Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Social Responsibility of the Press: Lessons From the 1947 Hutchins Commission

Journalists and the media platforms that broadcast their work play an essential role in the American version of democracy. Those who write the news, produce, and distribute it act as an unofficial fourth estate of government. Founders including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson felt that the press should act as a watchdog that keeps-in-check the actions of the executive, legislative, and judicial estates of government.

The history of journalism is necessarily entangled with the history of technology. With each technological revolution, the fourth estate has undergone considerable transformations. In its earliest appearance town criers would read the news aloud to a largely illiterate citizenry. The press came to refer to the news when figures such as  John Campbell, John Peter Zenger, and Benjamin Franklin established press-printed news broadsheets; early forms of print newspapers. The technological transition passed from an oral, to print, to electronic, and currently to digital medium which has been described as a networked fourth estate or a fifth estate. Marshall McLuhan's (now banal) declaration that, "the medium is the message," points to the fact that technology influences how we receive, process, and react to information.

Print magazines tell us what happened last week. Print newspapers tell us what happened yesterday. Facebook tells us what just happened, and Twitter tells us what is about to happen. With the transition from print to digital media, we encountered a compressing of time between when something happened and when it was reported. With each technological shift we find a decrease in time between event and reporting. This necessarily means that information being reported will change.

We find that a weekly news magazines, either in print or digital format will be longer, more in-depth, and presented in a way that is necessarily distant from the event itself. The time available to the journalist for research, thinking, and writing lends itself to a more deliberate style of reporting. At the opposite end of this spectrum is the Twitter-like, 24/7 news flow that was introduced by CNN in 1980. News that is reported live is necessarily less deliberate, less thoughtful, and less researched than is weekly or even daily news. It is intrinsically more reactive than other forms of news.

There is a direct relationship between the time taken to report and the accuracy, depth, understanding, and ethicality of that which is reported. We find that the more time between the event and the reporting on it, the more deliberate and credible the reporting is. With the as-it-happens presentation of the news comes a certain rumorous buzz that appeals the most base aspects of our species. Being in the know is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past.

During World War II the publisher of both Time and Life magazines, Henry Luce, became increasingly aware of the important role that the media played in modern democracy. Luce was one of the most influential Americans of the mid-twentieth century, and Life magazine was a dominant weekly, photojournal that shaped the public's opinion of the war. In 1943 Luce approached the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins to lead a Commission on Freedom of the Press to scientifically evaluate the impact of media on American democracy.

The findings of the Hutchins Commission were published in 1947. The 140 page report described the influence of mass media on society and its implications for a healthful democracy. Of particular interest is the final section of the last chapter entitled, What can be Done by the Public. The suggestions by the commission of university academics are relevant to us today and essential to building a media literate citizenry in the age of media saturation.

The Hutchins Commission concluded that journalists needed to take more social responsibility in their reporting of the news. The commission established five requirements for members of the press:

1. The media should provide a truthful, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day's events in a context which gives them meaning.
2. The media should serve as a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism.
3. The media should project a representative picture of the constituent groups in the society.
4. The media should present and clarify the goals and values of the society.
5. The media should provide full access to the day's intelligence.

At the heart of the concluding chapter of the report, we find an emphatic message to the government and to the American people: the real power of the media is in the hands of the people. Despite the overwhelming nature of the news media shower, we alone have the choice to engage or disengage the media. The potency of our vote through our consumption practices exceeds the potency of our vote at the polling station. The report describes:
"The people of this country are the purchasers of the products of the press. The effectiveness of buyers' boycotts, even of very little ones, has been amply demonstrated. Many of these boycotts are the wrong kind for the purposes; they are the work of pressure groups seeking to protect themselves from justifiable criticism or to gain some special advantage. The success of their efforts indicates what a revolt of the American people against the service given them by the press might accomplish." (Pg. 96)
The report continues, 
"What is needed, first of all, is recognition by the American people of the vital importance of the press in the present world crisis. We have the impression that the American people do not realize what has happened to them. They are not aware that the communications revolution has occurred. They do not appreciate the tremendous power which the new instruments and the new organizations of the press place in the hands of a few men. They have not yet understood how far the performance of the press falls short the requirements of a free society in the world today. The principal object our report is to make these points clear."
What we find here is a direct message from academics to the American people. The true power in matters legislative, judicial, and executive lies in the individual choice to engage with media. In other words the choice to subscribe, to support advertisers, to "like," and to share --or not to-- wields more influence than any other factor in our media landscape.

Revisiting the Hutchins Report repays dividends ten-fold. In it we not only find advice relevant to us today, but also an example of the vital role that our intellectuals and academics play in democracy today.

Direct comments, questions, & corrections to Matthew Giobbi.