An excellent talk by from the Media Research Center, “Understanding and Critiquing Old Media,” opened today’s afternoon session at Austin’s Right Online summit. The speakers clarified some basics about journalism, such as the fact that typically reporters don’t write their own headlines (copy editors do) or that there is an unofficial reporter’s code of ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists.

A good deal of the talk revolved around consistent forms of bias found in the media, most of which are monitored closely by MRC’s watchblog NewsBusters. An archetypal form of bias by ignorance that exists in the media, often manifesting itself in bias by labeling, has to do with the mainstream coverage of religion.

The signature authority on this form of media bias is GetReligion, whose name is taken from William Schneider’s observation that the press “just doesn’t get religion.” A great example is the most recent GR post on the media’s constant politicization of statements from the pope and other Vatican officials, a theme we’ve long covered in this venue.

These sorts of online outlets represent a huge shift in the conversation about media. The word can now get out if there are errors, intentional or otherwise, in media coverage. Quotes taken out of context can be shown in their original form. Letters to the editor can be posted online whether or not the original source chooses to acknowledge them. New media is an important form of “citizen” journalism.

One question I have is whether or not citizen journalists should recognize and respect the “off the record” phenomenon that is a hallmark of professional journalism. If nothing is ever off the record now, I think there’s a dangerous possibility that such a reality will impoverish public discourse and create an environment of cynicism and opposition. There’s a reason that ability to speak “off the record” arose in the fourth estate and I don’t think we should simply cast it off as an antiquated relic without serious reflection.

One of the other key differences between old and new media is the form that authority, influence, and celebrity take in the latter. See, for instance, New York mag’s “The Microfame Game” and Vanity Fair‘s Blogopticon.