Textbook for potential j-students

Lisa BruniPeter Steven's new book, The News, uses current case studies to explore the state of online news,  international and investigative coverage and Canadian news production in the wake of the economic meltdown, writes Lisa Bruni.

Lisa BruniPeter Steven's new book, The News, uses current case studies to explore the state of online news,  international and investigative coverage and Canadian news production in the wake of the economic meltdown, writes Lisa Bruni.

The selection of news media / journalism textbooks that are out-of-date is seemingly endless. Rapid emergence of new technologies and trends makes it difficult for authors addressing this subject matter to remain current. Books of this nature can appear dated immediately after publication. For this reason, Peter Steven’s The News, part of the Groundwork Guide series by Groundwood Books, proves to be an excellent resource for today’s high school–aged students. Steven stays current by addressing recent trends in online news, the deteriorating quality of international and investigative coverage under the news-for-profit business model, and news production in the context of the 2008 economic crisis. Senior high-school students who read The News will be well equipped to decide whether they should pursue news media careers in North America, in its current economic and social climate.

Steven begins by introducing the tenets of professional journalism: to be neutral, objective and factual (p. 16), though he acknowledges the impossibility of attaining “true objectivity and unmistakable truths.” (p. 17). According to Steven, the usefulness of establishing such criteria lies in its usage by democratic society in determining the role it wants media to fulfill. 

The News is rife with examples where dominant media has failed to uphold these principles, whether through bias, censorship or underrepresentation of women and ethnic minorities. Steven showcases numerous women and ethnically diverse journalists, highlighting their triumphs when faced with resistance.  The book’s opening line reads, “Martha Gellhorn was one of the best reporters of the twentieth century,” (p. 7) for her excellence in war reporting and persistence in the face of censorship during the Vietnam War. The dearth of examples like these suggests a deliberate refusal to perpetuate the absence of these same voices.

Steven uses examples that hit home with North American students, citing popular news organizations and personalities who have violated the journalistic code. This method demands from students their participation in the discussion of contemporary news media, as it becomes more and more obvious that news coverage affects them and is relevant to their lives, whether or not they actively seek it. 

For instance, The News cites the National Post’s 2007 “The Woman Issue” (p. 13,) where 59/61 photos depicted white women, as an indication of how in-your-face problems of representation can really be. The Post is based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada – one of the most racially diverse cities in the world. You would be hard-pressed to find students from this region who don’t have strong opinions about this feature. When it hits home, it’s not hard to become emotionally invested.

Many high school-aged students are online, and studies suggest that significantly fewer watch television news now than in 2000 (p. 63.) A topic that may be of more interest to today’s youth is the influence of online news media on news production in other platforms. Steven’s treatment is what differentiates The News from other introductory media texts, which frequently employ “wait-and-see” attitudes toward online trends, while Steven remains sure and optimistic.

The News lends credence to blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube as legitimate sources of information, as they provide access to a wider range of viewpoints, particularly when it comes to international civilians living under authoritative governments (p. 81). At the same time, Steven addresses the influence exerted by online news culture on dominant sources. Online consumers of news are accustomed to receiving live news happening in “real time,” leaving values like fact-checking, context and accuracy on the backburner to make room for immediacy. This results in deteriorating quality of news coverage in other mediums.

While many old-media pundits are concerned about online news eventually leading to the demise of the ailing newspaper industry, Steven is adamant that no real threat exists. He judicially reminds us that global advertising revenues for newspapers are larger than ever before, even in the US where circulation and readership is down (p. 48). Media organizations simply can’t charge as much for advertisements online as they can in other mediums. He also reminds us that the newspaper industry in other countries is booming, perhaps due to rising literacy rates. In terms of audience, Steven is confident that the Internet will never be more accessible than radio, particularly in the world’s poorest countries. Radio is inexpensive and its signals are easy to send and receive over great distances and rough terrain, which explains why more people worldwide receive their news through radio than any other medium  (p. 59).

Although Steven uses recent studies and current statistics to support his positions, he fails to address environmental concerns in the debate between online and newspaper – a factor that is seldom excluded. (Anyone curious about Steven’s response to this exclusion can listen to his interview with Matthew Adams on Rabble.ca’s podcast “I Heard the News Today, Oh Boy!”)

While The News sets out a solid foundation for discussion of contemporary issues in news media, the book lacks in-depth sociological analysis to explain the processes at work behind certain social conditions, i.e. society’s structural and systemic issues. This analysis would be useful to students who desire change within the current system, rather than the obscure, barely-there optimism Steven uses to conclude his chapter on ethics: “It is unlikely, of course, that capitalist big media and their repressive state versions will suddenly see the light … but we should demand it anyway… The process will remind us that news it power. And power can be overturned” (p. 101). The absence of sociological analysis and solutions is where The News falls short. Compared to other news media textbooks, The News can be likened to the tabloid newspaper in Steven’s own comparison between broadsheet newspapers and tabloid newspapers (pp. 49 – 51.) In only 130 smaller-than-standard pages, however, it is clear that Steven never meant to delve into these topics with any level of considerable depth, and so these shortcomings shouldn’t be considered when assessing the success of The News as an educational text.

The success of The News depends largely on what students will take away from it. Will it persuade people looking for a career in the media to accept the status quo, or perhaps be part of the generation that changes it all? Or will it mobilize them to wash their hands of dominant media, and  move toward alternative news outlets and/or different career paths? While the outcome is uncertain, it remains clear that the book’s current status as a timely resource will inevitably be short-lived, due to the expiration date of the subject matter.

Lisa Bruni is a graduate from Ryerson University's Bachelor of Journalism program. She is passionate about news multimedia and equal access to education. She currently resides in the Durham region, where she studies French at the college level.