Raising the Standards of Journalism

Article excerpt

AMID ALL THE sound and furry over recent media megadals, I would like to deliberate for a moment about what one infotech maven has called communication's "boutique" service: Journalism.

Indeed, the newsgathering craft is not exactly on center stage these days. But it's not ready for the specialty shelf, either.

Certainly, the journalistic profession is in great flux. Too many, inside and outside the news media, have diagnosed the malaise and its symptoms: A rapid loss of identity, confusion of purpose, dilution of standards, and - perhaps most hurtful of all - growing irrelevancy. But despite all the gloom, I believe the glory days for journalism will come again. If . . .

I come to this subject from a slightly different perspective than most - an insider, who a decade ago, stepped outside to share the philosophy and techniques of our craft with colleagues from other countries. From this particular vantage point, it is quite clear that the American press is not the shining beacon it once was to the outside world. Each day, it has become harder for us to say: "Here is the professional standard against which we measure ourselves."

For example, in our training courses at the Center for Foreign Journalists, we once could point to the front page of any of America's great newspapers and confidently challenge the reader to find reportorial bias. Today, that's a risky exercise.

Our foreign colleagues can seen the problem for themselves when they visit modern American newsrooms. A group of young German reporters was recently stunned to learn that the new mission at one of the community papers on their tour is to make its readers "mad, sad, glad or bad." Is that, they asked, what American journalism has become?

Complicating the issue, of course, is the fear over the future of newspapers, especially "ink on paper." This quandry tends to confuse the craft with the product, and I agree with my friend at the American Press Institute, Jeff Cowart, who says: "The franchise is journalism, not newspapers."

Now, we are being pulled into a new debate over the role of journalism itself, pitting those who believe in the classical coverage of dispassion with those who want to be more proactive in the community.

And while all this is brewing in the house teapot, everyone else seems to be going merrily on their way, cruising the Net or calling their local talk-show host and not caring a whit about the future of newspapers or the true definition of journalism. Thus, the boutique label.

When we try to explain all this to colleagues from, say, the emerging democratics of Eastern Europe, we do our best to keep our heads, avoid apologies and describe reality. …