Throwback: The decline of journalism

September 15, 1987

Ken Bosman

“An informed voter is the sword of democracy.” -Thomas Jefferson

Journalists have become obsessed with scandal and titillation rather than information and education. Our governments, institutions, and quality of leadership all suffer as a result.

In the hunt for the “big story” the public debate on substantive matters of public policy is lost to the shocked outrage of the day. Public perception and government action are thus evaluated not by their value and benefit to people’s lives, but rather by what journalists deem newsworthy. Style over substance; perception over reality.

How much Brian Mulroney spends on his hotel room when he visits Upper Volta is an easy story to get. You file an Access To Information request, get the numbers, ask some opposition critic to be outraged — voila! Instant front page story.

But is the public really served by such “journalism”? Certainly the public has a right to know such information. But what if scandal and corruption become such an obsession for public and media alike, that the matters which truly affect our lives are lost in the editorial shuffle?

What Brian Mulroney thinks about Free Trade with the United States may well shape the destiny of the Canadian economy, millions of jobs, and our quality of life for decades to come, and is thus slightly more important than his personal expense account.

Yet somehow I have a strange feeling that our PM ordering a $75-a-bottle of wine with his dinner would bump Free Trade off the front page of most newspapers. in this country.

These choices of what to cover are even more exaggerated at the student newspaper level where resources in terms of staff and time are very limited. The types of stories that get pursued are extremely sensitive to the direction, inclination, and objectives of those seeking the stories. If those writing news spend all their time searching for scandal, surely they will find some.

How the University of Alberta reacts to this year’s 3 per cent budget cut is a story that impacts directly and forcefully upon the quality of our education. Whether the U of A chooses to balance the books by laying off academic staff versus raising incidental fees is a policy decision of infinitely greater importance to students than whether Myer Horowitz drinks cheap domestic or expensive imported wine at the GFC executive luncheons.

The effectiveness of our student leaders should be measured by how well they combat the proposed changes to course drop dates, or how well they advocate student sensitive means of university cost cutting, or the competence with which they publicize student concerns to the wider public. All of these are vastly more important to the real lives of real students than strippers in SUB.

This decline is journalism cannot be entirely blamed on the media, of course. After all, The National Enquirer outsells the New York Times roughly 20 to one. The economics of selling newspapers thus dictates that a successful publication be more like the former and less like the latter.

When I first saw the quote of Jefferson’s, my first response was “it’s the one form of disarmament we have been able to achieve.” A bitter belief that makes me cry for our society and our liberty, and our democracy.

I believe that the highest goal of journalism is to help rebuild this arsenal of democracy and university is as good a place to start as any.

Link to original article: http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/newspapers/GAT/1987/09/15/4/Ar00400.html?query=newspapers%7Cscandal%7C%28publication%3AGAT%29%7Cscore