Harvard Law’s Minow addresses ‘changing ecosystem of news’ in Smith talk

  • Martha Minow, a Harvard Law School professor, speaks about freedom of the press Monday at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

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    Martha Minow, a Harvard Law School professor, speaks about "Freedom of the Press and the Changing Ecosystem of News", Monday, Sept. 17, 2018 at Smith College. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

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    Martha Minow, a Harvard Law School professor, speaks about "Freedom of the Press and the Changing Ecosystem of News", Monday, Sept. 17, 2018 at Smith College. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Harvard Law School professor Martha Minow speaks on “Freedom of the Press and the Changing Ecosystem of News,” Monday, at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/17/2018 11:48:05 PM

NORTHAMPTON — With the rise of the internet, national and local news organizations alike are struggling. Budget cuts and shrinking staffs are all too common.

Martha Minow, a human rights expert and Harvard Law School professor, took on these and other changes in the media landscape at a public lecture at Smith College, Monday, “Freedom of the Press and the Changing Ecosystem of News.” The talk marked Constitution Day, the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787.

Early in the lecture, Minow laid out the problems in the current news landscape. According to a Pew Research Center survey of almost 5,000 American adults, two-thirds get news from social media, while a survey of thousands of people across the world commissioned by the Reuters Institute found that about 10 percent paid for online news. Publications have folded, seen layoffs caused by reorganization, and increasingly rely on freelancers, she said. Traditional media have fewer resources to be able to take on investigative reporting. And small towns where newspapers have closed are left without any  local news sources at all, a so-called “news desert.”

Meanwhile, a large chunk of money for online advertising goes to Facebook and Google, she said, which aren’t journalistic institutions.

“They are in the data business, not the news business,” Minow said.

Because on a platform such as Facebook, people’s news feeds are often based on what they’ve clicked on before, Minow said this has led to echo chambers, in which people get news framed in a way that reinforces their views.

And, Minow noted, high-quality journalism that holds the powerful accountable is critical to a functioning democracy. The fights for civil rights and LGBT rights, for example, relied on media to spread their messages, she said. She continued, “So you don’t have to love the media — I don’t always love the media — to recognize it is essential for every other freedom that’s guaranteed by the Constitution.”

At a community level she sees news as vital, too. “People need news,” she said. “People need news about what’s happening in their community, to navigate health care coverage ... to oversee schooling for their own children and themselves, to understand local recycling rules, and large environment risks and a host of other issues — maybe even to find out who are the candidates that are running for the community.”

There are ways to move forward, Minow said.

For example, she said developing techniques to break out of culture bubbles could be useful.

“I think that there may be an architectural requirement that should be put in place so that people who want to can easily get views that are different than what they have already clicked on in the past. You used to in the newspaper get serendipity — you turn the page and you see something you didn’t plan to see. It’s hard to do this now — you have to really go out of your way.”

She also suggested treating digital platforms as more of a public utility, and government subsidies for local news. The government could also enforce laws against fraud, like how the European Union has removed fake accounts from Facebook.

Minow has been teaching at Harvard Law School since 1981 and has a focus on helping vulnerable people, like serving as the vice chairwoman of Legal Services Corporation, a group that provides civil legal help to low-income people. She’s also written and edited numerous books, such as “In Brown’s Wake: Legacies of America’s Constitutional Landmark,” and worked as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Many students filled the room at Minow’s lecture. Maggie Wettach, a junior at Smith College studying government and economics, came to the event after getting about a dozen emails from old professors and the school about it.

“There was a lot of excitement about this talk,” she said.

She said she learned a lot more about the role of government in media through U.S. history, as well as potential solutions to the problem.

Noa Randall, a senior, had a similar takeaway. “I liked that the speaker had clear ways in which change could be made,” Randall said, adding that Minow framed the solutions in a way that made them seem feasible.

Minow spoke at Smith College as part of the Presidential Colloquium series which brings a variety of scholars and leaders to speak in public events. The next talk, on Sept. 26, is titled “‘Keep the Damned Women Out’: The Struggle for Coeducation,” delivered by Nancy Malkiel, professor of history, emeritus, at Princeton University.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com


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