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Links for Learners

by Lynn and Bob Gillen

November 2000

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Links for Learning

Finding Curriculum Connections for High School Teachers and Students

This month’s Links for Learners will support high school curriculum in:

    • Religion—ethics; moral responsibility
    • Media—broadcast journalism; media ethics; communication skills
    • History—Freedom of speech; Constitutional rights
Finding Links for Discussion Group Leaders and Participants

Look for connections for use in programs outside the classroom, such as:

  • Parish sacramental preparation programs and CCD classes; young adult discussion programs; seasonal discussion groups; RCIA programs.
  • Parents will also find this material useful in initiating discussion around the dinner table, in home study, at family activities.

Understanding Basic Terms in This Month’s Article

Look for the key words and terms below as you read the article. Definitions or explanations can be researched from the article itself or from the resource materials cited throughout the Links for Learners. You can also find a list of terms on the glossary page of AmericanCatholic Youth.

News Anchor

Ethics

Freedom of Speech

Broadcast journalism

Unbiased

Television ratings

Cable network

Constitutional rights

Role of the News Anchor—Personal Ethics

How has the immediacy of news changed the way news anchors deal with the news? With today's technology, such as videotape, microwave relay, satellite transmission and the Internet, news delivery of an event can be immediate. We the audience see what the reporters see at the same moment. Haven't we all watched a local news story, perhaps a fire or a high-speed chase, where the news anchors and reporters commentate (or speculate), even when they know no more about the event than we do?

Some believe that the immediacy of technology has brought a decline in journalistic values. Av Westin, executive producer of ABC News' 20th Century Project, said several years ago that networks have lost "editorial thinking power," with a resulting loss of quality. News producers do not have the luxury of time to ponder ethical issues or even consult legal counsel before airing an event. Mistakes happen. Errors in judgment occur.

News anchors like CNN's Bill Hemmer are in the hot seat every day. They are the faces of the network news, the voices that audiences trust for news and truth. In this election year 2000, both presidential candidates turned to the trusted PBS's Jim Lehrer to moderate their debates.

No doubt many also remember the live broadcast of the opening of gangster Al Capone's safe. Journalism or sensationalism?

Have many of television's news anchors become talk show hosts in effect? How do their roles differ? Do their responsibilities differ? Who has more influence: Dan Rather, Jim Lehrer and Bill Moyer or Oprah Winfrey, Rosie O'Donnell and MTV's Carson Daly?

The Society of Professional Journalists supports personal and network ethics in journalism. The Society offers these broad guidelines as a code of ethics for journalists:

  • Seek truth and report it
  • Minimize harm
  • Act independently
  • Be accountable

Role of the Broadcast Network—Professional Ethics

In America we celebrate free speech as one of our Constitutional rights. News bureaus, broadcast networks and individual journalists report on the truth as they see it and find it, with no fear of government reprisal or monitoring.

In contrast, according to a report from the Columbia Journalism Review, 50 journalists have been killed in the South American country of Colombia in the last 10 years alone. Countless others have faced death threats.

American journalism enjoys unparalleled freedom. But with that freedom comes enormous responsibility. How accurately do our journalists report the truth? How faithful to broadcast standards and ethics are our broadcast networks?

On September 20, 2000, Howard Rosenberg, television critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a column on a recent book written by Av Westin, former executive producer for ABC's evening newscast. Rosenberg's point was that a respected former insider to broadcast journalism sees such an erosion of television news standards that perhaps nothing can turn it around. When Westin researched his book, Best Practices for Television Journalists, written for the Freedom Forum, he came to realize just how bad the situation has become.

In talking to reporters and producers, Westin was stunned to hear about rampant "closet racism, pandering for ratings and management compromises." Westin's ultimate fear is that as journalism standards erode, so will public support for press freedoms under the First Amendment.

Fair. Accurate. Balanced. This is what we expect from a broadcast network. Standards of good journalism do exist. The Columbia University-affiliated Project for Excellence in Journalism rates network news broadcasts on such criteria as:

  • Reflecting the community
  • Covering a wide range of topics
  • Containing balanced stories
  • Focusing on significant issues and ideas
  • Citing multiple sources
  • Quoting authoritative people

Numerous resources cover journalistic standards:

A school or organization with even a small budget for research can conduct a comparison of present news coverage with television footage from history. The Television News Archive at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee will provide file footage from its archives, sending it to you on videotape. You can select and order coverage of a specific event from a specific source and date, or ask them to compile edited footage for you. Fees vary. Your class or group could compare, for example, how the networks covered World War II, the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. What effect has current technology had on the way we see the news? How much information did each period provide on-air? Can you see differences in researched background?

To see just how television ratings affect local news coverage, videotape and compare several news broadcasts during television's "sweeps" months (November, February and May) with broadcasts from other months. Do you see more emphasis in sweeps months on sensationalism, sex and violence? A local news anchor recently said on-air: "Coming up, see acupuncture done live…on me."

Apply journalism standards to a sweeps broadcast. What do you find: a chase for commercial success or a dedication to journalistic truth?

Resources Specific to this Topic

Life: Our Century in Pictures for Young People, Little Brown, 2000. This resource draws from Life magazine and other photographic collections to capture the social progress, politics, science, technology and arts of the 20th century. Essays by notable children's authors, such as Katherine Paterson, Gary Paulsen, Avi and Lois Lowry, accompany each section of the book.

Research Resources
Try accessing some of these Internet sources for further reference. Be aware, however, that some of these sites may charge for downloading articles contained within the site’s archives.
Pathfinder - Access site to a number of online news publications
People magazine
The Close Up FoundationWashington, D.C.-based organization


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