Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, thanks for starting your week with us.
The Age of Revolutions, it began in those heady final decades of the 18th century when nations across the world confronted and vanquished the unlimited power of monarchs and established new forms of government centered in the sovereignty of the people themselves. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution. In the midst of these world-altering changes, Irish political philosopher, Edmund Burke, explained, quote--
Edmund Burke: "There are three estates in Parliament but in the Reporters' Gallery yonder there sits a Fourth Estate more important far than they all."
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Oh, yes, the fourth estate. Those journalists and reporters of a free and independent press, they're critical to the great experiment and self-governance, the one that we're still experimenting with. Thomas Jefferson, author of America's Declaration of Independence maintained the quote, "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost."
Now, of course, that was Jefferson's opinion back in 1786 at the height of the revolutionary fervor. He was much less enamored of an unrestrained fourth estate two decades later when Philadelphia cartoonist, James Aitken, published a political parody of Jefferson alongside Sally Hemings. Hemings, of course, is the enslaved woman with whom Jefferson fathered six children. The political cartoon rendered Jefferson as a strutting rooster and Hemings as a hen in a head scarf. It was titled The Philosophic Cock.
Now, should we read that 1804 cartoon as evidence of journalistic independence and accountability through satire, or was it just sensationalism and gossip meant to sell papers? Oh, yes, this is not new. We've been debating the value, the quality, and the motivations of American media organizations for more than 220 years. It got a little hot this weekend. If you hopped on social media, you probably saw the trending #Boycott60Minutes because more than a few people were pretty angry with the venerable televised news magazine's decision to air an interview with representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican, known for spreading disinformation and supporting January 6th insurrectionists.
While the critiques are not new, what is relatively new is the American public's deep mistrust of the press. Earlier this year, data from Gallup and The Knight Foundation showed that in 2020, for the first time since they've been tracking it, a majority of Americans expressed they have no confidence in news media. According to the Pew Research Center, trust in US media has declined precipitously at the same time that it has divided along polarized partisan lines.
Speaker: We asked, "Do you trust the news media?" A lot of people answered no to that question. Then to unpack that idea, and Americans are equally comfortable saying, "Yes, I really like, and I really trust some sources but not others." In a way their trust has become disaggregated and divided.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: It's not just about analysis. Americans who access different news sources are presented with widely divergent views of reality and the fast-changing pace of digital media and the profit-driven marketplace of news, the fourth estate can be hard to recognize as the critical component of democratic stability that 18th-century philosophers believe it must be.
Christine McWhorter: I don't think traditional legacy media is prepared. My name is Christine McWhorter. I'm a critical race media literacy expert at Howard University where I'm an assistant professor. I think of marginalized communities in the newsroom still. I don't think that we can properly report on all of the perspectives that are necessary without having that. I think there needs to be a purposeful deliberate shift in these newsrooms so that we're able to represent people from all backgrounds. I don't think we can get a full understanding of the moment that's happening without that.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Help folks to understand when you say that newsrooms aren't diverse, what do you mean, and what does that have to do with being prepared for this moment?
Christine McWhorter: If we're talking about legacy media, the companies that we're watching all the time, the traditional companies aren't hiring marginalized communities at the level that I think that they should. When I talk about the newsroom, I just mean the writers, reporters, producers, all the way up to news directors should be more reflective of their audience, of the people consuming their media, and should be more reflective of that because the issues that matter to the audience, the issues that are salient in news should be covered from a perspective where they understand that.
It should be an issue where I know how to speak to this community because I'm from this community. I have experience, so I understand what culturally is important. I understand what information I need to hone in on, what's impossible to not miss. I think it's important because we're missing a lot of the context. We're missing a lot of the nuance simply because people can't think outside of their own experience. It's difficult to report that way.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: If I'm a reporter, why do I need to be from the community? I think about US reporters embedded in war zones. They may not be from Ukraine or even from a Ukrainian immigrant family, but isn't that exactly what we're supposed to be trained to do as journalists is to find a way to engage in communities and with topics that are novel to us? What difference does it make, this question of identity?
Christine McWhorter: It's a huge difference. I think journalists should be able to go into any community and properly interview and ingratiate themselves among the people. That's a completely different story from the person who reports in Detroit, is from Detroit, understood the housing issues and the water issues, and has experienced themselves. You're going to get a completely different report from a person who hasn't been there and is reporting as an outsider. To make sure that the issue has color, to make sure that the issue is reported in a way that feels genuine to the audience, that the audience can connect to, it's better to be a person from that background.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, how does that connect to what is often thought of as the gold standard in journalism, which is this notion of objectivity?
Christine McWhorter: I'll tell you, I think sometimes we're too objective. A lot of times we come to an issue and we don't want to take sides and we don't want to have bias. I think that's good. We're not supposed to have bias. We need to maintain our credibility. There are some times where there is no two sides. I don't think there are two sides to every story when you're dealing with oppression, injustice, inequity. We need to come to that from a perspective of advocacy, not from a perspective of giving misinformation or disinformation in the name of advocacy, not from a perspective of editorializing or putting our own feelings in but definitely journalists do have the power to be writers of wrongs, and so to say that we must always be objective, personally, that's not something I agree with.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: We're talking with Christine McWhorter. Quick break, right back with more after this.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: We're back with assistant professor Christine McWhorter from Howard University talking about the role of media and journalism. What does it look like to do good work that also has a standpoint?
Christine McWhorter: I think a great example of advocacy journalism that doesn't have bias or commentary or editorializing would be work from Linda Villarosa. Her work is phenomenal and she reports-- and it is advocacy. You do learn about maternal health rates and disparities between women of color and other women. It's putting the facts out there that people need to know that they don't necessarily have access to. I think that's the part of journalism that general audiences don't have. They don't know how to find statistics and report them accurately and in context necessarily. They don't know how to vet a source or make sure information is credible.
As a journalist, you can do that. To have that skillset and the access to the information and to put it together in a way that people can understand, that's advocacy. It doesn't require your opinion, it just requires delivering the information that people otherwise would not know or understand.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: In a world where we are consumers of media, how do you start to talk about something like what constitutes a credible source, or how do we think about the right kinds of comparisons to make when it comes to data?
Christine McWhorter: That's a media literacy issue, being able to look at media critically, and understand all of the different sides that are thrown at us, who wrote it, whether or not that person is credible, whether or not the quote that someone has is in context or out of contact, who stands to gain from the information, is it misinformation or disinformation? Because, as journalists, it's the most important job we have to be able to find credible, accurate information and disseminate it to the public.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Do you think most working journalists these days have good media literacy?
Christine McWhorter: I think when it comes to the legacies, everyone has a degree of understanding of what constitutes a primary source versus secondary, tertiary. Most people can understand why they need to vet their sources. I think sometimes in the rush to get a story out first, you're not going to necessarily verify all the details. I think, in the quest to get the highest ratings, you might go to the more sensational side of a story, rather than the more nuanced or contextual story that might give the audience more information. I don't think it's that most working journalists lack the skills, I think it's that they don't use them.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: It's interesting, though, because in part by bringing up issues like ratings or issues breaking the story first, all these are the incentive structure, the water in which we're all swimming, and, of course, also this content, content, content pressure. How do those incentive structures warp or shape or make us less able to meet this moment?
Christine McWhorter: Because the pressure is on, it's almost as if the news is the star. Everyone has their eyes on the media 24/7 all the time anyway. The pressure to be the first one to break the story or the pressure to be the person who told the story in a way that gathers more viewers instead of in a way that's more factually based, there's impact on that on our democracy, on our way of living, on our children, everything. It does a disservice to our audience, people living every day.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: I feel like I want to ask you a question that I always ask when I have the opportunity to hire. What do you believe is the role of a journalist?
Christine McWhorter: I think if you would have asked me that a few years back, I would say to be able to deliver information accurately and with credibility and to do that service for your viewers. I think now, a journalist's role is to document history in a way that elevates society and changes the world.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Christine McWhorter is critical race media literacy expert and Assistant Professor of Broadcast Journalism at Howard University.
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