Five questions for Rick Stevens

Journalism professor looks back at Kennedy, ahead to evolving technology

Rick Stevens, a single parent, says much of his personal life is consumed with small person culture, including regular trips to the Boulder Public Library and frequent visits to playgrounds and parks such as Boulder’s Scott Carpenter Park.

Writing was never a chore for Rick Stevens. He wrote creatively. He journaled. It was fun. In high school in Texas, an English teacher encouraged him to hone his abilities by working for the school newspaper.

“The following year, I took a journalism class. That formally introduced me to the style of journalism, a style in which I immediately fell in love.”

He wrote humor pieces and editorials; he wrote about school politics, major events, and sports. One night, while on the sidelines at his high school’s football game, a local journalist mentioned that several area papers needed help covering sports, especially the expansive and much-followed football scene.

Every Friday night, he would drive to a small town or city to cover a football game, get the stats, stay for a few interviews and then write up a story for the Corsicana Daily Sun. “I rarely went to the same place twice. There were quite a few humorous events during the early days of those assignments,” says Stevens, now an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Colorado Boulder. For instance, he didn’t realize six-man football existed until he found himself covering a game. “My indoctrination occurred when I saw the players lining up for the kickoff. So I rapidly started quizzing the scoreboard operator about the rules, and managed to pull together a decent story. But there was a lot of baptism by fire back then.”

In college, he continued writing for newspapers. After earning his doctorate in journalism at the University of Texas at Austin in 2004, he became a faculty member at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He studied new media and popular culture and helped revamp the Division of Journalism's curriculum. He joined CU in 2008.

Stevens’ work is broadly tied to how communication media represent values, individuals, institutions and controversies to the public.

1. What was your pathway from writing for newspaper to becoming a university scholar?

By the time I went to college, I was sure journalism was the career for which I was best suited, and I spent my college years pursuing my coursework while working in campus media, as well as continuing to work for area newspapers.

After college, I decided I wasn't quite finished with learning, and earned a master’s degree in digital media in the late 1990s. That was when Americans were becoming aware of the importance of online media, so I began to consult with corporations and media companies to help them get content online.

My interests led me further into new media and communication theory, and so I entered the Ph.D. program at Texas in 1999 to continue expanding upon my understanding of digital technologies and how they were changing our culture. By then, the pursuit of knowledge had become its own goal, and while I continued to consult with businesses and media companies, I knew my intellectual interests were better served in the academic setting.

My dissertation examined the emergence of privacy legislation in American history, correlating those occurrences closely to the introduction of various communication technologies, finding patterns that indicated the moral panics over privacy almost always followed the popularizing of a new technological capability. In other words, our concerns of privacy as a culture largely appear to stem from a discomfort we have with the expansion of our technological abilities, not necessarily a predetermined conception of private space or autonomy.

2. This month marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The incident was a turning point in media coverage. What changed in 1963 and why?

John F. Kennedy's whole presidency revolved around the emergence of television as a medium. Though other figures before him had used broadcast media in their campaigns or to promote their programs, Kennedy was the first to understand and use the medium effectively to present controlled images to the public. Visually, Kennedy was able to use television to project an appearance of vigor and energy, and used this to overcome some of the shortcomings of his relative lack of experience. He was the first presidential candidate to demonstrate the effectiveness of communicating in sound bites, and his attention to the presentation of his talking points is largely what has changed politics (for better or worse) ever since.

It's tragically fitting that the nation's first television president was mourned on television, the medium that had helped propel him into the White House in the first place. The coverage of the processional and funeral represented the first time in history Americans reacted to the same visual event on such a large scale.

In the days following the assassination, the three television networks decided to forego planned programming and provide continuous commercial-free coverage of the mourning process at an estimated loss in advertising revenue of $32 million in 1963 dollars. According to the figures published in Broadcasting magazine, 96 percent of American television sets were tuned to that coverage for an average of 32 hours over the four-day period of the funeral and mourning.

That event was the beginning of a drastic change in the way Americans perceived public life. Soon thereafter, seeing the events of the civil rights conflict turned public support to favor the movement; seeing the effects of the Vietnam War several years later turned the public against that war. The coverage of the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath represented a key shift from radio to television as the dominant news medium of the day, and signaled the birth of a different kind of relationship between the American public and their public officials.

3. Evolving technology, money, and content choice continues to change the way the public gets its news as well as the type of news it receives. What do you consider the “good,” “bad,” and “ugly” of this changing landscape?

There is a lot to dislike about our contemporary media system. I think many people dislike the growing partisanship that they see on a daily basis throughout the system, but what worries many scholars like me the most is the corporate consolidation and hypercommercialism behind some of those trends.

Increasingly, the profit motive of the concentration of corporations that own the vast majority of media appears to be pushing traditional concerns of social responsibility and investigative reporting to the back burner. There are many journalists doing fantastic work in our system, but the increasingly profit-driven corporate system often seems to drown out some of the better work with increased space for product promotion, attention-getting novelty stories, and superficial coverage of complex issues stemming from declining expenditures for the editorial mission of too many journalism outlets. And the rise of punditry as a popular form of journalistic discourse (which is both cheap to produce and tends to draw more attention than factual reportage) in the late 1990s appears to have wreaked considerable havoc on the ability of our society to consider complicated problems and challenges and even to simply agree on the facts of the events occurring before us.

However, having said that, our culture is also in the midst of a profound technological shift, one that affects countless aspects of our lives. Even as one considers the good and bad in our 20th century media system, we're beginning to see the emergence of a host of new platforms, tools and even media outlets that look promising for the future of journalism. It's hard to see how enterprise reporting like the work published by Propublica, for example, could have grown up in the form that it has in the previous analog environment.

Even as we see the struggle of large metropolitan newspapers (which I think it's fair to say are still the heart of journalistic reportage in our media system), we're seeing an increase in quality journalism and innovation across the old and new elements of our media system that I think indicates a bright future for journalism in our culture. It normally takes a human generation for a new technology platform to diffuse through society, and if one considers the popularization of the Internet really occurred around 1994, we're only halfway to two-thirds of the way through that adoption process. There is much we still don't understand about how people interact with the Internet, much less how digital technology is changing the way our culture works.

4. Some of your research interests include ethical models for new media publications. Why is the research important? What are some of your other interests?

I am interested in how technology is changing the normative practice of journalism. The journalist of today has a level or access and computing power at his or her disposal previously unknown in human history. The ability to find documents, to locate sources, to dig into the dark corners of our institutions ... all of these capabilities are superior to what journalists of the past had at their disposal. But with those abilities come a growing number of concerns about how these abilities should be used.

The emergence of new platforms, such as social media or blogging, have challenged how ethical considerations work. Briefly, it's important to note that codes of ethics are always created in a particular context in reaction to particular presumptions about the relationships of media organizations to their audience. In today's new media environment, we're seeing a radical renegotiation of many of these relationships. For example, when a small number of media outlets are charged with communicating to large majorities of the citizenry (such as when we had three broadcast networks reaching 90 percent of American households), the call for attempted objectivity in coverage is essential to social responsibility. In a system with thousands of media outlets communicating the increasingly narrower niche audience targets, the need for objectivity lessens dramatically. So as we move from an era of mass communication to networked communication, it's important to consider how the changing constraints and nature of our media system, and even of various media outlets, change the priorities involved in socially responsible reporting.

Another large area of concern is representation. When media outlets were concentrated, the constraints of time and space created the increased exclusion of minority voices from our media sphere. But as the number of media outlets and communication technologies has grown, the excuses previously used to exclude so many important voices from our public conversations are evaporating. Minority and alternative voices are much more accessible, and the constraints of journalism narratives (namely, time and space) are increasingly less of a problem in the digital world.

Copyright and privacy norms are two areas I've spent some time considering. Digital expressions of information vary widely from their analog predecessors, and so how we have historically dealt with concerns like appropriately handling private data and how we secure the rights of authorship will continue to evolve as our technology platforms evolve.

I've published work on how Facebook presented privacy choices to its users, and how that presentation often misleads about the consequences of their choices. I've published an article about how users interact with popular e-reader devices, and how that interface holds interesting implications for the future location of the book in American culture. I've published a piece on how journalists and scholars differ on the concerns of preserving digital content, and what problems that difference poses for the public's understanding of digital content.

5. Do you have a favorite item or artifact on your desk, and if so, what is it and what is the story behind it?

There are many odd objects on my desk and around my office. Because I study the representation of journalists in popular culture, one of the shelves near my desk has an assorted collection of journalism action figures, from a news correspondent Kermit the Frog, to Lois Lane, to Simpsons characters. How we present journalists in popular culture reveals much about how Americans view the role of journalists in our culture, and so I keep reminders nearby.

A shelf in my office holds a small museum of communication devices, including various cell phones, communication technologies, and even some of my earliest computers. As part of my research into how technology affects our culture, I think it's important to be reminded of how much technology has changed in such a short period of time.

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