As We See It

[Weekly Q&A]

Journalist and author Alicia Shepard discusses today’s media and teaching at UNLV

Alicia Shepard
Photo: Sam Morris

A year ago, Alicia Shepard—journalist, media critic and former NPR ombudsman—came to Las Vegas to teach media ethics at UNLV as a visiting professor. The Weekly caught up with Shepard, the author of Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate, to discuss news bias, consumer responsibility and teaching.

Do people still care about news? People are more interested in the news today than they were 20 years ago. They’re listening to the radio. They’ve got the TV on. They’re getting news on their computers, on their iPads, on their iPhones. There are more sources, and there is greater hunger.

How do we know if we’re getting a balanced story? We live now in the midst of a media revolution. If you’re going to be a responsible news consumer, you need to watch Fox and MSNBC, and listen to Rush Limbaugh and whatever the equivalent would be. Today, a news consumer has to be responsible, go to many different sources to get the news, seek out different viewpoints and then put it all together. Question everything.

How likely is that to happen? I think there is a much greater willingness to believe what you hear and to pass it on without checking it out. The No. 1 question a good reporter asks and a good news consumer asks is, “How do you know that? What’s your source?” What I think really needs to be taught most is media literacy. Teaching it should happen starting in grade school.

Describe your job at NPR. The job was to explain how NPR works to the listeners and then translate what the listeners were saying to the folks at NPR. So I was independent in that I wasn’t a shill for NPR. If they made a mistake, I wasn’t afraid to say it. They had to live with it. I felt a certain expectation to be ultra fair to them because I did have this pulpit.

Any revelations? What I learned from that job is that bias is in the eye of the beholder. It became so clear to me when one day—this was a story about the Middle East—someone called up and said “NPR is nothing but National Palestinian Radio” and then 10 minutes later, “NPR is a shill for the Israeli Defense Force,” you know, same story, just through a different prism. And that isn’t something that the reporters can do anything about. You cannot convince someone that bias doesn’t exist if they want to hear it that way.

How did you end up teaching in Las Vegas? I got an email out of the blue from one of the professors in the media department asking if I were interested, and my initial reaction was, “No way.” It was very much a knee-jerk reaction. And then my niece said, “Do you know how close it is to LA?” My niece, my son, my best friend, they all live in LA. And to be honest, I was just ready for an adventure. I had been living in Arlington, Va., working in the D.C. area for almost 20 years. I wanted to shake up my life.

And? I just loved it. It exceeded my expectations.

In what way? I had very low expectations about the students. It seems to be well known that Clark County doesn’t have a high graduation rate. But I have taught at American University, Georgetown University and University of Texas, [and] the students here just blew me away. I met students who were equally as smart as anyone who got into Georgetown or American University, and I just really enjoyed the diversity of the students, which you would not have at American University or Georgetown, as well as their enthusiasm and, really, a lack of whining.

So they were interested? They were interested and just very engaging. Not shy, not quiet. I very much believe in a Socratic talk style of teaching, asking questions and getting conversations going, and some of the students were great.

Are students’ concepts of news different today? How they get the news is certainly different than how I did when I was their age. And there is more of an attitude that if the news is important enough, “It will find me.” I find that fascinating.

Do you have any concerns about media today? I have tremendous concerns, especially when you think about the fact that the real gatekeepers are not the news outlets, but the Internet service providers—Verizon, Comcast and Cox. They’re the ones providing us access to the Internet.

What's next for you? I'm actually trying to find a job in Afghanistan. I would love to work with Internews or IREX or some of the nonprofits that help develop media over there.

Any parting thoughts on Las Vegas? I love, love, love, love the weather here. I'm a total sun junkie. The older I get, the more the sun matters. I actually think I could retire here. I find this place fascinating. Valley of Fire is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen in my life and I have traveled all over the United States, sailed halfway around the world. I can't go there enough.

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