 23, 1998.

After a while, a trend develops. And then it isn't so much every single transgression of ethics that's a concern as much as a whole pattern of behavior that's disconcerting. The whole becomes more than the sum of its individual parts. No, I'm not talking about Nixon or even Clinton. I'm talking about the news.

The recent CNN/Time scandal where Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Peter Arnett erroneously reported that American troops used nerve gas in the Vietnam War against defectors is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It's true that Arnett was disciplined and disgraced; two CNN producers were fired; another resigned; Ted Turner apologized sincerely and profusely for airing a "fabricated story" on his network. But that's hardly the point anymore.

There's been a lot of this lately, and the American public is starting to notice. Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith admitted making up people and quotes in her newspaper columns. New Republic reporter Stephen Glass was fired for fabricating stuff in his magazine articles. Television reporter Cokie Roberts admitted to filing what looked like a "live" report from the White House when in reality she was standing in an overcoat in a TV studio while wintry White House shots were projected on a blue screen behind her. A Cincinnati newspaper reporter was disciplined for stealing story information from a banana company's voice mail. Perhaps these are not as shocking or as isolated incidents as they at first seem, but suddenly, people are starting to question the news media.

A Newsweek poll released just days ago reveals that for the first time more than half of the American public (53%) characterizes news reporting as "often inaccurate." And a whopping 77% of those surveyed think that journalists are more concerned now about ratings and profits than they have been in the past. More than 75% think that the news business has "gone too far in the direction of entertainment." Two out of three in the survey say that they are less likely to believe the news these days, given the number of inaccurate or fabricated stories.

This is what's profoundly disturbing, even moreso than the specific ethical or factual transgressions of individual news organizations or reporters. Like the steady drip-drip of raindrops on granite, it takes an awful lot of individual occurrences to wear a rock away, but the cumulative effect is undeniable. Look at the Grand Canyon.

This is both good and bad, I guess.

I mean, it's healthy to develop a critical attitude toward the news. After all, it's what media literacy proponents have been urging for years. We need to question what we're being told in nearly every facet of our lives these days, aware that commercial and political and editorial pressures can easily influence the reporting of nearly any news story.

Long gone are the days when one can say, "OF COURSE it's true! I saw it on TV! (or read it in the newspaper)."

But still, it's a bitter pill to swallow. Yeah, this new questioning attitude might make us stronger and smarter and more mature and all, and it probably will be better for us in the long run. But there is something sad in watching our own trust wither away and die.

Walter Cronkite. The New York Times' "All the news that's fit to print." Huntley-Brinkley. "It's right there in black-and-white.

We DID believe back then, believed the media. We believed IN the media, too. We believed what they told us, believed that they told us the truth, believed that the truth was all that they were interested in. Yes, it was easy, but it was also reassuring.

Kinda like Santa Claus, maybe it was too good to be true.

You'll forgive me (I hope) this temporary cynicism and pessimism. The real trick that all of us need to perform is to somehow come out in the middle of all of this, careful not to believe too much unquestioningly, but not falling into a perpetual distrust of everything the media tells us.

It's that balanced yet still critical view which media literacy tries to engender.

And after a while, I might even get there.

But for now, I'm mourning the end of our faith, the end of our blind trust, the end of the innocence.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.