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Amid Increased Scrutiny of the Media, a Free Press Faces More Calls for Accountability

by on April 04, 2019 4:30 AM

We live in an age of intense tribalism where media mistrust and criticism allows any story we dislike to be dismissed with the phrase #FakeNews. Mistrust and belief of bias has been hastened by the fall of the previously sacrosanct wall between those who deliver opinions and journalists delivering fact-based pieces.

Some entertainers masquerading as “credible” media sources of “facts” appear on stage at political rallies, while others lob virtual grenades from their social media platforms. It has made for confusing times where all media is seen as fair game for the back and forth of social media hashtag fighting.

Recently, Penn State’s College of Communications honored media veteran Jeff Ballou. He used the occasion to talk about the Sandusky story. He cited as a negative people’s response to media covering that story, stating that they tried to “intimidate and troll using social media and other methods for that straight up reporting that looks like it’s critical of Penn State, the Paterno family….”

Putting aside the heavy-handed mention of Penn State and my family, what he is saying applies to the national media. The increased scrutiny of media is part of a very real debate about the accountability of media and how society reacts to it.

We know all too well that many things reported as factual were based on information from misleading or intentionally lying sources. It is a scenario repeated every day in America. Every time it happens, the credibility of all media takes a hit. But stories that get it wrong also do lasting damage to real people who never really ever get the truth completely back.  

Thankfully, we live in a country where we have freedom of the press, but also freedom of speech. We should expect, and deserve, a media to investigate, establish and report the facts of the stories that shape our world. But in 2019, media should expect that they will hear back on what they’ve reported. And when they make mistakes they should hear about it.

In the past, a letter to the newspaper editor might never see the light of day. Now, we all have a platform to freely express our opinions to media members. The accessibility to media members is compounded by the realities of the marketplace.

Journalists fight to build their brand in a hyper-competitive and content-flooded industry. Grasping for the currency of name recognition and “likes” comes with a different type of exposure, one opening them to direct critical feedback. Their reporting of the facts can, will and should be scrutinized for accuracy.

Call it intimidation, call it trolling, but it is a grown-up world where reporters are now open to public reaction like the people they’ve covered have been forever. I’ve lived on both sides of that line.

Through decades of coaching football, there were those who let you have it on social media, via email, phone calls to my home and even anonymous letters. Once our starting quarterback, a black man, was accused (and later cleared) of assaulting a white off-duty cop in his hometown. The letters we received for playing him were savage both in their criticism and overt racism. In the years since 2011, where, contrary to some people’s faulty beliefs, so many media members got the story at Penn State wrong, we got blasted by people all over social media for setting the record straight. We just ignored the backlash.

In writing columns or opinions or breaking news, getting praised and blasted is the price we pay for taking a stand. If that is something we can’t understand or accept then we should yield the floor to someone who can take the heat.

We can only be intimidated or trolled on social media if we allow it. It is a choice. And if we are the type who wants to get into a back-and-forth with people on Twitter just forget it. Trolls generally have more time on their hands and are more passionate about their wedge issue.

So what should we seek from our media? We can aggressively assert both the freedom and the responsibility of the press. The back-and-forth between journalists and the powerful people they cover has always been there. The opinions of people have always been there.

And what should our media seek in facing the angry virtual mobs? A journalist delivering truth and facts with a responsibility and a pledge to ethics maintains the all-important currency of credibility. It won’t erase all of the critics. As a wise man once said to me, “Even among his Apostles, Jesus only had 11 of 12 who remained loyal.”

But sticking to truth, staying true to the most noble of journalistic goals, is the greatest force we have. There is no greater defense in a forest of trolls than knowing within yourself that your conscience is clear.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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