The five ideals in the article A Free and Responsible Press written by the Hutchins Commission (1947) (as cited in Peters and Simonson, 2004) seemed as pertinent today as they were when the report was published. In the article the commission presents ideal requirements that responsible news media should practice to satisfy a free and informed society. A brief summary of the ideals are that:
1. The media should be truthful and accurate. This includes separating facts from opinions.
2. The media should also publish information and ideas that are contrary to their own.
3. Social groups should be accurately represented.
4. Reporting should present a realistic depiction of events. Mass communication should be an instrument of education.
5. The citizenry should have full access to available information.
While reading this article I couldn’t help but wonder how the mass media of today fares with regard to these ideals. Do the 24 hour television news channels even meet any of these ideals? To fill 24 hours, CNN, Fox and MSNBC offer hours of punditry and news commentary. Rather than just presenting the news, it is often presented through the filter of a pundit. I think it is challenging for the average viewer to distinguish where facts end and opinions begin. Program hosts can flavor their broadcasts with whatever findings they want and to confirm their own biases. The consolidation of media ownership has also created a lot of group-think within each of these media outlets. And it is difficult to see whether such media is actually educating the population in the way the Hutchins Commission suggested.
A study conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that viewers of the three main news outlets, CNN, Fox and MSNBC, were less informed about domestic and international events than listeners of NPR and viewers of Sunday talk shows. In fact viewers of The Daily Show scored higher on knowledge of current events than viewers of any of the three main 24 hours news channels. Most interesting, however, was the fact that viewers of Fox News actually scored lower on the survey than those who watched and listened to no news at all.
The study’s survey also found that ideological news sources, like Fox and MSNBC, were mainly just speaking to one particular audience. Rather than offering countering opinions and an accurate representation of events, they were more likely to focus on presenting information in a way as to entrench their audience’s already existing views.
Peters, J.D. & Simonson, P. (2004) Mass Communication and American Social Thought: Key Texts, 1919-1968. Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield.