News 7 is a daily television show produced by journalism students at Lyndon State College which, when it officially merges with Johnson State College next July, will become Northern Vermont University.
Each school is hoping to retain its own signature programs, and one of those, based at Lyndon, is News 7, where students hit the streets - and dirt roads - to cover a dozen or so Northeast Kingdom communities. Their award-winning stories are broadcast on cable TV and also posted on an internet site called NewsLinc.
Full disclosure: I taught journalism at Lyndon State a few years ago, while also working as a reporter, so class discussions often revolved around news stories of the week, and the ethical questions they raised.
My students were often surprised to learn that bias in broadcasting used to be outlawed by the Federal Communications Commission. Under the Fairness Doctrine, TV and radio stations were, once upon a time, required to devote some of their programming to controversial issues and to allow the presentation of opposing views.
Ronald Reagan’s FCC did not enforce the doctrine, and it was officially scrapped during the Obama administration. To be fair - the point here after all - I can see both pros and cons to the bygone regulation, but one thing seems clear. After deregulation in the ‘80s, radio and television hosts on far ends of the political spectrum started dominating the airwaves.
Perhaps one reason why today we’re so sharply divided into red and blue states - and states of mind - is that it became so much easier for Americans to tune in to ideologues they favored, and tune everyone else out.
When I asked my students if they would favor re-instating the Fairness Doctrine, many said it would be anachronistic in the Internet age. They noted that many people now get their news from perhaps untrustworthy internet sites, unregulated by the FCC.
But I think that’s precisely why young people need to learn how to tell the difference between accurate, thorough reporting and political propaganda. Pre-professional, hands-on community journalism programs like Lyndon State’s help train thoughtful news producers, and we should make sure those programs survive and prosper.
And now, more than ever, we also need fair-minded media consumers. Every high school student in Vermont - in fact, in America - should graduate with at least a basic sense of what real news is, and what it isn’t.