Returning professionalism to journalism

Bruce Sanford, partner at BakerHostetler in Washington, D.C., presented the 18th annual Sammons Lecture in Media Ethics last evening on the SMU campus. Bruce is one of the top First Amendment and media lawyers in the United States. The title of his lecture was “Trusting the Media in the Age of Trump.” A complete text of his lecture can be found here:  2017 Sammons Lecture in Media Ethics 

Bruce Sanford, partner at Baker Hostetler in Washington, D.C.

Bruce has represented the top news organizations in the United States on a variety of matters including libel defense and freedom of information. I have known him for many years, and he is a passionate and articulate voice for government transparency as well as professional and responsible news reporting. It was a challenging lecture for journalism students, and honestly a bit more optimistic that I am regarding the future of news media.  But he gave several excellent examples of innovative journalism that have created new avenues for accountability and integrity in news reporting.

We remain in a strange and difficult time in American politics, and the relationship between the government and the media has shifted significantly in the last 20 years. These changes have been chronicled in the mainstream press, academic work, and also in this blog. As Bruce noted in his lecture, confidence in the news media is at an all-time low. And often with good reason. “The sobering reality about the public’s relationship with the media is that, like an ugly divorce, there are contributions to the unhappiness from both sides,” he said. “As consumers of news, there are some things we bring to the dysfunction that only we can change.”

We didn’t reach this fragile place overnight, and no doubt both our political environment and the news media will require long-term repair. From the media standpoint, the digital age has wrought change no one could have imagined at the turn of the millennium. And the only certainty is that change will continue at a rapid pace. Thoughtful and reasoned consideration about a free press and its function in democracy will be needed from both our political class and our leaders in news media.

A salute to women in newspapers

Vivian Castleberry, who was in the vanguard of women in newspaper journalism.

Today we mourn the passing of the legendary Dallas journalist Vivian Castleberry. She was 95. The Dallas Morning News marked her death with a beautifully written story on her career.  The piece noted but some of the skepticism, sexism and discrimination she experienced when beginning in the newspaper business at a time when it was dominated by men. The story caused me to reflect on the handful of women I knew and worked with at the Houston Chronicle who had come into newspapers at the same time Vivian did. It was a group of women who graduated from college in the 1940s and entered the workforce in the era immediately after World War II.  Vivian graduated from high school in 1940 and was awarded a scholarship at SMU. She studied journalism, and served as editor of The Campus, the student newspaper.

I never met Vivian until I began teaching at SMU in 2003. But I could tell she was cut from the same cloth as the women I had known and admired in Houston. They came from a time when women in newspapers were generally limited to work in the Women’s News departments. The sections they produced were dominated by news of homemaking, fashion, child rearing and the basic domestic responsibilities thought to belong to women in those days. But what they proved over time, and Vivian was certainly in this group, is that they were damned fine reporters. They brought a different perspective to the stories they covered, the questions they asked, and how they wrote.  Ultimately they won the highest awards in journalism. Many went on to become fine editors, and the newspaper business, slowly but surely, changed for the better.

In the times I was with Vivian, she was never without that infectious smile. She was unfailingly kind and gracious. And even into her 90s, she had an enthusiasm and an intellectual curiosity that made her the journalist she was. She will be missed, but her contributions to journalism will never be forgotten.