OGDEN -- Is the news media biased, pushing its own political agenda on a hapless public? Are people looking for objective news coverage or whatever version of the "truth" that confirms their existing prejudices?
And is the national media nothing more than a profit-driven business that caters to the lowest common interests of its audience, which may rank singer Beyonce's pregnancy announcement over news of terrorist Osama bin Laden's death?
At Weber State University recently, a panel of local education and media insiders tried to come up with answers during a discussion that lasted a bit more than an hour. The gathering was the first of this WSU school year's Taboo Talks, organized and hosted by WSU political science major Lonald Dean Wishom.
"I don't care if you go one way or the other," Wishom told the audience of about 75. "Just start thinking about things. Go home and do your own research."
Charles Trentelman, a columnist and 33-year veteran of the Standard-Examiner news staff, said he believes that online news sources such as Facebook and blogs probably have improved the quality of information available.
"But I say that with the caveat that the public has to be paying attention, checking all the sources," he said. "Everyone who wants a blog can have one. It's the First Amendment on steroids."
WSU Student Association President Kyle Braithwaite raised a theme that would be echoed by others: Readers and viewers often confuse commentary and opinions with straight news reporting.
Trentleman said he's faced that many times.
"I've had people call me up and tell me my opinion is so biased," he said. "Well, yeah."
WSU political science and philosophy professor Leah Murray said it is obvious that major cable news operations have political agendas, with MSNBC leaning left and Fox leaning right.
"They are making money from a self-selected audience," she said. Referring to a study that Fox viewers are poorly informed about a wide range of news topics, Murray said Fox News may choose its news to please its audience, but another possibility is that Fox attracts an audience unwilling to hear anything that fails to support existing beliefs.
Wishom said he always had heard the media was like the fourth branch of the government.
"Why can't the fourth branch be as perfect as the other three?," he asked, drawing the biggest laugh of the day.
Murray said that Beyonce's baby bump, revealed last weekend at a televised awards show, sparked a flood of tweets that far outnumbered those inspired by the news of bin Laden's death.
"It's what we want to consume," Murray said. "We buy BeyoncÃ© or Paris Hilton more than we buy serious news. People magazine sells more copies than The Economist."
Shane Farver, WSU journalism instructor and a former Standard-Examiner reporter, said it's time for the public to become more responsible in news consumption.
"It's the responsibility of the American public to seek out information," Farver said. "The media aren't the gatekeepers anymore. There is no gate. Everything goes around the gate.
"We all have our own biases," he said. "We all see life through our own lens. The goal is to be fair."
Braithwaite said those who want to be well-informed must do their research.
"Be open to all media sources, and include your personal favorites," he said. "That's the way to be well-rounded."