We gave our Highland Capital Management Tower Scholars carte blanche to interview our experts and ask anything they would like to know. Izzah Zaheer ’22 took this opportunity to interview Tony Pederson, the chair of the Journalism Department at SMU, about the trust in the media and the future of local journalism.
Can we get a small introduction of what you do and your work?
I am a Belo Foundation Distinguished Chair in Journalism. I teach classes at SMU in ethics with a focus on ethics of modern journalism as well as basic news reporting class. I still consider myself a journalist as I worked for 25 years at the Houston Chronicle.
Considering the polling in the last couple of years, trust in the media has fallen. What do you think of the term “media”?
Media is a really wide encompassing term and consists of different platforms such as film, radio and television. “News media” would be more accurate, but still includes a wide variety of platforms such as blogs, cable news, newspapers, etc. Of course, the presence of blogs in the news media sphere has led to increasing misinformation and distrust. Additionally, people start to have less confidence since much cables news has clear bias.
How can the news media change their own bias and get the trust of the public back?
It is hard for me to believe that the bias in cable news can get more extreme. Even some newspapers have a certain level of bias and because of this divisions in the mainstream press have become more and more sharper. In terms of trust, I do not think anything can change in terms of right now. However, it was not always like this and change can occur over time. During the Vietnam war, Civil Rights era, and the Watergate scandal through the 1960s and 70s, journalists were lauded as heroes. Walter Cronkite, an anchorman for CBS News, was at the top of the confidence polls and considered the most trusted man in America. Today, no major news anchor would show up even close to most trusted. We see almost a flip from the 1960s. During that era, trust in the military was at an all time low, while trust in journalists was at an all time. Today there is almost a complete reversal with trust in the military at an all time high, while news media and Congress remain at the bottom in terms of trust.
I want to compare local and mainstream media. A lot of the local newspapers are not what they were. As a result, a lot of buyouts of local media sources have occurred. How does that affect trust in the media?
These buyouts and overall decline for local news certainly plays a factor in trust. Smaller communities have an inherent distrust of the large corporate types and likely will not change. Media companies buying other media companies is not new and has happened throughout history, However, since the 70s, there was a major acceleration of these buyouts with increasingly vertically integrated companies. The fact is, the news media is struggling due to a variety of economic factors and the digital age and they are all trying to find a sustainable business model.
There have been many cases of stories in major newspapers and networks that were originally broken out by local media. For example, a small Florida newspaper originally broke out the information concerning Jeffrey Epstein. With large broadcast groups gaining prominence, how will that affect the stories we will see?
There has been research on this through the University of North Carolina in which they found various news deserts due to local newspapers closing. Because of these “news deserts,” there is less local expertise and less accountability of local governments concerning since there are less or no journalists to monitor what they do. At the end of the day, the best people to report on local government are local journalists since they are already part of the community. Local reporters will get a sense when things are going wrong or something looks shady and be able to investigate. Losing that is not only a tragedy of American journalism, but also a tragedy of American democracy which depends on a free press.
Is there any way to turn this around with any long term sustainable plan?
At SMU, we are trying to do our part at the SMU school of Journalism by having some of our students be part time reporters at the Dallas Morning News. This is a trend we see across various parts of the country where local journalism schools are contributing to the local newspapers. However, this is a short term solution. In the long term, the quicker newspapers get to completely digital the better chance of survival. Newspapers are still stuck in traditional methods of print and print advertising that carries a large operating, transportation and labor cost.
How likely do you think that transition will happen?
The transition depends on the market and who each newspaper is targeting. Some large newspapers are already not printing their product and over the next 7-10 years, print newspapers are just not sustainable. Considering various demographics, older readers may prefer the traditional style print newspaper, but the younger audience is largely showing preference for a digital product. Overall, newspaper companies completely miscalculated what the Internet was going to be by assuming it was just another medium when in reality the Internet was a complete technological disruption and cultural shift that was not understood in 1995.
Would better business leadership help these newspapers?
The business side of every newspaper is struggling with exceptions such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, which have created international brands for themselves. In most newspapers the business side is struggling. Local newspapers who are up against incredible and difficult odds. Everyone is trying to see the future, but the future is the headline on a train coming right towards most of them.
Izzah Zaheer ’22 is majoring in political science and management with a minor in public policy & international affairs and French. She serves as the Risk Management Chair for the Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity and as a Resident Assistant in Mary Hay Peyton Shuttles residential commons. Izzah serves as an Undergraduate Research Analyst at the Hunt Institute where she lends her skills in research to support the various projects and initiatives of the Hunt Institute. Specifically, Izzah was the primary undergraduate researcher on the Kijiji Project, helping to produce the report titled Building Fences to Build Connections.