Last September, Dan Gillmor wrote an essay on journalism education that should be read by everyone in higher education. He included this prescription:
“Persuade the president (or chancellor, or whatever the title) and trustees of the university that every student on the campus should learn journalism principles and skills before graduating, preferably during freshman year.” (Bold is mine.)
Former UNC Chancellor James Moeser could have used such a course. What he said to Chapel Hill Magazine suggests that he doesn’t understand what the news media do.
“I think [the media] has really put a target on the university, and they’ve treated The Carolina Way in a very cynical fashion, trashing it, really, and indicating The Carolina Way was always just a fiction, a façade we put in front of misbehavior. I really resent that. I think The Carolina Way is genuine, I think it’s real. I’m really angry about the [media]. I think they target people, and they take pleasure in bringing people down.” (Hat tip to Deadspin.)
It’s unclear what specific news organization he’s damning. (He may have been specific in his statement, but the magazine paraphrased it to the vague and nearly meaningless “media.”) . But “media” refers to everything from The New York Times to FoxNews to TMZ to blogs, and some of those likely target people and take pleasure in bringing them down.
But it’s probable that he was thinking about the News & Observer, which has been tenacious in its reporting on the scandals at the university. But it neither targets people nor takes pleasure in bringing them down. (For the record, I worked for the N&O in the 1970s and still know people there.)
What actually has happened is that the N&O discovered some rot in the internal workings at UNC in athletics and academia and, like an infection in the body, you have to keep going after it to get rid of it all. That’s what the N&O has done and is still doing. There is a perception that the stories just keep coming, like a faucet dripping throughout the night. That’s because stories don’t come out fully baked. This isn’t a television program that ends at the top of the hour with a bow on top. Instead, reporters don’t know where the story is going to lead; they ask questions and try to follow the answers to get at the truth.
Officials operate with a different M.O. In this case, I believe that they want to get to the truth, but they also want to protect the institution and, often times, themselves. They operate under a different time schedule than the news media. They conduct investigations, appoint task forces, decline to comment. As a result, reporters write what they know when they know it. Stories are almost always incomplete. One story leads to another; more questions occur; more sources come forth; more records are found. Drip, drip, drip.
Through it all, newspapers do their damnedest to follow these principles.
1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
2. Its first loyalty is to citizens.
3. Its essence is a discipline of verification.
4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
Best I can tell from reading the coverage for two years, that’s exactly what the News & Observer has done. I understood the media landscape well enough, too, last fall when I told my classes that then-Chancellor Holden Thorp’s tenure was about to end. That was three days before he announced his resignation. It’s the rare public official who can survive the drip-drip-drip of stories that embarrass the institution.
As an editor, I heard from people every week who were angry at something we did. Occasionally, they were right, but most of the time, their complaints demonstrated to me that there was little understanding about what journalists do and why. Consequently, they blamed the media for publicizing stories they didn’t want publicized. I understand loyalty to your institution; I’m showing it here. I also understand listening to facts…and trying to get to the bottom of problems.
Are there similar issues at other schools? Possibly. Should the news media investigate wrongdoing at them? Absolutely. But it is worth noting that the very slogan Moeser cites – “The Carolina Way – reflects “the spirit of this University—excellence with integrity and heart.” It is a goal toward which the university always strives. And which the news media are helping achieve, whether or not the institution believes it.
Back to Gillmor’s prescription at the beginning of this post. Media literacy is a vital skill today when mass media is so omnipresent and influential. Understanding how the news media works and doesn’t work should be a core competency for everyone. Had Moeser taken my 100-level mass media class at his former institution he would have learned something.