Brooke Gladstone, author of The Influencing Machine, Millersville’s 2012 campus pick for the One Book program, talked with a classroom of Millersville University students Monday, Nov. 4. The 12 or so journalism students in Professor Philip Benoit’s “Our Journalism, Ourselves” class Skyped with the author during their night class. The class has been using Gladstone’s book as their text for the semester, studying not only the history, but the present state of journalism in American society today.
“ENGL 473 is called Special Topics in Journalism, which essentially meant that I could choose what kind of course it would be,” said Benoit. He chose Gladstone’s book as the course text because of how well it connected to the concepts he wanted to present to his students throughout the semester.
“When I started going through it, I remembered how well it discussed the drastic changes that news media are going through today. It also covered issues in journalism from a historical perspective, and very thoroughly. And the comic book style of presentation was uniquely effective in making the information accessible. All of these factors told me that it might allow the class to use the book as a starting point to explore in depth many different journalism topics, and relate them to the most current media landscape.”
Gladstone has been working as a journalist for the majority of her career, though, she admitted, it wasn’t the original direction she wanted to go. “I didn’t actually choose this career; I intended to be an actor. I actually fell into it,” she said. “I love being a reporter because I get to live a conscious life, trying to put what I see around me into words. (As SI Hayakawa said, if you can’t express it in words, then you don’t really understand it.) And I like having the license to pry.” She is a co-host of NPR’s On The Media radio program and has also contributed to many publications, such as the Washington Post and Boston Globe, deemed an expert in her field. Benoit’s journalism students were looking forward to sitting down and attempting to glean some of her wisdom. “I thought it was really cool how she took the time to talk to us and how excited she was to offer us advice,” said Sulynn Lopez, a senior English major.
The students prepared questions and, one by one, sat in front of the webcam to discuss them with Gladstone; Benoit mediated. Gladstone replied to each student in her engaging and witty manner, keeping the flow of conversation interesting. Lopez asked Gladstone what she meant by the last quote in her book: “We get the media we deserve.” Gladstone admitted that that last line made a lot of people mad. They assumed that she was just making excuses for all the “crappy” media out there. “A lot of this stuff is on each and every one of us who is a news consumer,” Gladstone replied. “I don’t think the news media are that bad. I think that some of the greatest reporting that’s ever been done is happening in this era.”
Her point, however, was that not all media out there is virtuous, and as news consumers, it’s up to us to determine which outlets we are going to believe. “I know that horrible media; really bad, damaging, biased, bigoted, evil shit, has occurred in every era,” said Gladstone. “It’s not a bad time to consume media. I think more today than in any other era, we get the media we deserve because there’s so much more of it and we can choose our media diet with such specificity. Who else can we blame but ourselves?”
Gladstone said that with the abundance of news we have at our fingertips today, social media is playing a larger role in the way we consume news. “It used to be an issue of scarcity, now it’s an issue of abundance.” News consumers now have to filter through the news to find the specific information they want. Gladstone said that social media sites such as Twitter are “essential” and “vital,” and “are filters that can help you navigate the torrent of information.” Gladstone made sure to note the difference between professional reporters and the ever-emerging phenomenon of “citizen journalism,” which is the notion that anyone, with the help of the Internet and social media, can be a journalist. “The people commenting and sharing news aren’t reporting it,” she said. “When it comes to a broader understanding, someone needs to help put these tiny bits of news into context.”
The hour-long Skype discussion covered a lot of ground as the students questioned Gladstone. Benoit was very happy with how many different issues were covered during the course of discussion. “When it was over, and I thought back on the range of things we talked about, I realized that it was almost a complete mini-course in itself,” he said. “Her insights on issues related to concepts like media bias, technology, and the latest developments like the leaks by Edward Snowden, coverage of the government shutdown, and numerous other current concerns and issues are vast.”
On the issue of the leaks by Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, Gladstone said she thinks what Manning did was of value to our society. “I do think, for whatever reasons Bradley Manning may have had, that what ultimately he did, was important and valuable,” she said. “That’s how I feel now. Maybe history will tell us whether or not that’s true. I think he did something really important to preserve democracy to put this discussion out there.” She also discussed the recent occurrence of government spying. “It’s practically against my religion to think it’s ok for the government to withhold information from the public,” Gladstone said. She said that the blanket security of this administration and the last administration is bad for national security.
There’s no doubt that the role of journalists is changing as the digital landscape expands. Gladstone had some parting advice for students hoping to pursue a career in media or journalism. “This world is changing so quickly that a lot of our experience isn’t going to apply. There are values that stay the same. Fundamentally, how you make your way in the world is going to be something you’re going to have to invent for yourself.”