The central theme of the ICA convention this year was “Communication @ the Center.” A pretty obvious, yet intriguing point, that the process of communication (and subsequently what ICA members study) is truly at the center of most human activities. What this means is that not only is communication a part of everything else, but also inversely, everything else is part of communication.
I mention this because many of the journalism studies sessions at ICA (and other conferences and journals of late, academic and professional, for that matter) have focused on new players in the journalism world. These new players are citizen journalists (see my most recent post), opinion bloggers, public relations professionals, and very interestingly, comedians. Yes, it’s of little question that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have had some influence on how we think about journalism. After all, some (at least in academia) have suggested that studying such political satire is an important area of research. After all, the reason why I was at ICA was because of a paper on the Rally to Restore Sanity.
I attended a session on Sunday morning that included several panelists, including one (Geoffrey Baym, author of “From Cronkite to Colbert: The evolution of broadcast news”) whose presentation focused on Colbert’s testimony to Congress last September regarding U.S. agricultural jobs. Baym’s paper (“Politics and the performance of satire: Stephen Colbert’s Harvest of Shame”) compared that testimony to the 1960 Edward R. Murrow prime-time Thanksgiving-day documentary “Harvest of Shame,” which told the story of migrant farm workers.
Baym showed that most media coverage of Colbert’s testimony focused only on the novelty of the comedian testifying in front of Congress, with cable news shows and newspaper editorials asking whether it was appropriate for the comedian to be doing this. Many also focused on the merging of entertainment, journalism, and politics. Baym said, and I agree, that most news media framed the story as if news and entertainment are often distinct entities, when they themselves engage in entertainment-like performance.
Of course, Colbert’s testimony was funny, and he did make several jokes. But were those jokes meant to simply entertain, or were they meant to use political satire as a tool to poke at the errors in our food policy? More than likely, Colbert had multiple goals in mind, but I think that there was a public service mission high in his list of priorities.
Many professional journalists believe very strongly in the principle of independence, that that principle helps them tell the verified truth in a way that is loyal to citizens. But when we get news or civic-type information from non-traditional news sources, how do we evaluate the extent to which they serve a public service mission similar to that which was the cornerstone of modern journalism?
While most agree that it’s impossible for journalists — or anyone for that matter — to be objective, we still expect our journalists to be focused on one primarily goal: finding the truth. In other words, their public service IS providing the truth in a way that’s useful to citizens. One important question now is how do we evaluate the public service mission of non-journalists, who perhaps have additional goals beyond the truth.