Behind the Story: Samantha Pickette on “The Ethics of Agenda Setting”

By Samantha Pickette

When we went to the site of the Wannsee Conference, we spoke with Wolf Kaiser about German journalism before and during the war. Frankly, I was not surprised to learn about the blatant anti-Semitism of Der Stürmer or Das Reich — Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine was far too strong to allow for any subversion on the part of the media. It is easy to criticize German journalists, to say that they should have known better than to allow for the government to dictate how they would report the news. It is also easy to say that we would have done it better if we were in their shoes. Even if the government was breathing down our necks, we are journalists — the watchdogs of society — and we would have reported the truth.

Of course, we didn’t know better and we didn’t report the truth. American journalists were just as culpable as their German counterparts. No, The New York Times didn’t print anti-Semitic propaganda or articles expressing worldwide adoration of Hitler. But, the Times didn’t properly report about the Final Solution, either. Thus, I found myself more disappointed with American journalists than with those from Germany. We, as Americans, should’ve known better. Germans were under the spell of Nazism. We were not. Why, then, couldn’t our newspapers give the fate of European Jewry the attention that it deserved?

The Holocaust is the perfect case study of the power of agenda setting in the media. Journalists are often blamed for trying to frame the news in order to manipulate readers into thinking about current events in a certain way. However, editors have an even greater influence over readers, and therefore have a responsibility to use that power in an ethical manner. Journalists report and write the stories they think are important. Editors decide whether those stories will be published at all. If they are published, editors then decide which details to include and which to cut, what kinds of photographs will accompany the text, and where in the newspaper the story will go. This is an important task — audiences are more likely to see a front-page story with an attention-grabbing headline and an elucidative photograph than they are to see a two-paragraph story on page eight. If the American media had given more attention to the fate of European Jews, perhaps reader reaction would have turned the government’s apathy into action.

We now live in a world where information is disseminated in an instant and yet agenda setting still plagues our profession. Take, for example, the 2014 kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian students. American newspapers failed to imminently report what was happening and were only spurred into action once a social media campaign raised awareness about the abduction. Our discussions during the trip made me realize how powerful newspapers are, both in their ability to spread information as well as to withhold that same information, and I have decided to explore the ethicality of agenda setting in my final paper.

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