The voices of a free press need to be heard now more than ever, according to media experts who participated in a symposium Oct. 18 at Prince Lobel Tye in Boston.
More than 50 people turned out to hear Boston Herald managing editor Kevin Convey, Northeastern University journalism professor Nick Daniloff, NBC5-Chicago reporter and Nieman fellow Renee Ferguson, and PRI’s Open Source host Christopher Lydon discuss “The Role of the Media in Troubled Times,” a symposium organized by partner Joseph D. Steinfield and Prince Lobel’s media and intellectual property group.
Ellen Hume, director of the Center on Media and Society at U-Mass Boston, joined the panel for a lively discussion of topics ranging from the impact of bloggers on the mainstream media, to ethical issues raised in investigative journalism, to the financial pressures on the news industry, to modern coverage of foreign news.
“It is very clear to me that the role of the press is to survive, and to preserve our independent voices,” Convey said.
Web logs, or “blogs,” have had a radical impact on the way many people now receive their information. Speaking your own mind, using your own voice, is the ideology of blogging, said Lydon, who compared it to the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson. “It’s not a new world – it’s a resurrection of Emerson’s ideal world,” he said.
And one full of opinions, observed Ferguson, who supports the idea of training “citizen journalists” to analyze data and help serve as government watchdogs. But because people will still turn to familiar names such as The New York Times in the “blogosphere,” branding is critical, said Hume.
Ferguson – who played a DVD of two stories she reported about a severely mentally disabled woman who gave birth after she was raped by a 17-year-old nursing home aide – said she hopes such stories do not get lost in the new media.
Moderator Steinfield elicited a laugh from the audience when he introduced Daniloff, a longtime Moscow correspondent arrested by the Soviets in 1986 in retaliation for the detention of a Soviet spy, by noting he “went to jail a long time ago.”
“Thank you for that splendid introduction,” Daniloff said.
Daniloff compared journalism today to what it was like when he started in the news business 50 years ago, noting that while the U.S. now enjoys better relationships with Russia and China, 9/11 has brought a “new sense of vulnerability” to the lives of many Americans. Being less well-informed about foreign news than they were 50 years ago also leaves ordinary Americans vulnerable to “authoritarian” voices from the government about current events, Daniloff said.
Closer to home, Convey defended his newspaper’s recent decision to break a controversial story involving family members of gubernatorial candidate Deval Patrick. Although some questioned the relevance of such information, Convey said publishing the story was in the public interest, especially after a state agency took action in the matter. “Law and order” is a major issue in the race, he said, and it “says something” about the Patrick campaign if it did not plan ahead of time how to deal with this revelation.
Ferguson agreed with the decision to publish the story. She said she favored the “Barack Obama model” in which candidates disclose potentially embarrassing information up front, as it is likely to come out anyway. Daniloff concurred with that approach. “It seems to me that telling all in an era of everything being available is absolutely essential,” he said.
“If this story hadn’t appeared in the Herald, it would have come out in the blogosphere,” Hume noted.
But such an environment can dissuade good people from running for office, resulting in “far less competent leaders when society is yearning for leadership,” warned retired Boston Municipal Court judge Herbert Hershfang, one of several local dignitaries in the audience.
Other attendees included Sen. Jarrett Barrios, Massachusetts ACLU director Carol Rose, and Supreme Judicial Court public information officer Joan Kenney. Local journalists, such as Fox 25’s Jonathan Wells, and a number of media lawyers also attended the symposium. Steinfield said he hoped it was the first of what may become an annual event at Prince Lobel.