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Professor instills commitment to truth in aspiring journalists

Responsible for teaching a new generation of media producers, Steve Blewett likens journalists to prophets:  Both are to speak and write the truth.

He seeks to instill a commitment to truth that rises above just doing a job, because he considers journalists among the most influential professionals in a society.  They interpret political, economic, social, cultural and life events that affect people and influence their choices.

Steve Blewett

Steve Blewett

As professor of journalism and director of the journalism program at Eastern Washington University (EWU), he considers what he teaches and how he teaches related to his faith values.  He can talk about the same truths and values in both secular and faith terms.

“As Christians, we cannot separate our everyday lives from what the Word of God calls us to be,” said Steve, who describes himself as a born-again Catholic convert. 

In class, he urges students to set standards and be accountable for the worldview they present to readers, viewers, listeners and browsers.

Steve, whose degrees are from EWU, believes most journalists have strong values and want to do right.  By the benchmark of Christ, he calls journalism that avoids hard truths and accepts easy, fun, sensational stories “peep-show journalism.”

If media producers say they report what the people want, he challenges:  “What are our views as consumers of media and committed Christians?”
“Media,” he notes, is plural, be they network TV news, radio talk shows, investigative magazines or discussion shows “specializing in conflict and acrimony.”

Print media include major dailies like the New York Times, which “seeks to be the public record for the universe,” he said, local midsize dailies, small dailies, weeklies and specialty press like The Journal of Business, La Prensa or The Fig Tree. 

“How media affect our worldviews depends on both our media choices and choices by media.  Mixing entertainment and news can confuse.  Journalists whose first question is, ‘Will it sell?’ usually focus on character over economic, health and world issues,” Steve said.  “Then the mob sets the tone.”

Media have a gatekeeper role in deciding who has a voice, what is appropriate to say and what is important to cover.

“Individuals or groups that limit or lend authenticity to voices control who can speak and who is excluded.  Those choices influence worldviews,” he said.

“In contrast to the British sense of ‘loyal opposition,’ it’s curious that in the United States, which values individualism, people are unwilling to stand out or allow debate with different voices.  It takes courage to stand out,” said Steve, who was a reporter and editor for four years with The Spokesman-Review and in public relations 15 years with Washington Water Power.

“People need their voices to be heard to be powerful,” he said. 

Steve then discussed how time, money and effort influence media decisions
about news:

• Some reporters, pressured to produce new content, recycle one event or conflict, because it’s easier than looking at other issues germane to readers.  So, despite “a hunger for meaningful religious stories,” he said that some consider covering those stories risky and expensive.

• Some reporters learn about their “beat” on the job.  “Hopefully, they do not do too much damage while they learn,” he commented.  By hiring young people to save money, midsize dailies may miss stories.

• Some reporters may not invest what it takes to dig up the last bit of information. Media are responsible to keep citizens in a democratic society informed and must probe for the information.  They have the same access to public records that citizens have, but are to take the time to find and discern what is relevant.

• Some media assume they are providing “what consumers want” and assume that consumers want “to be spoon-fed.”

Steve then suggested that media reporting should be “liberal” in terms of being generous, tolerant, broadminded and progressive, and writing should be “conservative” in terms of being cautious, fair, accurate, thorough and clear.

“While objectivity was once a hallmark for journalists
, most realize human bias enters.  It is a reporter’s responsibility to approach the job so his or her bias does not influence,” he said, “but objectivity should not turn people into objects.  People have feelings and values.  They seek meaning.  It’s not appropriate to strip out all connections of meaning. 

“We make value choices about who covers what story, how it is covered, what the cost is, how large the headline is and how many quotes to use.  They may be based on professional standards, but are not objective,” he said.

Whether people are liberal or conservative, he finds people today disappointed about how political, media, religious, legal, economic and social systems work.

Continuous news coverage, repeating the same event—such as the planes crashing into the World Trade Center—reinforces the feeling that media are not addressing problems people see, he said.

Media mergers into mega-corporations also have a troubling effect, he said.
Given the trend to consolidation, Steve considers internet “the single most important cultural development since the Gutenburg press.”

The internet throws access open to anyone with a connected computer.  Corporations no longer control who says what.  Anyone can do a web page and decide what to put on it,” he said.

To give students perspective, Steve shows them newspapers from the 1800s when political parties supported the press instead of advertisers.  Party press did not help people understand varying points of view.  An historical overview reveals other periods of sensationalism.

 “As an idealist, I believe there is goodness today.  Our first responsibility is to do good to others. I’m also a realist, aware that the poor will always be with us and that those who do good may be persecuted.  Still, we should do good, because there are consequences for doing nothing,” he said.

Steve believes media can be more responsible if they 1) provide consistent follow-up stories, 2) report on consequences of actions, 3) describe the context,    4) give a sense of perspective and 5) follow developments in issues rather than just reporting crises.

His commitment to truth arises from both his media experience and personal experience.

Although active in United Methodist youth fellowship, choir and church camps while growing up in Salem, Ore., he became disillusioned with church after high school in 1960.   While working at Sacred Heart Hospital and attending Eastern Washington State College, he met his wife, Judy, a Catholic, whose faith commitment led him to investigate Catholicism and to meet Jesuits open to arguing about faith issues and willing to admit if they did not know answers to tough questions.

“I became a Catholic, but not a serious one.  I didn’t let my religious affiliation interfere with what I did, until I had to face the consequences of some poor life choices and unresolved issues from my childhood,” he said.

“Two years of counseling, retreats at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center and the unfailing support of my wife helped me turn my life around and come to a moment in which my anger suddenly dissipated, and I felt God’s love for me and felt God asking me to accept Christ,” he said.

That completed my healing, revealing the profound truth that we are all loved and lovable.  We can’t earn or manufacture it.  We can only accept it or not accept it,” Steve said.

“I had been adept at talking my way out of consequences for my acts.  Since then, I have come to accept my responsibility as part of an awareness that we all need to be accountable.  When we live in truth, it is better for us and for our relationships,” Steve said.

“We can’t separate who we are from what we do, so I bring up religion as it is appropriate.  I cannot delete the influence of religion on society, civic life or anywhere,” he said.

His faith experience, he said, has ingrained the value of truth in personal relationships and furthered his commitment to the pursuit of truth in news reporting.

For information, call 623-4347.

Steve has since retired and now serves on The Fig Tree board.

By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - Copyright © March 2005