Hilltop on the Hill, 2014

Students traveled to Washington, D.C., in October 2014 as part of SMU’s Hilltop on the Hill program. The students visited media and government sites, and met with political communicators, journalists and SMU alumni. The trip was led by Rita Kirk, director of the Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility and professor of Communication Studies in Meadows School of the Arts; Sandy Duhe, Chair of the Division of Communication Studies; and Stephanie Ann Martin, assistant professor of Communication Studies. Endowed by the Bauer Foundation, the Hilltop on the Hill program also takes students studying political communication to political party conventions, the presidential Inauguration and the G8 Economic Summit.

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Many to few to many

An update from Matthew, a junior majoring in communication studies and political science, and minoring in law and legal reasoning:

In the late 19th century hundreds of newspapers, radio stations and television channels were independently owned and circulated locally. Nevertheless, the allure of wealth and power was visible, and mergers and acquisitions between various media outlets occurred over a relatively short period of time. Families like Ochs (The New York Times) and Otis (The Los Angeles Times) began the development of news dynasties that began the downsizing of media ownership. Over time, political and financial bias began influencing the reporting and editorials. Though trustworthy journalism has been established over years of coverage, consumers know to turn to The New York Times for more liberal perspectives, while conservative opinions are more often found within the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

Seen in the Newseum exhibit

Seen in the Newseum exhibit

In the 1980s, more than 50 independent companies or corporations represented the majority of the news industry; now only five corporations own all respected journalism in the United States. News mogul Rupert Murdoch developed and expanded his Newscorps across five continents. Most notably, his establishment of the brand Fox News has challenged liberal reporting with highly opinionated conservatives. General Electrics (GE) owns Comcast, which controls NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, Universal Pictures and more. Time Warner, who recently merged with Comcast, notably owns CNN, Time, the Huffington Post and Warner Brothers. Walt Disney owns ABC, ESPN and Pixar. Viacom owns CBS, Smithsonian, Paramount and MTV to name just a few. Clearly, every political perspective, spanning left to right, is reported by five vested interests.

Undeniably, the handful of corporate news ownership has its benefits and drawbacks. “Today, network news divisions (NBC, ABC and CBS) avidly compete with cable channels (CNN, Fox and MSNBC), and their news viewership has become less than half the size it used to be. That said, four times as many people tuned in to network evening newscasts in 2010 than watched cable’s top-rated news programs.” The result of this journalistic competition has led to news consumers having greater access and control over more diverse news sources than ever before. Even so, the shift from local reporting to corporate influence of nearly all news sources has led to a lack of local identity. Ultimately, local newspapers have a finger on the pulse of their communities, something corporations like Comcast, Newscorp and Time Warner simply cannot identify with.

While the numbers speak for themselves, the freedoms of both speech and press, which our First Amendment stresses, have become threatened. Specifically, a media oligopoly has the power, influence and control to report the world and national news that fits its own ideology. Subsequently, the burden falls upon the viewer to either actively seek various reports to paint a full coverage picture or fall into the Reinforcement Theory, which suggests that people will seek out information or retain news that reinforces their pre-existing beliefs. Either way, the journalistic integrity that many individuals believe in crumbles because the news should be free from bias or half-truths.

All things considered, according to the Newseum’s exhibit, the hope lies in “The New Gatekeeper,” or everyone. The exhibition suggests that although the citizen journalist is a new term, the concept has existed for a significant amount of time. Only since the technological revolution and the rise of social media have laymen (and women) become the source for reporters and journalists. In the Middle East, political unrest, uprising and liberation led to the Arab Spring; however, the high-profile news coverage was a result of local citizens’ social media posts on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

Ultimately, there is significant danger when a handful of individuals can dictate what and how to report news; even so, citizen journalists have the power, and the duty, to take advantage of their ultimate tool: social media.

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