Bad media, good media?

U.S. news media credit themselves as being watchdogs, the vital Fourth Estate that balances the levels of power between the government and the people. For the most part, media likely do play such a role. How well they do so is a different story, though.

My question is, If media are watchdogs, who watches them?

How do we know if media is doing its job? Or doing it well? If they are – or aren’t – what do we do about it?

Right now, maybe the most widely known media-watchdog group available in mainstream media is CNN’s Reliable Sources with Howard Kurtz (a case of mainstream media watching mainstream media). He also has a blog at The Daily Beast (maybe a case of alternative media watching mainstream media).

Democracy Now! is another news source, from outside the mainstream, but it is still, for better or worse, a news media outlet itself.

There are also a host of bloggers big and small, which I won’t list here cause they simply are not pertinent to this discussion.

That we could make a list of potential watchdogs is all well and good and they may be doing something about what media is doing, but what about at the local level in communities?

When I lived in Milwaukee (disclaimer: I have written frequently for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and once for Milwaukee Magazine) the only real voice about how local media operated came from a column in Milwaukee Magazine, an insider’s look at the politics of newsrooms and analysis of news reports.

I once was going to start such a column when I lived in Madison about local news media for a city magazine, but was told, “If you do this, you will never be hired by media in the city again” if I took media players on for their reporting. That really wasn’t a concern of mine, but I felt that maybe I didn’t have all the support I would need. The magazine, after all, did rely upon advertisers, many who ran ads with the magazine and other mainstream pubs.

Why, though, would we need local media watchdogs? What would they do? What would they even be watchdogging about?

Here’s an example of a story that could use an attack dog.

KCRG in Cedar Rapids reported on an event (which I happened to attend) earlier this week in which graduate students presented projects that they had done in order to voice the concerns and perspectives of those new to Iowa City or those who live in the space demarcated as its “Southeast Side.”

Over the years, this space has been depicted in public and media discourse as dangerous, deviant, and dirty. With its high-density apartment buildings and fair number of racial and ethnic minorities (not to mention a concentration of low-SES families), this space has simply gotten the shaft – it’s problems written off as cultural, not social, structural or economic.

It is good, though, when media show an interest in presenting solutions to problems — or perceived problems — and that is what this report was supposed to be about.

But it didn’t come off that way.

Here is how the story started:

“IOWA CITY, Iowa – 13 graduate students at the University of Iowa have developed a ‘blueprint’ to help clean up southeast Iowa City.

‘This is a high transition neighborhood, this is an area where people are coming in and out of frequently,’ said Sue Freeman, program director at the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County.”

Now, what’s wrong with that? I’ve already said, in fact, that the “Southeast Side” may have its share of problems.

My answer: What are the problems? And is that side of town really dirty to the point where it needs to be cleaned up? And the only people to clean it up are graduate students or people from outside the neighborhoods?

A critique of the language of the story or the way it is cast (presented) from a media watchdog could inform how media demarcate space, how they make it so that the SE Side is nothing but dirty and dysfunctional.

What do you think? But what would this process of media critique look like? Who would critique the media? Where would such a discourse appear? How would it – or could it? – shape media practices?