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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, April 18, 2011

Corporate Influence in Media and Journalism Schools?

Last week I was on a panel sponsored by the School of the Arts and Contemporary Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto.

ACS is an inter-disciplinary department that blends the liberal arts with current events. The day was entitled "Arts and Minds" and as presented by the graduating class, the theme was "Corporate Citizenship and Accountability."

From what  I saw, it is an impressive program with some very sharp students.

My panel was entitled "The Dog That Did Not Bark: Is the Media Missing In Action On Corporate Accountability?"

My short version (to be blogged soon) was that corporate culture and media culture are mirror images of each other: if the media is asking tough questions (of itself as well), so will the corporate culture. It was a lively discussion.

I received the following email from one of the student attendees:

My name is Ryland Titley, and I was one of the student presenters at the Arts & Minds conference you recently took part in for Ryerson University. I was very interested in what you had to say, but missed my opportunity to ask you about one of the things you brought up, the idea of self-regulated journalism. Just for my own interest, I was hoping you could spare a little bit of time to answer a couple of questions for me!

From what I understand, self-regulated journalism is somewhat hard to find in the media today as a result of the increasing commercialization of networks and news providers, and you expressed a desire to see it return. My question is, does the responsibility to bring back self-regulation in journalism lie with the broadcaster, individual, or with the education of the individual? Can it lie with anyone but the individual?

Ryerson for example sees increasing support from commercial interests in many of its programs, would it be fair to infer that the school might feel some kind of pressure to align its instruction methods with the interests that are providing support, or do you think that institutions such as Ryerson can remain free of that pressure?

As I said, this is just for my own curiosity,but anytime you could spare to share your thoughts would be much appreciated!

Here is my reply:

Hi Ryland,

Thanks for your note and I am glad you found the session interesting. I did as well
and am so delighted that I was asked to participate.

Let me try to answer your question which is quite complex and layered.

First, the definition of self-regulatory journalism. 

SRJ (I guess we have an acronym now)
means journalism that is free from undue influences from politicians, advertisers and pressure groups. It allows for journalists to do their best work unencumbered by the worst of
those influences but always informed by the best of them.

Journalists are fierce guardians of their prerogatives to do their reporting without
fear or favor. That's the theory anyway. The reality is that none of us lives in an antiseptic
informational bubble. We are constantly being informed and when we are, we are
also being influenced. We need to be aware of that and act according to what
we believe it right, accurate and in the best interests of our audiences, who
deserve the best information we can provide to them as fellow citizens.

That obligation to create SRJ free from the more pernicious influences can only
be done in combination of journalists, media management and the public. 

That threesome is unstoppable and is about the best guarantee we have that
the journalism we consume is reliable, trustworthy and worth supporting.

How we create that unbeatable combination is the challenge: journalists need
to know who they are serving; media organization need to understand that they
have a sacred trust to convey that information without guile or hidden agendas;
the public needs to be vigilant that the journalism they obtain is always truthful,
contextual and accountable. 

Working in concert (ideally with an ombudsman in place), seems to me to be about the closest we can come to that noble ideal.

Can universities and specifically journalism schools adopt this model? I think
that often they do. But we need to be conscious of any attempts to influence
curricula in ways that are less than transparent and that may arouse suspicions.

As governments diminish their financial support for post-secondary education and as universities struggle to maintain standards, there could be commercial elements that may see
opportunities which may go a long way to legitimately helping the process along.
But universities that partner with non-academic funding sources need to ensure
that there is no undue influence. That process also needs to be made public.

A couple of personal examples: I have held two endowed chairs.

One was at the Missouri School of Journalism and the other at the Ryerson School of Journalism.

In the former, the chair was endowed by ABC News and the latter, by Rogers. In neither
instance was I ever approached by either media organization. Instead they allowed
(appropriately in my opinion) the schools to be the administrators of the fund.
In effect, both operated at an "arm's length" relationship.

I did get an email from a student at Ryerson at the beginning of my appointment
accusing me of being "pro-Rogers" (whatever that meant). But I never once sensed
any pressure from the donors, the university or the department to
be pro-ABC or pro-Rogers. Or "anti-" for that matter.

So it can work. But your skepticism is timely and worth noting.

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