The Society of Professional Journalists recognized Stephen B. Shepard, Jerry Seib and Lawrence Pintak at the President’s Installation Banquet with its highest professional honor award: Fellows of the Society. Each distinguished individual received a jeweled key and plaque for their extraordinary contributions to the profession of journalism.
“Stephen Shepard was nominated for his remarkable contributions to journalism after many years as a practicing journalist and editor, and later the founding dean of the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism for eight years before retiring in 2013,” read the Society’s press release.
Despite the festive celebration, Shepard gave a thoughtful, thorough and sobering view on journalism’s past and future. The room of distinguished journalists listened closely; if not for Shepard’s voice, one could hear a pin drop. It would be a disservice to the journalism community to let Shepard’s words remain within the confines of platinum 2 banquet hall of the Anaheim Marriott.
Read CUNY graduate school of journalism’s founding dean emeritus speech here:
“Thank you all very much for this terrific award. I’m especially honored to be sharing the stage with such wonderful journalists as Gerry Seib and Larry Pintak.
I want to say a few words about a problem in our profession that worries me, as I’m sure it worries you. And that is the low and falling levels of public trust in the news media. It would be easy to blame Donald Trump for our problems. He continues to label any story he doesn’t like as “fake news” and he has called the news media the “enemy of the American people.” His attacks are outrageous, of course, and they threaten to weaken our democracy and the media’s role in it.
But he is merely fanning flames that have been raging for years. According to Gallup, trust in the news media has declined steadily since it peaked in 1976 at 72%. It has been below 50% for the last decade. And just before the election last year trust in the media hit 32%, an all-time low. Among Republicans it was just 14%.
Like many of you, I have struggled to understand why the profession we revere so much is so mistrusted by so many people. As far as I can tell, there are two major reasons for the distrust. One is the perception that we are biased politically, a view held most avidly by conservatives, who have been told for years by talk radio and Fox News that we’re just the so-called liberal media.
But bias is hard to prove. The few academic studies that have been done tend to show that bias is often in the eye of the beholder. If you’re a conservative, you tend to see liberal bias. If you’re a liberal, the coverage looks right-wing. And the deeper your conviction, right or left, the deeper your perception that things are biased against you. Maybe that’s just human nature.
But there is a second reason for the lack of trust, a reason that makes more sense to me. Many people believe that the mainstream news media is elitist. And by mainstream media, I think they mean the big-city newspapers, the TV networks, the leading magazines, and perhaps even the journalism schools. They charge that we ignore the concerns of everyday folk, that we tend to look down at the average Joe or Jane, that we are just coastal snobs who regard the rest of America as fly-over country.
And that our news coverage reflects this bias: We cover lacrosse, surely an elite sport, while largely ignoring stock-car racing, which attracts millions of fans. We regularly cover the Ivy League and other elite colleges, but rarely examine community colleges, which enroll nearly half of all undergraduates. We write about income inequality as an economic problem, but hardly ever look at its victims or their communities in working-class America. We cover advanced medical research at our finest big-city hospitals but we didn’t understand the causes of the emerging opioid epidemic on the streets of Albuquerque, Louisville, or the rest of Middle America.
Is it any wonder that we in the mainstream media missed the story of the angst in America’s heartland? Is it any wonder that we were thus stunned when Trump won the election? Hillary Clinton didn’t go to Michigan or Wisconsin, but neither did mainstream media. We just didn’t know what was happening on the ground in many battleground states. Yes, we blew it – not just because our polling was wrong , but because our reporting was negligent.
In the past, we might have relied on our strongest regional newspapers, like the Des Moines Register, the Detroit Free Press, or the Milwaukee Journal, to provide substantial reporting in the Mid-West. But those papers have suffered substantial cutbacks in circulation, coverage, and staffing. Or we might have read prescient trend stories in our three national newsmagazines – Time, Newsweek, and US News – but two of them are essentially gone and the other one is a shadow of its former self. It’s true that we have fresh coverage from new outlets – such as Politico, Pro Publica, Buzz Feed, Huffington Post or the Texas Tribune, but they’re not yet widespread enough to offset the closed bureaus and cutbacks in mainstream media.
Our profession must find a better way to cover Middle America, blue-collar America, working-class America – whatever you want to call it. We needed to widen our gaze, hire more reporters from diverse economic and geographic backgrounds, and change whatever elite attitudes exist in our newsrooms. None of this will be easy at a tough time for journalism. But we have no choice. If the problem is indeed elitism in mainstream media, it’s long past time we got over it.
I’m sorry if my remarks are a bit of a downer on this festive evening. I am thrilled to be with you and grateful for this honor from SPJ.
Thank you! On with the show!”
“Stephen B. Shepard is the Founding Dean Emeritus of the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. Prior to that, he was a senior editor at Newsweek and editor-in-chief of Business Week,” Shepard wrote in an email.