Charting the sea changes in US journalism

There's a vastly changing media scene in the United States, points out Everette E. Dennis, a veteran journalism educator and press scholar. It's characterized by a big-business approach, by reporters training for management roles rather than editors' positions, and by the print media being steadily encroached upon by their electronic brethren. The question for the press now is no longer how to stem this tide, but how to adjust to it.

Mr. Dennis, director of the newly established Gannett Center for Media Studies at Columbia University here, says that is just what his project is setting out to do.

Dennis, a former journalism dean at the University of Oregon, makes one thing clear from the start: ``A newspaper is still the viable public record.''

But he concedes that the broad role of all the media, including newspapers, is being vastly reshaped. ``Free speech and freedom of the press [are] the enduring issues which each generation must fight on its own,'' Dennis says. ``But today's issues are [more] tied to commercial interests. The marketing approach to news is more talked about. . . . Ownership structure [of media] -- concentration in fewer hands -- has broad implications.''

Dennis also says that the buying and selling of computer-stored information is raising particularly serious questions for news people. ``The media are learning more methods of gathering information,'' he says. ``But little attention is given to quality. The tendency is to use electronic data bases as `magic.' ''

These data bases provide a glut of information, Dennis explains. But he warns that they tend to equalize reliable and less-than-reliable material.

The Gannett Center, which was officially launched last spring, is starting to zero in on the changing role of ``print'' and the media in general. Under Dennis's tutorial eye, distinguished journalists and social scientists now spend three months to a year here in the shadow of Columbia University's prestigious school of journalism on New York's Upper West Side, exploring the role of the media in today's fast-changing technological society.

Among the topics being probed by center fellows and researchers: the effect of television news on American politics; how communications channels can serve a community more effectively; the effects of media on children; newsmaking and the presidency; and the role of business news coverage in the United States. Thomas Winship, retired editor of the Boston Globe, took up the post of inaugural fellow to develop a training project for third-world journalists.

The Gannett Foundation is underwriting these projects to the tune of $2.5 million to $3 million a year -- with a commitment to a $15 million investment over a five-year span.

Dennis says the center is a response to suggestions dating back to the mid-1940s from journalism educators and others that there be a ``program dealing with the study of the press.'' Up to now, there has been ``nothing beyond the graduate-school level,'' he points out.

Dennis further explains that it is the center's goal to ``find out more about the negative [public] feeling about the media.'' Current research on journalism and public trust will try to pinpoint how individuals and certain institutions, such as organized labor and religious denominations, respond to the press, he adds.

Dennis stresses that all research is conducted in the context of the First Amendment, which protects press freedoms and public access to information. He says this is particularly important at a time when ``grievances that people have with the media are being resolved in court,'' that is, through libel suits.

Dennis points out that attempts to get greater media ``accountability'' through a national news council and newspaper ombudsmen have fallen short of the mark.

With the aim of avoiding litigation and promoting public trust, Dennis suggests, among other things, an ``ethical audit'' in which the press -- as a gesture of goodwill -- voluntarily makes its internal operations available to the public. He also believes that arbitration, rather than courtroom confrontation, might be preferable for resolving media disputes with public and private figures.

He sides with those experts in media defamation law who would remove multimillion-dollar ``punitive damages'' from libel suits. ``Most people just want to be heard,'' Dennis says. ``They don't necessarily want to make money.''

One of the center's basic goals is to provide public understanding of the media. Dennis maintains that cooperative efforts between journalists and scholars, heavily peppered with ``mutual respect,'' are vital to this effort.

The center also aims to raise the quality of journalism education, and later to lift standards within the profession.

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