Back in 1835, in his great book Democracy in America, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville announced something he found in this country that “actually surpasses belief” – the extraordinary number of periodical and occasional publications.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and you figure a return visit would knock the wind out of him. Not only are there still a huge number of publications of all kinds, but also endless radio stations with news and commentary, all-news cable channels on TV, movies that focus on public affairs and an easily available Internet connecting people to most of the publications in the world and to literally tens of millions of blog sites.
News is an all-encompassing force no one can escape, and that no caring citizen should try to escape. Without it, there would be an extraordinary dimming of the lights, a darkness that could end the possibility of alert self-governance. As the journalism scholar Mitchell Stephens writes, a dependable system of delivering information of public interest gives communities stability, awareness, “a kind of security,” as well as unity, coherence and identity. I would add it gives the individuals a daily education in what’s going on and enables them to figure out issues.
But there’s a catch. News can be inaccurate, factually correct but misleading, sensational, cheapening and negligent. The reasons for this and other faults are many: the speed with which daily reporting must be done, the common political prejudices of reporters, slipping standards, a tendency toward so-called herd journalism, the blatant shock and entertainment objectives of much TV and other news, a wish by journalists to be seen as saviors, trendy thinking, and more.
The trick is for citizens to become skeptical, discerning readers and viewers, detecting bias when they see it, knowing how to counterbalance hidden opinion by reading counter opinions and having so thorough a knowledge of what’s available in various papers, journals and on the Internet that they are seldom in doubt of where to look for news outlets rescuing them from other outlets.
The News21 Project will be a civic resource serving these goals. And to help equip students for citizenship, our academic course will aim to explain the importance of news, briefly review its history, talk about important news sources, survey the moment’s transitional phase as the Internet steps impatiently forward, discuss journalism techniques and ethics and particularly the goal of news impartiality.
Not only will we talk about evaluating the opinions of others; we will also encourage students to take up their own opinion writing. We will emphasize the importance of combating the present threats to the freedom of radio talk shows and political speech, heeding de Tocqueville’s observation that the potential evils of a concentrated press are best undone by having access to many voices.