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OU Journalism Dean Ed Kelley On Dangers Of International Reporting, Evolving Media Landscape

Dec 23, 2016

International journalism has always been a dangerous line of work. Dozens of war correspondents have been killed in every major conflict since World War II. From Ernie Pyle to Anthony Shadid to David Gilkey, being in harm’s way is an occupational hazard, and journalists understand and accept the risk when they agree to assignments in hostile and unstable regions.

“I don’t know of any journalism organization, whether it’s in this country or anywhere else, that would deliberately put an employee, one of their people, in harm’s way if they felt like harm could come to that person,” longtime journalist, editor, and dean of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication Ed Kelley told KGOU’s World Views.

In his role with the college, he’s cultivated a relationship with the U.S. State Department to bring international journalists to Norman and Washington, D.C. This year, he took a group of Pakistani journalists to the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The facility is dedicated to the history of journalism, and on the third floor, a memorial chronicles the death of more than 2,200 journalists who have died reporting the news.

When I take these journalists from Pakistan up to the third floor, invariably almost all of them go up to the walls where these names and photographs of these journalists from Pakistan are, and they tell me stories like, ‘He was my friend. I had lunch with him yesterday. He left a wife and two little kids. He was about ready to leave his shift when attackers came in and bombed the newspaper.’,” Kelley said. “So it really is sobering for people like me, journalists in this country. I've told people, and I've told these Pakistanis that really the worst thing that could happen to me as a journalist working in this country is that I would get sued by a lawyer. Obviously in places like Pakistan and elsewhere, the stakes are much, much higher.”

Kelley led The Oklahoman’s newsroom for decades, earning “Editor of the Year” honors from the National Press Foundation for the paper’s coverage of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Over the course of two decades, he watched his newsroom and other media outlets evolve – affected by new and increasing digital delivery mechanisms for content and citizen journalists who can publish unfiltered thoughts and images to social media. Because there are so many ways to get information, local outlets have less emphasis on international and global news than when they served as their market’s sole source of information.

“That’s true in almost all of the organizations that I’m aware of,” Kelley said. “Some really good regional papers, for example, that may have had four or five or six correspondents based in key parts of the world – whether that’s Mexico, or Israel, or Russia, or London, or wherever – a lot of those positions have gone by the wayside.”

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Interview Highlights

On the changing landscape of journalism and how news outlets keep up

News organizations, as they struggle to reinvent their business model and stay relevant in their communities, have decided to focus on what they do best, which is news and information in their own backyard that only they, in many cases, can provide. So it's not that they're not interested, it's just simply they've been forced to do this as well as, we all know, that if there's an international story breaking right now, the internet, social media will provide tons of information coming at you, almost as if you're drinking from a fire hose. And you can get that at any time. You don't need to rely on the next newscast at, say, 6:00 tonight or certainly not tomorrow morning's newspaper. It used to be, many years ago, 100 years ago, that news was broken in newspapers. And then in the 1920s here came the advent of AM radio. Well, then after that, the late 1940s and '50s, here came television. The big change really happened, I think, in the 1980s with the advent of cable television, which became the source of breaking news, whether that's a local story or somewhere halfway across the world.

On the media’s relationship with foreign and domestic governments

The two countries that shared the notoriety of having the most journalists jailed were Egypt and China. China, which obviously is a world power, and I think a lot of your listeners would not think that would be a place where that would happen. But it happens on a regular basis there. Some might remember, too, the case of Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter who was jailed in Iran on some trumped-up espionage charges. He was in jail for more than 540 days before he was finally released earlier this year. He benefited from the fact he had a very strong news organization with a great international reputation behind him that could put pressure on public officials in not only this country, but obviously in Iran. But there are still probably one-third or more of the people who report in dangerous places are freelance journalists. And so they don't have the benefit of having a strong news organization with its resources behind it like Jason Rezaian did with the Washington Post. So freelancers, who have always been a part of reporting internationally, are particularly vulnerable at this point in time.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Ed Kelley, welcome to World Views

ED KELLEY: Glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

GRILLOT: Well, it's a real pleasure to have you here, Dean Kelley. I really want to focus on some of the global issues that journalists face around the world, but let's just start with some of your own experience. The fact that you've obviously been a journalist for your career, you've worked in a lot of diverse markets - Washington, D.C., Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City - mainly in print media, but I know you have some background in broadcast and digital work. But just from your career, what are some of the changes you've seen in terms of how journalists and journalism has changed? How journalists have to do their job a little differently. Access to global news and global information and how that has influenced what you report in a local setting like Oklahoma City or Salt Lake City, for that matter.

KELLEY: Well, certainly the way that people consume news has radically changed. I like to tell people that we're 20 years or so what I call the "digital revolution." And beforehand, of course, people like me, we were gatekeepers. There was a limited amount of information that the public was aware of. You had three nightly network broadcasts every evening. You had a daily newspaper, a very dominant daily newspaper in every market. You could also get news in an old-fashioned way by AM radio in local markets. But for the most part, those were the sources of information that most people had. Well, with the advent of the internet, of course, that has all changed. And news consumers here in Oklahoma and elsewhere can get on to their hearts' content and access news from news organizations like the BBC, Al Jazeera, news organizations like the South China Post. News organizations really all over the world at any time, day or night. So the free flow of not only information but news to consumers is, like I said, radically changed, and has changed just - when you measure it on the cosmic scale of things has just changed almost overnight. As we know, most Americans are not consumed by what goes on in internationally unless there's some sort of a crisis. We, again, just recently had the bombing incident in New York, what possible ties it may or may not have to the Middle East. People obviously are very interested when news like that breaks. And then it sort-of wanes and goes away for a while. That's unfortunate, I think, but I do still think that most Americans understand that they can't isolate themselves from the rest of the world. And that people, whether it's a time of crisis or not, educated Americans know they need to understand something about the rest of the world. So local newspapers, though, and local broadcast affiliates, because again, there are so many ways to get news and information in this day and time, probably have less emphasis on international and global news than they did back in the day when they were the sole source of news for their particular market. So that has changed quite a bit. It still doesn't mean, though, that news organizations, at least responsible ones, what I call "serious journalism," that they have abandoned that. It's just that there's probably less emphasis on it today than ever. And also, too, with the changing business model, not just for print-oriented organizations, but broadcast too, there are probably fewer correspondents representing American media outlets around the world than there used to be. And that's true in almost all of the organizations that I'm aware of. Some really good regional papers, for example, that may have had four or five or six correspondents based in key parts of the world - whether that's Mexico, or Israel, or Russia, or London, or wherever - a lot of those positions have gone by the wayside. But there still is a commitment by the really outstanding news organizations such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, to keep Americans apprised, but again, the depth of reporting, because of the change in the way that the business is structured, and that basically the business of news is much less profitable than it once was means that invariably there are going to be reductions in force and putting people in interesting and/or dangerous spots around the world.

GRILLOT: So much of what you said here is so interesting, and worthy of follow-up. Where do I begin? Because you've touched on some really important things, and something actually I just learned from you, I mean, I've noticed that my local media definitely doesn't cover international news. And I just thought that, well, maybe they're just not interested. But it's because, like you just said, the notion that people can get that news in other sources. So there seems to be an effect on the business of media, and let's make sure we know that it is a business. The business, the media industry it will pick and choose. And what is it, focus on comparative advantage? My comparative advantage is what I know here locally, and because you can get all this news now from around the world, that allows me to limit my focus to something. Because I don't have to cover what's happening in other places because I'm not the only source of news anymore. I don't know, that just hadn't really dawned on me that that was kind of a conscious decision to let other people cover the international news.

KELLEY: Yeah, that's right. I hate to use the word commodity, but in some ways international news and certainly a fair amount of national news is a commodity. So news organizations, as they struggle to reinvent their business model and stay relevant in their communities, have decided to focus on what they do best, which is news and information in their own backyard that only they, in many cases, can provide. So it's not that they're not interested, it's just simply they've been forced to do this as well as, we all know, that if there's an international story breaking right now, the internet, social media will provide tons of information coming at you, almost as if you're drinking from a fire hose. And you can get that at any time. You don't need to rely on the next newscast at, say, 6:00 tonight or certainly not tomorrow morning's newspaper. It used to be, many years ago, 100 years ago, that news was broken in newspapers. And then in the 1920s here came the advent of AM radio. Well, then after that, the late 1940s and '50s, here came television. The big change really happened, I think, in the 1980s with the advent of cable television, which became the source of breaking news, whether that's a local story or somewhere halfway across the world. But today, as we know, all news is really broken on social media. And even cable news struggles to stay relevant in what I would call "the breaking news game."

GRILLOT: But as a professional journalist, though, I mean does this concern you? That obviously news breaks very quickly and from multiple sources, and isn't always as professional, perhaps, as a trained journalist. Everyone's a journalist now, right? You're out with your cell phone and you're capturing video or photos or images of things, or reporting on them, writing your own blog, whatever it is. I mean, you referred a few minutes ago to "serious journalism." Is this serious journalism? And how are serious journalists dealing with the fact that people around the world are just breaking news to us all the time, 24/7?

KELLEY: Well, it is difficult. And it is painful at times to watch and see in those first few moments after a big breaking story, usually something that involves violence, that there are inaccurate reports that get aired and/or are on social media sites. And I cringe like you suggest, as a lifelong journalist, that this is happening, knowing of course, too, that journalism, credible news organizations, make mistakes as well. It's not just citizen journalists but others do too. I think, though, for most organizations that it's important to get it first, but it's more important to get it right first. So I think the traditional news organizations understand they're in the "breaking news game," but at the same time, don't want to be associated with anything that could be construed as something that's not accurate. I think we all need to remember, too, that local law enforcement authorities particularly, but others who are involved in emergency situations, that they are very reluctant to release information unless it's been thoroughly vetted. So you have this period from either a few minutes, or in some cases a couple of hours, where there is really no official information that citizens can rely on as absolutely, what we would call the gospel truth. And so there is a lot conjecture that gets made to fill airtime, and/or feeds some posts on social media. And that's where credible news organizations are on somewhat of a slippery slope when they try to compete with others who are not terribly concerned by that.

GRILLOT: Well this issue of credibility is certainly important, and it's no secret that credible journalists, professional journalists, have been involved in long-term investigation stories, breaking really important and life-changing news like Watergate, for example, and more recently things like Snowden. Journalists were right on the forefront of that, breaking that story. People who have really important things to communicate often do go and communicate them through professional, credible journalists and news sources. How has that affected the industry? As being seen as a way in which oftentimes unpleasant things...or at least unpleasant to perhaps government authorities...are often the subject of what journalists do? That relationship, I guess, between elected officials and the public and journalists who are working in an industry and business and are professionals, and how that, I don't know, symbiotic relationship emerges?

KELLEY: Yeah, this is really nothing new. As long as there's been...whether it's pamphlets way back in the day 200 years ago to the advent of the so-called penny press in the 1830s and '40s. And of course, in the 20th century with the advent and domination of broadcast media, because most Americans still say that they get most of their news today from over-the-air broadcast television. Which is fine. But good journalists, particularly those that are investigative journalists, have always had a relationship. Sometimes a good one, sometimes a very tense one. It runs hot and cold with the sources, with the people that they cover. There are also too, at every level of government, people who - you can call them whistleblowers or whatever you want to call them - who either do it for the best of reasons or nefarious reasons or somewhere in between that are willing to release information that, as you suggest, sometimes either angers and/or embarrasses a government at any level, particularly the federal level. So we can go back to Watergate, we can go back, particularly I think, particularly salient in this day and time, are the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 in which Daniel Ellsberg, the former RAND Corporation analyst, released a treasure trove of papers and data that really detailed the early involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War, and how the Nixon administration tried to prevent The New York Times from publishing the information. Celebrated court case, certainly a celebrated case in American journalism history which The Times won the case that prevented the government, in this case, and again, the Nixon administration, from using prior restraint. So there's always been this tension, and contrary to what most people think, sometimes the tension is just as great in Democratic administrations as it is in Republican administrations. And certainly that's been the case in the Obama administration that has cracked down on whistleblowers. Some people have compared it, in some ways, the current administration to that of the Nixon administration. So, again, sometime conventional wisdom doesn't always rule in this. But sometimes sensitive stories can only be done with people who are on the inside. And that's why news organizations always struggle with, what are the motives of these people? That's first and foremost. What kind of protection or anonymity do we give people like this? And those issues, even with the changing ways in which news and information is delivered, those are age-old issues that have been around for a long time, and I would contend will be around for a long time to come. Newsrooms wrestle with that all the time.

GRILLOT: Well Ed, we've been talking largely about American media, or at least Western media. The mainstream media here in this country. But you also referred to, earlier, some of the dangerous work that reporters do. Certainly journalists in the United States are traveling around the world. Those working on their own or for news sources, whichever it may be, media outlets. Putting themselves in harm's way. We definitely know that American journalists have died trying to write their stories. But this is true of journalists all around the world as well. There are journalists in many countries that are putting themselves in harm's way to try and break news and tell the truth and shed light, which is what I think journalists do day in/day out - shed light on things that we need to know. That they think are important, and issues they find important. And so as, again, as an industry official and as a professional journalist, how do you deal with this sort of thing? And how do you train your students to manage this sort of thing? And is this just a workplace hazard? And something that you'll have to deal with? Or are there movements to try to enhance security for media professionals as they go about shedding light on some of these important issues?

KELLEY: Well, obviously, reporting in dangerous places has always been a dangerous line of work. There were approximately 80 or so journalists who were killed in World War II. The most famous of those journalists, the late Ernie Pyle, was the last one who was killed. He was killed in April 1945 right before the end of the war. So being in harm's way is an occupational hazard, and certainly journalists who agree to do this, whether they be reporters, photographers, videographers, or the like, they accept the risk. I don't know of any journalism organization, whether it's in this country or anywhere else, that would deliberately put an employee, one of their people, in harm's way if they felt like that harm could come to that person. I can't imagine that happening, and I know that it doesn't happen with news organizations here. And I don't think it happens anywhere else. But this is a particularly dangerous time to be a journalist in the world, and in places where you might least expect it. For example, in Turkey, since the failed coup. Of course, Turkey has never been terribly friendly to the dissemination of information, but it really has ratcheted up its case against journalists since the coup earlier this year. There's a group based in New York called the Committee to Protect Journalists, and they've done a lot of research here of late into what's going on there with journalists. And it says in Turkey they've closed down more than 100 broadcasters, newspapers, magazines, publishers, and the like. They detained approximately 100 or so journalists a month. Courts, regulators have censored at least 30 or so news-related websites, and all kinds of security forces raid newspaper offices on a regular basis. And this is in a country that is a NATO ally. So you can imagine what it's like in places that are much less friendly to the work of journalists than a NATO ally. So far this year there have been 30 or so journalists around the world who have been killed. In the Iraq War, which stretched out, as we know, over the course of several years, there were between 70 and 80 journalists that were killed. The jailing of journalists, just like in Turkey last year, for example, the two countries that shared the notoriety of having the most journalists jailed were Egypt and China. China, which obviously is a world power, and I think a lot of your listeners would not think that would be a place where that would happen. But it happens on a regular basis there. Some might remember, too, the case of Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter who was jailed in Iran on some trumped-up espionage charges. He was in jail for more than 540 days before he was finally released earlier this year. He benefited from the fact he had a very strong news organization with a great international reputation behind him that could put pressure on public officials in not only this country, but obviously in Iran. But there are still probably one-third or more of the people who report in dangerous places are freelance journalists. And so they don't have the benefit of having a strong news organization with its resources behind it like Jason Rezaian did with the Washington Post. So freelancers, who have always been a part of reporting internationally, are particularly vulnerable at this point in time. If I might share one story with you. We at Gaylord College have a great relationship with the United States State Department. And we work with State to, for example, to bring working journalists from other countries into the U.S. Over the last year or so we've brought several groups of journalists, both print and broadcast, from Pakistan to the United States. One of the things that we do when they are here, when they spend a few days in Washington, besides spending some time here in Norman, is one thing I like to do with them, which is take them to the Newseum, the great museum in Washington that basically is the history and the story of news, and how it has evolved through the years. On the third floor of the Newseum is a memorial. It's simply called The Journalists Memorial. And it chronicles the death of every journalist around the world over the last 12 or 15 years. When I take these journalists from Pakistan up to the third floor, invariably almost all of them go up to the walls where these names and photographs of these journalists from Pakistan are, and they tell me stories like, "He was my friend. I had lunch with him yesterday. He left a wife and two little kids. He was about ready to leave his shift when attackers came in and bombed the newspaper." So it really is sobering for people like me, journalists in this country. I've told people, and I've told these Pakistanis that really the worst thing that could happen to me as a journalist working in this country is that I would get sued by a lawyer. Obviously in places like Pakistan and elsewhere, the stakes are much, much higher.

GRILLOT: Well, Ed, thank you so much for being here today and shedding some additional light on your industry, on media. Clearly those of us who are interested in things around the world, we rely on you and your colleagues to know what's happening. So thank you for sharing these stories with us today.

KELLEY: You're welcome.

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