The Tasks in Creating a New Journalism

Article excerpt

Journalism is not going to disappear. As author Michael Schudson observed, if there were not journalists, we'd have to invent them. The real issue is what journalism will look like and if it--and the larger media environment of which it is a part--will ably serve our democracy.

Journalism's core mission is to provide citizens with useful information about public affairs. While this is not an easy task under the best of circumstances, right now this mission is being challenged by some well-documented economic and technological changes in the media. As a result, traditional news organizations seem to face a Hobson's choice: Either stay true to the tenets of journalism and risk becoming irrelevant or compete by being more entertaining and/or opinionated.

But there is a viable middle option. It begins with reasoned reflection and a willingness to act on what we know and believe. For example, many of the conditions that created the practice of modern journalism, such as the scarcity of outlets, no longer exist. This is a potentially positive development, though the increasingly centralized ownership of news organizations must be addressed. Having a handful of news outlets operate under the noble but impossible norm of objectivity was never the optimal way to inform citizens. By reducing reporting to the accurate quoting of "both sides" of an issue, journalists often end up stripping what they convey of valuable context and making it dry, boring and confusing. Yet we know that an information environment that abandons commitment to accuracy or fairness is not helpful in guiding citizens to greater understanding--or increasing their ability to make informed decisions--about the critical issues of our time.

What might a new journalism look like? As a starting point, let me suggest the following:

1. Journalism gets its house in order. Too often journalists fail to live up to their professed standards, as seen in recent mea culpas from CBS News, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. There is confusion, too, between the practice of only reporting what is said and the fundamental goal of uncovering the truth. Add to this the cynical and strategic ways in which elections and politics are covered. Market-driven tensions also seem to influence journalists in setting aside reporting on what people ought to know and substituting what they (often wrongly) think people are interested in knowing about. For journalism to claim its role in democracy, it must walk the talk. …