Slick Super Bowl commercial insufficient to boost journalism’s image

The Washington Post jumped into a parade of beer and snack commercials during the Super Bowl with its own sixty second advertisement designed to underscore the importance of journalism in a free society. On its face, the message is a much-needed reminder to the nation that journalists are the people’s surrogates, providing news from wide-ranging places, some of which are dangerous. Indeed, as the commercial says, “Knowing empowers us” and “keeps us free.”

The commercial had high-powered narration from Hollywood giant, Tom Hanks. It likely cost about ten million dollars. The images of war and disaster were striking. To its credit, the Post’s message was not simply self-serving, including images of journalists who work for other news organizations.

This message, however, impressive as it is, will do little to boost the image of an industry suffering from a lack of public confidence. Americans surely know in their hearts that a free and functioning press has the potential to do all of the great things touted in the Post’s commercial. To many citizens, however, the news industry is failing to live up to its promise. Public opinion polling reveals this lack of confidence. This deterioration in public sentiment began, by the way, long before Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpImpeachment? Not so fast without missing element of criminal intent Feds say marijuana ties could prevent immigrants from getting US citizenship Trump approval drops to 2019 low after Mueller report's release: poll MORE exploited the matter by attacking the media during his 2016 presidential campaign.

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The public generally acknowledges and disapproves of the media’s ideological crusading, pursuit of viral nonsense from social media platforms, and pack-attack tendencies. The journalism industry is now viewed as part of the establishment, run by big corporations detached from news consumers, concerned more about bottom lines than about serving the nation in the manner portrayed in the Post’s commercial. The public can hardly miss the obvious inconsistency of the press establishment promoting its essential nature in a Super Bowl commercial in the same month big media corporations are canning journalists by the hundreds.

High profile journalistic blunders such as BuzzFeed’s recent clumsy report about Trump suborning perjury overwhelm the worthy journalism being done by the many dedicated and grossly underpaid reporters across the nation. Mistakes happen in every industry, but the journalism industry’s gaffes are on display for everybody to see. Further, the blunders too often are caused not by circumstance, but by newsroom cultures that too often thrill to sensationalism and the obsessed drive for clicks and ratings.

The Post’s commercial ends with the phrase that also sits atop its masthead and web page, “Democracy dies in darkness.” That profound statement says much, but democracy also suffers when the press mismanages its responsibility.

The journalism industry’s problems won’t be solved by a one-off commercial in front of a football audience, no matter how polished the message. 

The public’s dismal sentiment about the media is crystalized and could take years to undo. The Post’s powerful message is undercut every day by even more powerful illustrations of high-profile news correspondents grandstanding in front of White House press conferences, news anchors blending reporting and commentary from the anchor desk, and journalism’s failure to present a news agenda of breadth and substance.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once famously said, “Power is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” The news industry should carefully ponder that. Effective service to the public should be all the statement the journalism industry needs to make. Super Bowl commercials extolling the importance of journalists could well fit into Thatcher’s framework.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.