Columns

Malik ’18: Don’t lose faith in the fourth estate

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Over spring break, I watched “Spotlight” with my brother. It’s a powerful movie that displays how journalism, by exposing injustice, is vital to keeping those with power in check. I was moved by the film, but its impact clashed with my deep cynicism about the news today. I complained to my brother that journalism is in trouble because older and better outlets have lost their audiences to cable news networks, which have become entertainment channels. I said that cable news networks prioritize viewership and ad revenue because they serve their shareholders above the truth. With my words, I painted a bleak picture.

I was shocked a few days later when cable news networks actually provided examples of good journalism, in both CNN’s and MSNBC’s town halls. I did not watch the events as they aired, but I read Callum Borchers’ insightful reactions in the Washington Post. Borchers commends Anderson Cooper for asking hard questions and following up when interviewing Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, and he explains how Chris Matthews was able to get Trump to answer a question about punishing women who have abortions. Borchers highlighted the successes of journalists working to get substantial information from presidential candidates, which is necessary for voters to make informed decisions. This made me realize that different forms of journalism are valuable, and that my response to journalistic failures — a denouncement, really — was unproductive.

Journalism  seeks to convey and document important information to the public. Newspapers and other outlets serve as the record for major events. A truly free press is responsible to only its readers — not to politicians, not to business leaders and not to anyone else in a high position. A source of news, if independent from other interests, serves its readers by revealing what powerful and public people do, good or bad. A local newspaper is responsible for telling readers if a local business leader is implementing unsafe or unfair practices. A national news network should point out if a public figure is acting unjustly. Newspapers have a unique role in enforcing accountability.

Different providers of news are required because they have different levels of focus. When they co-exist, they document various levels of wrongdoing. Exposing injustice is not limited to people in well-known, lofty positions; newspapers can bring to light issues that plague every level of society. This brings the need for journalism closer to home: the college campus.

College and university newspapers are crucial. Just as their regional and national counterparts do on a different scale, these publications can keep those in positions of power accountable. In addition, they serve an important role in covering developments in higher education. According to the Brookings Institution, “just 1.4 percent of the space and airtime in the mainstream media is going toward education coverage.” If the typical news outlets only rarely cover what happens in schools overall, then college newspapers are especially necessary to document what happens on campuses.

And we know that what happens on campuses has to be documented. On a college campus, the problems in the surrounding society, such as racism and sexual violence, are all too present. Also present on college campuses, but not elsewhere, are multiple resources aimed at addressing such issues. These include knowledge gained in the classroom, guidance from faculty members and support from peers. These factors allow activism to develop on campus in ways that people outside of academia may not be able to access.

Both injustices and responses to injustices have to be documented, the former so that people can understand that societal problems persist, and the latter so that people can see how this generation is striving for justice. College newspapers are closest to the occurrences and are best able to accurately convey what takes place.

Recent events prove that reporting done by campus newspapers can be crucial. In ABC News’ story about racist incidents at Yale and the following March of Resilience that took place last November, the network used the Yale Daily News as a source of information about what took place.

Unfortunately, news organizations fail too often. Cable news networks, for example, can sensationalize stories. The Herald, too, has had its own set of failures. But the response to failures of the fourth estate should not be rejection or denunciation.

The way I rejected cable news networks when I was talking with my brother was unproductive. The better response would have been engagement. Demanding more accurate information and working toward that goal helps everyone more than complaints. Taking an active response can result in constructive changes.

If people reject organizations, especially those that are essential to democratic societies, they are not invested in the organizations’ or societies’ successes. If they instead engage and demand the institutions to improve, people become invested in their accomplishments and can also help make necessary improvements.

It is critical that we are all invested in the press, both on a national level and on campus. The times we live in are tumultuous; there are numerous crises around the world. We need records of what happens. We need to expose wrongs. We need to keep people in power accountable for their actions. We need the fourth estate.

Ameer Malik ’18 can be reached at ameer_malik@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.