Remaining accurate and transparent in an age of fast-paced, digital information

Frank Sesno offers advice to media on remaining open, accurate and honest in 21st century

Marlena Chertock

MARCH 29, 2011

Frank Sesno spoke about 21st century media and accuracy at Elon University on March 29. He was the keynote speaker of the Media and Politics conference. Photo courtesy of Caitlin O'Donnell.

Frank Sesno issued a warning to Elon University students and faculty during his speech about 21st century media on March 29.

“In a sea of information in which we now exist we are adrift in ignorance,” Sesno said. “So many people have so much access to so much information so quickly.”

Americans are a shockingly insular people, poorly read and underexposed to other cultures, said Sesno, a professor of media and public affairs and international affairs at the George Washington University and award-winning journalist formerly at CNN.

Sesno spoke about openness, accuracy and honesty in the media environment in Oaks 212 at 7:30 p.m on March 29. He was the keynote speaker at the Media and Politics Conference planned and facilitated by political science professor Laura Roselle.

“I think we’re stupid,” Sesno said. “I think too many of us are stupid.”

He places blame on people who don’t seek out information but also on people who misinform, which includes some in the media.

The American public are journalists now too, Sesno said. People share every bit as much responsibility to get accurate information as those providing the information, he said.

News organizations should be held as accountable as the government and as sources are held by the media, according to Sesno. Transparency is extremely important, he said.

Every news organization should have a public person like an ombudsman to inform the public how information is gathered, he said.

Journalism is first and foremost about accountability, he said.

“If we understand it wrong we’ll get it wrong,” Sesno said. “And then we’re stupid. And then we deserve it because we did it to ourselves.”

If a person is misinformed, he is liable to make bad decisions, he said. He’ll be making decisions based on bad information.

“Glen Beck fans just about any issue he can get his hands on,” he said. “It makes great TV and we reward that.”

But spinning or sensationalizing a story, or worse disseminating false information, does huge damage, Sesno said.

“Getting it wrong in this environment is easier and less penalized,” he said. “It damages reputations, misinforms people and undermines journalism.”

The landscape of the media is changing at an accelerating pace, according to Sesno.

Nearly half of Americans now get news on mobile devices, he said. In the last year every news platform saw audiences stall or decline, except the Web. Cable news is also shrinking. Newsrooms have gotten 30 percent smaller in the last 10 years.

“Fewer people are doing more work, doing less editing, working more rapidly, trying to be an expert in more areas,” he said. “There is less enterprise reporting, more speed and pressure.”

This is a recipe for disaster, according to Sesno.

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

News organizations now speak the language of live, he said. News is happening so fast in 24/7 cycles that it’s increasingly difficult to ensure accuracy. But accuracy must remain a main goal of the media.

“The media has to build recognition of the language of live, that things are changing and we don’t know everything right now,” Sesno said.

The changing landscape has caused more of a focus on ratings, circulation and analytics, Sesno said.

He spoke against a trend in journalism to make the reporter important.

In journalism the audience isn’t interested in opinions or what the reporter thinks, according to Sesno. It’s a reporter’s job to give the facts and let the audience form its opinion.

“We have made the reporter a celebrity, a character,” he said. “We have made shows about the host. This is principally to grab attention in an unbelievably crowded environment. How do you stand out? You’re Glen Beck and you shout.”

This detracts from the information and facts being given to the audience, he said.

Sesno wants to inform and make people more responsible, he said.

He had no intention to be a journalist, but has an honest to God curiosity and fascination with the world and its people, he said.

“I have a desire to inform people,” he said. “I want to talk, or write, or make a movie or television show so somebody can come to me later and say, ‘I learned something about that.’”

There will be a workshop held by the conference tomorrow about evaluating media services at 9:30 to 11 a.m. in McKinnon Hall.


Sesno talks about the language of live

Sesno on satire journalism

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