Eyewitness to the Changing News Media: Veteran Journalist and Professor Lee Thornton Shares Her Views on the Erosion of Public Trust in the News Media and the Role of Journalism Education in Repairing That Image

Article excerpt

More than ever, the American news media are under public scrutiny for the way individual reporters conduct themselves, for how news coverage on major events is carried out and for the balance media organizations purport their news coverage to have. Journalism professors know all too well the devastating impact that cases of individual journalists fabricating lies and resorting to plagiarism in their work can have on the media's credibility. Nonetheless, it's not surprising that journalism schools in recent years have renewed their efforts in teaching journalism ethics.

Dr. Lee Thornton, a veteran journalist and a University of Maryland journalism professor, talks to Black Issues about the controversies that have not only shaped overall public perception of the American news media but have made household names out of a few discredited journalists. Her discussion also highlights her award-winning public affairs show, "Front and Center," which is produced by the University of Maryland. In one of the few television shows that has journalists commenting on the news business, "Front and Center" showcases Thornton leading discussions with the most recognized figures in American journalism about the news media's performance.

Currently, Thornton holds the Richard Eaton Chair at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. She joined the faculty in 1997. She also has held faculty positions at Howard University, Ohio State University and the University of Illinois. As a journalist, Thornton has many years of experience, including stints as a CBS News White House correspondent, a senior producer at CNN, and a correspondent and producer at National Public Radio.

A native of Leesburg, Va., Thornton has earned degrees from Teachers College in Washington, D.C., Michigan State University and Northwestern University. She began her broadcast career as a reporter-anchor-producer for WLW-TV in Cincinnati. Thornton resides in Bethesda, Md.

BI: How would you describe the significance of the University of Maryland journalism school's move to establish an ethics course requirement for undergraduates in spring 2000? Was it a unique step at the time among journalism education programs?

LT: I don't believe we were the first major journalism program to offer a full-blown ethics course as a requirement for undergrads--but we were certainly among the lust. Such a requirement is still fairly rare nationwide. I know that the administration and the faculty of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism (believe) that's a reflection of how seriously we take ethics at Maryland. I was there and present at the time when the former dean, Reese Cleghorn, and the faculty decided to do this ... to deal straight-on with the issue of ethics in journalism. Certainly, I think that ours is a better program because of that step.

BI: Since 2000 how do you think the public perception of journalists has changed, or not changed, especially in light of the Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley controversies?

LT: I think the year 2000 is rather arbitrary (though) it's connected to the year we established (an ethics course requirement). In fact, the public perception of journalists and the role they do in news gathering and dissemination had been going downhill well before the year 2000. It was before 2000, for example, that those public rankings of various professions came out, and journalists were right down there with car salesmen and lawyers in the public's mind. There were a number of surveys and studies that showed tremendous erosion of public trust in journalism before the year 2000.

BI: Do you think media coverage of 9/11, the war on terror and the Iraqi war has had significant impact on the public's perception of American journalists? How so?

LT: Certainly since 9/11, the war on terror and the War in Iraq, there have been changes in public perception. I want to mention two major media studies issued this year. …


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