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Penn State College of Communications

Freedom of The Press/ Responsibility of The Press in 2012

March 30, 2012

University Patk, PA

I want to welcome our young alumni back to campus and to welcome all of the College of Communications students to this event. Tonight and tomorrow’s events can help you understand an ever-evolving world of communications.


It is a world changing at warp speed with consequences that may not become clear to us until years from now. Our alums are living this now and sharing their experiences will help students here at Penn State.


The explosion of traditional and social media has created a world where we communicate in numerous mediums. It has become nearly impossible to stay on top of it all. Think of this. In 1995 when I returned to Penn State I had a desk phone, a cell phone and e-mail. Now we have facebook accounts, text messaging, Twitter accounts, instant messaging on top of all the other stuff. If you throw in a home phone number and mail there are 9 ways to contact someone—and I am sure that I am missing something.


On cable sports television in 1995 we had ESPN and ESPN2. Now we have Fox Sports, The Big Ten Network, Root Sports, NBC Sports Network, ESPN News, ESPN Classic, Comcast, ESPN U, CBS College Sports Television, NFL-MLB-NBA and NHL Newtorks and there are some I am probably missing.


On the other side, people in the news have more ways to get their stories out. They speak directly to the people they want to reach and frame the story the way they want. Teams, politicians and athletes can break news on mediums like Twitter.


Campaigns and sports teams are developing better web sites and using social media to connect and build loyalty.


That connection helps the teams turn fans into “members” and stakeholders in their teams.


Since this is 2012 it is worth noting how social media is transforming the campaigns on the presidential level. Having worked with the Obama campaign in 2008 I saw that campaign jump ahead of the heavily favored Clinton campaign using social media to organize a national grass roots movement. It created millions of small donors, and millions of members in an on-line community through social networking. These people became invested in the campaign. It translated into people recruiting others and getting out the vote on election day.


In the 24/7 news cycle, getting the message out is critical for politicians, governments, teams and companies. Information forms opinions which can set quickly. Look at how perceptions changed of BP or Goldman Sachs after the oil spill in the gulf or the wall street meltdown.


It is a more challenging and exciting time to get into this field than it has ever been. Challenges create opportunities for those willing to embrace the changes.


John F Kennedy once said “Change is the law of life. And those who only look to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”


Penn State’s College of Communications must be a place where we must study the role and impact of communications in society. We must anticipate change; staying one step ahead as we prepare the nation’s best students for their lives in this field.


The help of our friends and alumni will enable us to not only maintain our place among the best Colleges of Communications in the country—but to get better every day.


Joe Paterno often told me “You either get better or you get worse. You NEVER stay the same.”


Under the leadership of Dean Anderson and an A-List faculty, the College of Communications will continue to get better every day.

We must lead the world in studying how effective communications can influence the actions and debate of major issues and stories in society.


We live in a Nation where the VERY FIRST amendment of our bill of rights states:


Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…….


What is rarely argued in a country of rights are what comes with those rights. With the right of free press comes a massive responsibility. Everyone stands for Freedom of the Press but we must also demand “Responsibility of the Press”.


This side of the equation is more important now than it has ever been. We live in a world where any story becomes fact if it is repeated enough.


There are people in this country that believe—despite all evidence to the contrary that President Obama was not born in this country.


There are people in this country that believe President George W Bush was in on a plot to blow up the World Trade Center towers.


The point is that questionable or false stories reported as fact enough times become factual to many people. That is why the Responsibility of The Press should be taught right alongside Freedom of the Press.

In 1789 when the 1st amendment was written “The Press” was very different. In our nation’s earliest days “The Press” meant newspapers that appeared many days after the news of the day. Political parties also controlled papers that advanced their own narratives. Jefferson’s party had papers that reported negative stories about rival Alexander Hamilton’s business dealings and his questionable birth status. Hamilton’s party papers returned fire including rumors about Jefferson’s rumored affair with his slave Sally Hemmings. Sounds a little like Fox News and MSNBC doesn’t it?


“Miscommunication” has been a part of the press since the earliest days of the country. That remains, but the newest technologies make the impact of misinformation more damaging and widespread—spreading around the world in an instant.


In 2012 “The Press” is not just newspapers, or television, or radio. “The Press” is a citizen corps of people armed with smartphones, laptops and iPads on Blogs, Websites, Facebook, Twitter and anything else you can imagine. Wireless technology allows updates and reporting from just about anywhere on the planet at any time.


Our instantaneous ability to report is fraught with danger. Most times the most flawed story is the one reported right away. Often those stories lack perspective and the ability to gather facts; culling the chaff from the wheat to report the truth.


But in 2012 the internet and television news business model doesn’t reward a deliberate investigation of the facts. The business model on 2012 places the emphasis on this: “Being first is better than being right”.


Being first increases web hits, page views, or gets people to switch to your channel. More web hits, more viewers mean bigger numbers and more advertising dollars. At the top of the chain stockholders want big profits.


That is not a criticism it is just acknowledging the truth of the field we are in. Society demands immediate stories and results.


But when you have that story written, and you are ready to hit send or submit and file that story step back for one last read and ask yourself if EVERYTHING in that story is accurate and fair.

I say that as someone who coached and was the subject of media coverage for over two decades.


I say that as someone who has written columns as far back as 1990 and been in that position where I am submitting what I have written.


I say that as someone who was on the inside looking out at the media onslaught that landed in this valley last November.


I say that as someone who has been seated in meetings discussing how we respond to inaccurate stories.


I say that as a son who had to leave my father’s hospital room on a Saturday night to counter via Twitter the false reports of his death.


Years from now students in this College of Communications will long study what happened here as it relates to freedom of the press and hopefully the responsibility of the press. This case will be studied alongside other stories. We’ll study where the reporting was good where it was bad.


The Duke Lacrosse Case, Richard Jewell, The Ramseys, The Gary Condit Case all were high profile cases that changed and even destroyed people’s lives.


Out of the Duke Lacrosse case the president of Duke University had this to say about the case a few years later.


"I'll end with the deepest lesson this case taught me. When I think back through the whole complex history of this episode, the scariest thing, to me, is that actual human lives were at the mercy of so much instant moral certainty, before the facts had been established. If there's one lesson the world should take from the Duke lacrosse case, it's the danger of prejudgment and our need to defend against it at every turn. Given the power of this impulse and the forces that play to it in our culture, achieving this goal will not be easy. But it's a fight where we all need do our part.

---Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead's at a Duke Law School conference on Sept. 29, 2007


Four and a half years later we still face the same problems. What have we learned and what will we change as we go forward? The idea of “Responsibility of The Press” must be taught and it must emanate from institutions like Penn State--a worldwide leader in this field.


Our students must leave the College of Communications with a weapon that sets them apart. That weapon is the concept of Press Responsibility. Teach them to commit themselves to great journalism---a pursuit of the truth without an agenda. It is not easily found---it takes more effort, it takes more time. But in a world where every journalist is looking for the story that sets them apart—it is the journalist that digs in and finds the truth that will be set apart.


Above all it honors the very ideals that were intended when our founding fathers created the freedoms we enjoy here—freedoms that young people in places like Egypt, Tunisia, Tibet, Libya and now Syria have fought and died for—and continue to fight and die for.


I hope the Alums returning to campus reach out to our students and point them in the right direction. As a Penn State alum and as someone who worked here for 17 years I take great pride in what we are. Together, our Alums and our students are what makes our institution unique and will continue to do so. I thank all of you for your time, and your interest in our Univesity.

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