The University of Technology’s Final Year Student Exhibition is being held this week to celebrate fourth year students’ achievements. In honor of this, esterday marked the arrival of CNN’s now-retired vice-president and senior editorial director of news, Richard T. Griffiths.
Prior to his remarks, we were first treated to the performances of a couple of original poems by students, as well as a video showcasing some of the students’ work. Then Mr. Griffiths spoke. I am so grateful that I attended, as his speech somehow crystallized some ideas and answered some questions I have been pondering for a year now since I began teaching journalism at Utech.
Mr. Griffiths discussed the state of the news media in general from both the perspective of a journalist as well as a business executive mindful of the bottom line.
He leaned heavily on some metaphorical thinking, evoking the beautiful images of navigating one’s way through volatile and violent rapids. He showed us pictures from his family vacation, their successful maneuvering through one set of particularly dangerous rapids. And he applied this to the current media landscape, but also made sure to point out that history is repeating itself, specifically the explosion of social media and its effect on journalism can be compared with the yellow journalism of the turn of the 19th Century. This was when newspapers inflated news and headlines simply to sell papers.
He referred to William Randolph Hearst, who owned the New York Journal, and was competing with the Pulitzer family’s New York World. At that time, he found that daily stories of war sold papers, so he latched on to the Cuban revolt against Spain. He even sent a reporter down there, who discovered no such war. No worries, said Hearst.
“Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”
This famous quote (although there is some dispute as to whether or not this actually happened) illustrates the extent to which he was willing to go to sell news. In fact, several weeks later a U.S. ship exploded, killing 274 people, which was actual news that the was further able to latch on to.
The point of this story was to show the power that social media has to break news. The missing ingredient, however, is the fact-checking process, the provision of background and investigative journalism. These are skills specific to journalists, Griffiths said.
He also discussed the severe lack of trust, which is a global phenomenon, he said, referring to the Edelman Trust Barometer for 2017. “To be effective as media, you have to be trusted,” he said.
The lack of trust, he said, is “scary stuff for journalists.” The general atmosphere surrounding the media, especially amongst some citizens of certain Eastern European nations (who he said attempted to alter the election results with fake news), is a “clear ploy to undermine trust in the institutions that challenge” those in authority.
In the past few years, he added, the media has failed in several ways. These include a failure to adapt quickly enough to new technology, an arrogance about correcting mistakes, not being sufficiently clear about the processes and practices of journalism and the lack of clear delineation between fact and opinion.
Griffiths’ speech concluded with a question and answer period, then we were off to view the students’ projects.