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Northeastern U. Professors Examine Role Of News Media In Election

This story was written by Mike Napolitano, The Northeastern News

Freedom of the press. Objectivity. Active citizenship.

Ideas like these are what many readers have come to expect from the press. But on Thursday night, members of the Northeastern University community questioned whether the media has lived up to these ideals.

These questions and many more were raised at "The Great Media Debate: How the Media Can Sway Votes and Win Elections." The debate, held in the Curry Student Center as a part of NUVotes, drew a crowd of about 125, said Sam Peisner, president of the Council of University Programs (CUP).

The event showcased the thoughts of communication studies associate professor Marcus Breen and political science associate professor William Mayer. Bill Lancaster, a lecturer in the College of Professional Studies, moderated at the event.

"The failings are absolutely dismal," Breen said about the media's lack of insight into current events and politics.

He said that while the actual coverage has recently been excellent, journalism has not been asking tough questions that the people want answered.

"The fundamental question, however, for those of us in the critical tradition, is much more interesting than whether or not the coverage is any good," he said. "What's important about our discussion about the media is, what's the ideal for society?"

Breen said determination and a drive to reach certain ideals are essential for democracy, and the media should reflect this philosophy.

Mayer responded by questioning the media's current role in political coverage.

"I have a feeling that a lot of the press people today have a greatly exalted role or conception of the role they want to play, and frankly, expect the press and want the press to play a series of roles that they are not really qualified for,"he said.

Mayer said today's press is trying to become the arbiter of campaign disagreements. Fact checking, he said, is something that should be reconsidered by the media.

"I'm not sure that's a role we ought to ask the press to play,"he said.

Mayer cited the media's politically-left leanings, unaccountability and lack of qualification as weaknesses that keep the media from explaining politics well.

"Reporters in this country are trained to be reporters. They are not trained to be analysts of economic policy issues, or health care, or foreign policy," he said.

In a Q & A session afterward, communication studies professor Maxim Fetissenko questioned Mayer's opinions on fact-checking.

"Why shouldn't journalists call bullshit bullshit?," he asked.

Mayer said fact-checking was not as easy as people might think.

"Very few of their corrections are simple matters of 'he said he voted for this bill and it turns out he voted against it,'" Mayer said. "It is much more matters of nuance and context and interpretation."

Fetissenko said he was pleased to attend an event that he thought was more insightful than the presidential debates.

"Candidates in particular are not actually speaking with each other, they are just rehearsing and rehashing the same stuff we've heard many times before," he said. "I think it's good to have a discussion of ideas that goes beyond the packaged statements on topics perhaps remotely relevant to the question, but not always."

Jeff Beam, a junior at Emerson College, said he enjoyed hearing the two professors talk about ideas pertaining to his studies.

"I'm glad I came," he said. "It was very insightful, I liked a lot of the things that were said."

Lancaster said he was delighted to ear Mayer, who he had never met before.

"He's the type of person we need to be seeing on these political talk shows at night," he said.

Peisner said he thinks the debate helped get students thinking.

"Most people are probably not looking at the media with a critical eye, and hopefully after tonight some of the people here will," he said.