Analysing American Journalism: 21st Century Challenges

Interview with Wayne Wanta, ex-President of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication


Jorge Marinho

Ph.D. in Communication Sciences, BA in International Journalism.

e-mail: marinho.mediaanalysis@gmail.com



In this interview, Professor Wayne Wanta (University of Florida – College of Journalism and Communications) answers questions about Education in Journalism, relationships between media and political-economic powers. The news about terrorist attacks is also one of the topics. Wayne Wanta analyses specially the journalism of the United States expressing his ideas about investigative reporting, agenda-setting and news values.


Keywords: journalism; media; education; agenda-setting; international communication.


Jorge Marinho (JM) – According to your experience as President of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (2006 – 2007), in the 21st century what kind of challenges will journalism face?

Wayne Wanta (WW) – There are always challenges in Journalism Education. I think that the major one is going to be the Internet. Right now, the Journalism schools are trying to figure out what to do about the Internet. In some ways, the Internet is really just another medium, it’s just a different kind of platform. In other ways, it’s something completely different. Right now, in the United States of America, there are some schools that are trying to address this by making all of their professional / practical courses deal with the Internet. They are almost abandoning teaching print journalism just because they think that the future is the Internet and not with the old traditional newspaper pages.


JM – In your opinion, is there a model of school of Journalism that should be applied all over the world?

WW – That’s a real good question. We don’t have a model of Journalism education in the U.S. I think it’s very dangerous and impractical to think of having one model of Journalism education. We do have requirements of Journalism schools if they want to become accredited. Here is a certain percentage of classes that students have to take outside Journalism. But even those requirements some schools don’t necessarily follow and therefore don’t really want to become accredited. There are certain things that seem to be useful for Journalism students to take in preparation for a career in Journalism / Mass Communication: liberal arts classes in an area of specialization, whether it be politics and government or economics, History. Those types of classes have depth to the typical reporting and editing classes that students take as well. So, the ideal program is a mix of practical courses with theoretical courses. That’s what we try to emphasize in our Journalism Education Association. But we don’t go so far as to say: this is the only way to do things. There are some very good programs that vary from this kind of formula.


JM – What kind of characteristics / skills should a good journalist have?

WW – Number one is curiosity. I think that all journalists have some kind of interest in talking to people and figuring out how things work. It is important to ask questions. I think another characteristic that I noticed a lot of journalists have: they are very stubborn in some ways. Also a very systematic way of approaching things and working hard to get at what could be or should be the truth.


JM – In what concerns journalism, in a competitive market, are creativity, originality and innovation important?

WW – I would say they are all important, but I think people get used to a medium being done in a certain way, maybe more so in a broadcast area. For example, in 2008, I was in Kenya and someone asked me: how does this news media in Kenya differ from the US? What are the differences between kenyan and american news media? I’d only watched about a couple of days the work of the Kenyan broadcast. I thought the remarkable thing was that the broadcast news stories could had been  broadcast news stories on CNN: the visuals, the pace and the packaging were very similar. It’s almost like CNN has this effect on other journalism organisations because everybody wants to be like CNN and CNN does their news one certain way and everybody is imitating it. Now, there are instances where people break away from that type of formula and format and I am not sure if it’s rewarded so much as people…I think there’s interest in seeing things done in a different way. I think they run the risk of being criticized if they do that. But, on the other hand, if they do something that’s abnormal and it’s very successful, then they have the opportunity to become very well known and rewarded. So, on the one hand, if you try something different and it’s bad, then you have a problem. If you try something different and it’s good, then that’s good.


JM – In the U.S., is investigative reporting strong?

WW – Yes. I think that it’s not done as much as it could be mainly because investigative reporting is very expensive. You have to have the time to do it very well. You have to have support from your supervisors. Small newspapers just can’t afford to do it. They’re lucky to have reporters that get the daily news. Investigative reporting might take weeks or even months to uncover. But the better newspapers in the U.S. do that and they do a very good job with it.


JM – Do you consider that, in a certain way, investigative reporting contributes to the progress of the society?

WW – It certainly has the opportunity to contribute to society because it can uncover flaws in the infrastructure, corruption and other things that are very serious problems. The problem with investigative reporting is that it’s very difficult to get out those stories without access to information that often times is not very forthcoming. So, there’s barriers to doing the really outstanding investigative reports that have the most good for society. On the other hand, there are some newspapers that do good investigative reporting - «The New York Times» and «The Philadelphia Inquirer», for example. But, again, that’s an instance where they have reporters who have enough support, the time and effort to uncover these stories.


JM – Is journalism a kind of social mission or a business?

WW – I think it’s become too much of a business. Newspapers and television news are very concerned with subscriptions and ratings. So, I think that has led to some worries about doing too many stories that might upset the status quo. On the other hand, there are a lot of newspapers, specially the larger ones in larger cities, that are very good at worrying about and concerned with society first and business aspects second. Their business areas are solid enough that they don’t have to worry about losing an advertiser because of some misunderstanding or some controversial story. But there are these issues that come up which has had an impact on news coverage.


 Professor Wayne Wanta, an expert in the agenda-setting function of the news media


JM – Do you think that the knowledge about agenda-setting may help the political, economic and military power to influence, to manipulate the mass media?

WW – That’s a hard question to answer. There’s a lot of different ways to answer the question. But I think one of the simple ways to answer the question is that agenda-setting originally was considered to be inadvertent: the media covered issues, people think those issues are important. It was like an accidental effect that happened with the public.

The other thing about this agenda-setting effect is that it involves knowledge, transfer of knowledge from the media to the public. It’s not necessarily a manipulative type of effect. People learn the relative importance of issues based on much coverage these issues receive. It’s more a moderate kind of effect than an all powerful effect like some of the other theoretical areas suggest. On the other hand, it can be used by certain political parties. For example: right now, there’s an area of research, in our field, that deals with issue ownership. Certain issues are said to be owned by political parties. The Republicans seem to have ownership over terrorism and over cutting taxes, the economy. The Democrats seem to have control over social issues like fighting poverty and the environment. So, what can be done is, if the Republican Party starts running a lot of ads about terrorism and there’s some sort of terrorist threat, people would think of terrorism as an important issue and therefore link their thoughts to the Republican Party. So, there’s a potential for some manipulation by the sources of the news agenda. The problem with that though is how do you move something like terrorism up to the media agenda without terrorism having some kind of any event or a threat that the media will therefore cover. So, the media is not going to cover an issue unless there’s some reason to cover it and, therefore, if there are no terrorist threats that issue will be pushed aside and another issue will take over its place on the media agenda.


JM – In what concerns the agenda-setting, which are the most relevant news values?

WW – That’s a good question too because the agenda-setting doesn’t really talk about news values. It talks more about just issue overall. But there are certain news values that lead to types of coverage like conflict. One of the criticisms of the news media is that the journalists always try to show conflict in the stories, both sides of an issue. That leads to the perception among the public that an issue necessarily has only two sides and that the two sides are divided on the middle. That’s not the case with most issues. Most issues have a majority and a minority. News coverage doesn’t really show that often times because they’re too interested in showing the conflict between the two sides. That’s one area.

Another area that has influenced media coverage news values is proximity. We’ll see a lot of times an issue gets brought up at the national level or even international level and local news media try to localize it. For instance, there was an issue that came out recently about water pollution in the U.S. So, naturally, there were a lot of pollution stories about what lakes and rivers are like in the near region based on a report that came out nation wide. That often times leads to an overconcentration localized news which you see in the U.S. right now because there are so many people in the U.S. who don’t have a clear idea of geography. Where’s Portugal? I know where it is and, probably, a lot of people know where it is. But we don’t have a lot of news from Portugal. So, if it is not on the media agenda, it is not high on the public’s agenda.


JM – In the U.S., are the political, economic and military objectives connected to the mass media (journalism and other types of communication)?

WW – They’re supposed to be separate. The founding fathers of the U.S. called the press the fourth state. So, you had the executive branch, the Government / President, you had the legislative, the Congress, and you had the judicial, the Supreme Court. The founding fathers had this idea: the fourth state should keep an eye on the other three. At times, this worked very well - the Watergate years, for example. The news media were very good at reporting the misdeeds of certain people of Nixon White House.

I look back at news coverage around the time when the Bush Administration was talking about invading Iraq. I saw very few news stories that were critical of the decision. Most of the news stories were very either neutral or supportive of the decisions. So, there are times when the news media do a better job of being a watchdog and other times when they’re not very good.


JM – In what concerns the mass media, has the U.S. Administration a domestic and foreign strategy?

WW – I’m not sure how to answer that. I think that it varies from President to President whether one is more emphasizing international issues and one is emphasizing more domestic issues. The news media tend to be more concentrated on local and national news. Even international news a lot of times has turned into a national story based on what effect the story will have on the U.S.


JM – Being powerful in the domain of the mass communication helps the political and economic expansion. Do you agree with this idea?

WW – That would help. But, in the U.S., I don’t think there’s any mass media that would say: let’s help the Government expand… I think the mass media, in the U.S., tried to be a fair and balanced reporter of the news rather than working with the Government to expand their emphasis.


JM – Don’t you think that some private organisations / corporations assume some purposes of the U.S. Administration or sometimes the opposite – the U.S. Administration works in order to promote some private organisations / corporations?

WW – They’re not supposed to, but that is what happens. We had a Vice-President who used to be one of the Board members for a business that has made lots of money because they had a lot of money paid to them by the Government to do certain objectives in Iraq and elsewhere. So, there are these things that happened. I’m not sure that the news media do a very good job of covering them… Those stories are hard to find, are hard to dig up. It takes more than just interviewing a couple of people… So, it’s difficult to do because you run the risk of alienating readers by always being on the attack. If all of your stories are nothing but negative news, readers will have a problem with that. So, there has to be some balance of positive news with the negative news.


JM – In your opinion, will the international communication cause conflicts between countries or between private, religious organisations, for instance?

WW – Right now, religion plays a big role in international relations because of the  Islam conflicts the U.S. has been facing with the taliban. I think there’s a lack of understanding among both sides of the religious divide. The role the mass media played in that I think that still has to be determined. Mass media, in the U.S., have traditionally been very nonreligious. Now, there are some radio stations that play religious music and have religious talk shows. That’s a kind of new thing that is happening with radio. But, whether the mass media play a role in emphasizing a certain type of subgroup like a religious group or other things, I think that has happened more in some of the less developed countries, like in Africa with the tribal areas where a tribe has a radio station that concentrates on issues relevant to them.


JM – What can we do to avoid these conflicts?

WW – I think that, as far as the media are concerned, the thing you need to do is to be balanced. In the U.S., we talk about objectivity, but there is no such thing as objectivity. It’s a goal that I don’t think that it could ever be attained because it´s based mainly on perceptions. I think readers will read whatever they want read into a news report. Typically, they read news reports and think that the news reports are against their side of an issue. But the media can be balanced, they can tell both sides of an issue and be fair by both sides of an issue and emphasize where the issues overlap and where there’s communalities and not necessarily just conflict.


JM – Some terrorist organisations attack certain targets, sometimes symbolic targets, because they think that this way the mass media will talk about them, because they think that this way the public will know their claims. How should journalists face this situation? Should they inform the public or should they omit the terrorist attacks?

WW – Terrorist attacks are news. I couldn’t imagine what the U.S. would have been like if the news media did not cover the 9 / 11 terrorist attacks. They have to be covered. If we did not cover the news, we would have a lot of white pages in our newspapers and a lot of blank on our television stations. So, they have to cover it. I think the thing they have to do more of is to put things in perspective. It’s not every Arab who supported 9 / 11. It’s not even the majority of Arabs that supported 9 / 11. It was a very extreme group of radicals. We need to keep emphasizing that the people of other cultures share a lot of philosophies of life with us. So, the terrorists are some kind of an extreme group. They commit terrorist attacks because they want media coverage, they want to be known. We can’t just ignore the terrorist attacks when hundreds or thousands of people die but we can certainly show how the groups are atypical.


JM – Some terrorist organisations practice a kind of media / information guerrilla because they do not have the same means of some powerful countries to broadcast news, to influence the public or to develop a media / information warfare. For instance, those terrorist organisations use the Internet. What do you think about this?

WW – The Internet is open to anyone. Terrorists can use the Internet as well as you and I. I don’t think there’s any way of avoiding information placed on the Internet. I think what the Internet allows us to do is to have a discourse with people who are in different cultures or emerged together and talked more about of areas of agreement rather than areas of disagreement. The terrorists are going to be on the Internet just as the other radicals of white supremacy in the U.S. who are on the Internet. It’s something that we can’t stop, but it is possible to emphasize the good in people rather than showing the bad.

(This interview was recorded on October 21, 2008).

Photo by: Jorge Marinho


Published by Marinho Media Analysis / February 10, 2014