Well, folks, I met with an expert. He is the director of the Center of Journalism Ethics based out of UW-Madison, as well as the assistant editor of a periodical that focuses on issues of journalistic ethics.
Dr. Stephen Ward was kind enough to agree to meet with me to discuss both the methods used in my research and provide any information he thought would be helpful and relevant to my research project.
I must admit, I was a bit nervous going into this meeting, because some professors are intimidating and you never quite know what they’re going to think of you, but in the first 10 seconds of the meeting, I could tell the meeting would go smoothly and he would be a tremendous help. The initial focus of our conversation was just on the history of political journalism and some of the ways it has changed in recent history. In the time of John F. Kennedy, any aspect of a politician’s personal life was virtually untouchable to the news media. It is a well-documented fact that JFK was regularly involved in extra-marital affairs and there is much speculation that he was addicted to painkillers. In modern America, it would take probably less than a week for a blogger to catch wind of the story and if it were validated, major newspapers would be printing front page stories every day. These days, every aspect of a politician’s life is interesting to the news media, even stories which some find not interesting.
When asked about this phenomenon, Ward explained that journalism should, in its purest form, minimize harm, but that there is certainly an economic component to all things media. If writing a story about Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits, Sarah Palin’s hairdresser, or Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith will sell papers, it is difficult for a paper to reject such a story, particularly in a time when the print media in particular is struggling to stay afloat.
As for minimizing harm, Ward explained that the primary component of this rule is to minimize, NOT eliminate. Most stories will cause some harm to someone, but minimizing that harm is critical. Ward used the example of a gang informant sharing information on a bike gang. To reveal the identity of the informant may be interesting to readers, but it could also lead directly to bodily harm for that informant, thus, the story should be printed because the public should know, but to reveal the identity would be irresponsible.
We also discussed the candidates upon whom I have based my research and his first comment was simply on the sheer volume of news media dedicated to Sarah Palin, which took approximately 20 seconds of research to determine. Palin has become a figure of sheer fascination to the press, which Ward believes in based somewhat in her “sexual” nature. While Palin’s conservative ideology does set her apart, most would conclude that Palin is indeed an attractive woman, thus, more interesting to the public. Ward also explained that this much coverage can be beneficial and that Palin has likely learned the best way to use this coverage to her advantage. As for the other candidates, Hillary Clinton has long been a figure of interest, but she is also an intimidating woman. She is also not new to the national political scene, and thus, somewhat less of a novelty than Palin, whose position as Alaska governor did not provide nearly the national stage of a former first lady and US Senator.
Ward, who is the author of global journalism expert, expressed great interest in the project, particularly because this type of research has not necessarily caught up with modern political figures and ideas. Blogs, cable news, and constant wall-to-wall coverage, has changed the news, because in order to stay afloat, papers need to provide different substance than other sources, without violating the concept of what a newspaper should be.
I was planning on sharing some pictures with you from my adventure to Madison, but I have to be completely honest. I got very, very lost on campus. If there were a way to teach someone how to have a sense of direction, I would pay a great sum of money for that opportunity. I thought it was probably better to find his office on time than to take pictures, but I can tell you that it’s a beautiful campus. That being said, I still prefer Whitewater and its small town charm.
I am planning on taking Dr. Ward up on his offer to continue providing support and information as my project evolves, as I’m sure it will long past the conclusion of this summer research experience.