Custodians of Conscience: Investigative Journalism and Public Virtue

Article excerpt

Custodians of Conscience: Investigative Journalism and Public Virtue. James S. Ettema and Theodore L. Glasser. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1998. 233 pp. $49.50 hbk. $17.50 pbk.

The book is founded upon a provocative paradox. American journalism prides itself on striving for objective, disinterested reporting. Yet the best and most lauded journalism investigative reporting - often seems to be based upon outrage, indignation, advocacy, and calls for justice.

That paradox lies at the heart of Custodians of Conscience. The authors, James S. Ettema, professor in Communication Studies at Northwestern University, and Theodore L. Glasser, associate professor in Communication at Stanford University, make no attempt to simplify or solve the paradox. They embrace its complexity.

Indeed, they take their topic further. The paradox surrounding morals and values in investigative reporting can be used, the authors argue, to illuminate a larger discussion on the nature of moral discourse in public life. Their research was deceptively simple and compelling. They studied some of the country's best investigative reporting. They sat down with the reporters themselves to talk about the work. Ettema and Glasser clearly enjoyed all this. Their second chapter is a long, rich retelling of adventures and events encountered by reporters. Intriguing and dramatic stories show reporters at work and illustrate skills "not taught in textbooks."

The six remaining chapters are organized by engaging and provocative themes. The book explores the paradox of a conscience that strives to be disengaged. It looks at irony and its use by reporters. It pursues the morality evoked by narrative. It studies the interdependence of fact and value. It examines values, judgment, and the responsibility of reporters. This is sober and significant stuff. Ettema and Glasser treat journalism with the utmost seriousness. They do not shy away from its contradictions and ambiguities.

Close readers of Ettema and Glasser's previous work will be familiar with some of the arguments. …