If I had a nickel from everyone who’s ever told me not to be a student journalist, I could actually afford to be one.
The Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photo staff during my last semester in high school, when I worked as my school newspaper’s photo editor. At the time, its staff included John H. White, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning photos of black Chicago in the 1970s taught me superb photojournalism doesn’t spawn solely from war and despair.
“It was as if (the Sun-Times) pushed a single button and deleted an entire culture,” White told Poynter in May 2013. “Humanity is being robbed by people with money on their minds.”
Ask any one of The Bruin’s 520 staffers why they joined, and not a single one will say they do it for the money. Without fail, writers, editors, photographers, designers and developers flood our office every afternoon.
It’s naive to say money doesn’t matter, but in Kerckhoff 118, we have other things – reporting truths, engaging community members and serving as watchdogs – on our minds.
Let me be clear – journalism is changing, but it’s not going anywhere.
The beginnings of bias
Sixty years ago, we could rely on an “information commons” for our news – a few large newspapers and a handful of television and radio stations that mostly circulated the same information. But the widespread adoption of personal computers and increased access to a global Internet led to fragmented news information.
It was great – more television and radio stations could afford airtime, and news organizations that couldn’t afford to go to print shared their content online. Individuals could post firsthand accounts of car accidents, natural disasters and attacks, first through blogs and websites and later through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
That’s when it became acceptable to label oneself as a news organization with a slant. Viewers partitioned themselves into subgroups – liberals, conservatives, sports fans and food connoisseurs. They accessed news and entertainment the they way they wanted to – on NBC, FOX, ESPN and the Food Network, among others.
The people White refers to, the ones with money on their minds, loved this. They knew individuals would put money down for information to be presented to them in ways that already align with their beliefs. After all, it was much easier to digest.
Social psychology research suggests homophily, the tendency to associate with people who look, think and act like we do, carries over to our activity on social networking sites. Younger generations read fewer newspapers, but open more links their friends share on Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Of course, search engines wanted in. In 2009, Google launched Personalized Search, an algorithm that uses 180 days of previous browsing data to cater search results to the user, while improving his positive percept of Google – a search engine that now helps him more easily access the answers he wants to hear.
Those who surround themselves solely with information that supports their existing viewpoints do not become critical thinkers. Instead, fragmentation and personalized search grows individuals who love to criticize, but refuse to think.
The hostile media phenomenon, coined by a team of social psychology researchers in 1985, explains some individuals attribute bias and malicious intent to mainstream news organizations that share information contrary to their beliefs. It’s the kind of aggression that results from rarely being challenged or exposed to opposing viewpoints.
In the grand scheme of today’s media coverage, money got in the way. The Fourth Estate was created to inform – wholly and without regard for what the popular opinion happens to be.
Since its inception in 1919, The Bruin has maintained financial independence from UCLA and other governing bodies to allow staffers to remain critical of administrators and those in power. It has trained hundreds of young reporters who relentlessly scour the Westwood community for untold stories – “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted,” as the saying goes.
We’ve made mistakes, published corrections and learned quite a bit along the way. We aim to represent every perspective, regardless of its popularity, and recognize when we fail to do so.
Fragmentation is certainly not the last way the media landscape will evolve. At The Bruin, we responded to an increasing reliance on social media for news by establishing a social media director position. We appealed to those interested in softer news by revamping our blog, The Quad, acquiesced to demands for stronger visual storytelling by redesigning and showcasing Spectrum, our photo blog, and backed up our news writing with numbers and visualizations in launching our data and tech blog, The Stack.
The media landscape will continue to change, and not always for the better. I can’t say where it’s going, but we intend to keep up with wherever it takes us. The Bruin, and journalism as an industry, may look different in the years to come, but I can promise we’re here to stay. And if I’m wrong, I’ll give you a nickel.