April 7, 2011

Should journalism offer calls to action?

Frank Sesno of “Planet Forward.”

One approach: Newsrooms could attract a crowdsourced pool of community advisers

JD LasicaAt Sustainatopia — the Caribbean-flavored conference in Miami that brought social entrepreneurs, VCs, journalists, artisans, celebrities, media activists and a fair number of Miami’s beautiful people together for a celebration of sustainability — an interesting discussion broke out Tuesday on this question: Should news articles offer calls to action?

Tom Hudson

Tom Hudson of "Nightly Business Report"

Frank Sesno, the former CNN correspondent who now runs Planet Forward, and Tom Hudson of PBS’s Nightly Business Report, led a conversation on “How New Media Can Engage the Public.” A number of the conference-goers and I questioned why public broadcasting and traditional media don’t do more to offer citizens a series of action items around issues that their newscasts cover — a set of options that lets viewers connect with organizations offering possible solutions rather than letting them feel frustrated and powerless.

“Under the very strict set of PBS rules, you’re not going to hear a call to action,” Hudson said flatly. “There’s a fundamental difference between an advocate message and a media message.”

“The average American thinks 27% of the federal budget goes to foreign and humanitarian aid, when the true number is less than 1%.”
— Frank Sesno

But there’s a difference between advocacy and giving citizens the tools to participate in the democratic process. I sense that this is part of the ongoing cultural shift in values about the news media’s role and responsibilities. Young people in the room seemed to think it should be a natural outgrowth of a story to be able to connect with sources or forces at play, while Hudson and Sesno — who admitted they came of age during a different media era — largely averred, saying that journalists shouldn’t cross the line into anything that even resembles advocacy, even if that amounted to just offering a selection of vetted options for viewers to pursue on their own without the journalists taking sides.

PBS’s “News Hour” and the Huffington Post offer a list of resources in a limited fashion, but few other news organizations do — and, yes, I consider it a shortcoming in the way modern journalism is conducted. The end of the story should not be the end of the story. If newsrooms don’t have the bandwidth to do this, use a deputized, crowdsourced pool of community advisers.

On the other hand, Sesno — who was thoroughly engaging and forward-thinking throughout — was effusive in his praise of the model being blazed by 350.org, not a news outfit but a climate change advocacy organization. “It’s a great idea — access to technology and the ability to reach young people and engage them with a call to action. That’s a magical mix. It’s the model of democratic media in many ways.”

• More Sesno: “Studies show that the average American thinks 27% of the federal budget goes to foreign and humanitarian aid, when the true number is less than 1%. Of course, that kind of misinformation skews and distorts the debate in this country.”

• His take on changes in the mediasphere: “I’m utterly dispirited and totally excited by what’s happening in today’s media environment.” The tough part, he said, is getting an audience — because everybody can be his or her own newspaper and TV station. “Look at partnerships — it’s the only way this works.”

• Interesting tidbit from Tom Hudson: “‘Shareholder’ is a word that doesn’t exist in Mandarin [in China]. They interpret it as stakeholder, having a much broader meaning.”

• I wasn’t aware that Clean Skies Sunday, aka “The Energy Report,” is in fact an “infomercial funded by the natural gas industry,” as Sesno put it. “It troubles me that people don’t know what’s behind that program,” which airs Sunday mornings on ABC. JD Lasica, founder of Socialmedia.biz, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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One thought on “Should journalism offer calls to action?

  1. Traditional journalism and media are intended to condition readers to how their owners want them to think. They do not want to encourage action – that is the last thing they would want.

    I just published a post that speaks to the difference between journalism and blogging that covers the illusion that anyone can write in a way that is unaffected by their core belief system.

    Even among bloggers there is going to be a great divide between those who collaborate and seek input from all perspectives and those who broadcast and only want to hear from those who will agree they are correct.

    Those who once controlled everything we see, read (and they hope – believe) are trying desperately to put the genie of free speech back into the bottle. Those who want to keep our freedom of speech must recognize the tools they will use to do that – especially the Chrome block data that G will use to remove influential sites from their index.

    Now while we can still be found and can still write our truths is the time to find each other, save URLs and encourage our readers to use alternative INDEPENDENT search engines (i.e., not G, Y, B or any others they will end up launching, buying out, and controlling).