By Liz VandenHeede
“We’re living in a vibrant universe of diverse voices,” journalist Steven Roberts said to a crowd of about 200 at the Fetzer Center on Monday night. He was speaking as part of the Communication and Community Distinguished Lecture Series hosted by Western Michigan University’s School of Communication.
Roberts spoke about the new and ever-changing role of the news media and importance of storytelling for presidential candidates.
Through Robert’s 45-year career he has worked for the New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, ABC and is now a Shapiro professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. Roberts explained how what he teaches – media, politics and government – changes daily and sometimes even in the duration of one class period.
“It’s so dynamic, it’s changing in front of us—even as we speak,” he said. “Traditionally it was a vertical model and the people, formally known as the audience, were involved passively.”
With technology always changing the way people receive news, the ways readers are involved is changing just as much. Roberts cited blogging, tweeting and other social networking as the ways readers are becoming involved in media and reporting.
“The most important change was the transmission from feeling passive to active,” he said. “Think of your role in the campaign.”
Roberts mentioned Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign as a prime example of effectively utilizing the changing media, suggesting to count the number of times “you” appears on the campaign website. He also spoke of the current Republican Primaries and the role the media is playing in them.
“Long before votes were cast, there was another measure—the amount of coverage in the media,” Roberts said calling the phenomenon “the media primaries.” He also went on that candidates are now able to speak directly to their followers, instead of through the media.
“Our role as journalists is to hold powerful people to account,” he said, also stating that he thinks the intrusion of journalists into private life is justified, as long as it’s done fairly.
Roberts said a key to the success of a candidate revolves greatly around their ability to tell stories through the media. Candidates can relate to the public through the different ways they send messages saying, “I’m just like you.”
“One of the key things to watch in the next couple months is does Romney find his voice, his story?” Roberts said. He again connected the success of Obama and George W. Bush being elected through their ability to tell stories the public can relate to.
Kathy Propp, a professor of communication at WMU, attended the lecture and was impressed with questions students asked after the he spoke as well as Roberts’ story.
“They (students) were engaged and interested,” she said, “and he tells a good story—just like he told us to.”
Andrew Gambino, a 24-year-old senior majoring in film, video and media studies, was one of the students who asked Roberts questions following the lecture.
“The most interesting, I think, was how he (Roberts) handled explaining the difference between how we, as once passive listeners, are now active spreaders of information,” he said following the lecture.
Heather Addison, an associate professor of communication at WMU, attended the lecture as well and had a different take away.
“I liked that he called himself a dynamic moderate, it’s so important that he called attention that media needs to try for that too,” she said.
Propp and Addison were both pleased that Roberts called attention to what he called the “bedrock principles” of media.
“In the middle of this upheaval there is still the market for quality and standards,” Roberts said, “and that’s what you’re being trained to do right here at Western Michigan.”