Journalism in a Globalized World
For over two decades, Bill Emmott has been a fixture at The Economist, a publication whose reputation for incisive commentary on and reportage of business, economic, and political affairs has long been internationally acknowledged. Having first worked as a correspondent and editor in Brussels, London, and Tokyo, Emmott was appointed to his current position of Editor-in-Chief in 1993. In addition, he has authored three books on Japan. Senior Editor Gina Kramer recently spoke with Emmott about the challenges faced by modern journalists and publishers, the bounds of editorial integrity, and the impact of the Internet on print publications.
HARVARD INTERNATIONAL REVIEW:
What considerations and values come into play when choosing the news stories that will form the content of a magazine such as The Economist?
In the broadest terms, there is always a balance between our desire to set the agenda and the pressure of the news itself upon us. When I say "setting the agenda," I mean writing idea-based stories in which we try to tell the reader that if they aren't interested in this particular topic, they should be, because it's more important than they realize. Examples of issues that we think readers should understand and which should have an impact on them include the issue of privacy on the Internet, dangerous-looking situations in Africa, or the concern over rising debt levels in economies on both sides of the Atlantic. They qualify because they're globally significant trends that are bubbling up underneath the day-to-day news that surrounds us.
Is news frequently tailored to presumed consumer interests, or is the process more objective, based only on what needs and deserves to be reported?
There has to be a balance between those two. Sometimes I will hold off on publishing an article until its subject is already on people's minds. Once that happens, our reporting will have more resonance with people because they can already relate to it. That is often the case with, for example, big set-piece events such as a conference on global warming. We could write about global warming at any stage throughout the year-science and objective fact do not change just because there is a summit. What changes is that the presence of this summit is liable to make readers more sensitized to the issue and therefore actually make the subject more appealing. I do prefer to analyze events well ahead of time, though, because I think that we should prepare people for big events, rather than exploiting the stories after the fact.
During a recent speech, you quoted Adlai Stevenson as saying that the job of an editor is to separate the wheat from the chaff and then publish the chaff. To what extent is that a reality?
It's not a reality. This was Adlai Stevenson's famous put-down of editors, and we can all recognize such "chaff" in newspapers and tabloids where there is a tendency to look for gossip and tittle-tattle rather than hard, underlying facts or themes. At The Economist, we very much position ourselves on the factual end of the spectrum. I recognize that readers are human beings and that they like to be entertained, and so we should sometimes publish things that are amusing or entertaining, but that's just recognizing the fact that intelligent people like to laugh. We position ourselves as "wheat publishers," and, indeed, we try to publish the wheat, processed into the finest bread that money can buy, just to take the metaphor well beyond the breaking point.
Have there been any stories that, in particular, have caused the media as a whole to tread the line between sensationalism and journalism?
All publications are tested in times of scandal; clearly the Clinton impeachment scandal was a classic in this respect. To cite an example from our own magazine, when Lord Jeffrey Archer was exposed last year as having persuaded someone to commit perjury on his behalf in a libel case, we followed the story up with a long article about the entire case, including quite a bit of gossipy material. …