October marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing his “95 Theses” to the church doors in Wittenberg, Germany, effectively igniting the Protestant Reformation that changed not only the course of Christianity but also human history.
Using the new Guttenberg press, Luther published the Bible in the native tongue of the German masses, effectively giving power to those who could read and those with the wherewithal to challenge the teachings of Catholic leaders, who read Latin Scripture.
Today, we are clearly at another juncture in human history where the average person no longer is taking their lead from the traditional gatekeepers of large news organizations. While that is working in favor of President Trump, who is able to label unfavorable coverage as “fake news” and drive a wedge between Americans and Wall Street, we will all inevitably pay the price for a hopelessly divided government and news coverage that is considered either partisan or a tool of the establishment.
Increasingly, Americans are getting their news from social media, mostly on their cellphones. They tune to only the messages that cater to them. There is no true dialogue, but instead partisan name-calling.
That change — fostered by the smartphone, which is arguably an invention as important in human history as Guttenberg’s press — is undoubtedly leading to individualistic, myopic views of the world. But it also points to a need for some news-gathering soul-searching, just as the church was forced to grapple with itself 500 years ago.
I know firsthand how easy it can be to simply mimic the same news formula. As a former radio news director, I spouted the same daily news pegs every day – with a heavy dose of politics, business, Wall Street indexes, weather, and local sports. Yet, even back then, in the 1980s, I was failing my listeners. I was reporting the news, but not exploring my listeners’ lives.
The same is happening today.
Since the 1980s, our world has encountered dramatic changes that the news media addressed only on a peripheral basis. The media has failed to confront these changes — leading to sliding ratings and tumbling readership.
Technology is one area that has changed us all in so many dramatic ways that we have often failed to recognize its significance.
Until I started researching my upcoming film on cellphone addiction, I failed to recognize how important those changes have been for virtually every facet of our lives. The social, scientific, and neuroscientific evidence is dynamic: we read far less, and teenage depression, suicide, and loneliness have skyrocketed. We all spend hours a day on devices in lieu of meaningful dialogue with our neighbors. Work productivity has been compromised. Driving fatalities are on the rise. Our brain pathways are changing.
Our local media focuses on house fires and gunfire in American cities and politics, but mainly ignores the “why” and “what” that deeply impact the real lives and struggles of everyday Americans.
For example, we should be talking about the fact that our country is far less religious today. Congregations in most communities barely fill the oversize, outdated church buildings that once served as landmarks in communities. Gallup Poll results show membership in churches, synagogues, and mosques has plummeted from 71 percent of Americans in 1985 to 56 percent today.
Aside from those who live in downtowns or thriving hamlets, we socialize much less. Why aren’t we talking about the Lions Club, the Rotary Club, and the 4-H groups disappearing?
We have made great strides in emancipating gay, lesbian, and transgender people, but what about progress in terms of race? We need to be talking about how antiquated systems for educating our children via property taxes have locked African American children into inferior school systems compared with those who often live just a mile and a half away in largely white, wealthy, property-tax rich school systems.
These are the dramatic changes that are largely unreported and the ignored systems of injustice that fail to change, locking us into silent resignation and resentment.
We need a media landscape that is purposeful and genuine in covering the everyday issues. A News Reformation could usher in an enlightenment just as a printing-press inventor and an unapologetic monk did 500 years ago.
Dwight DeWerth-Pallmeyer is an associate professor of communication studies and digital media informatics at Widener University. He is a former journalist, who wrote “The Audience in the News” and is producing a documentary called “Cellular Aftershocks.”