What Makes Journalism Different?

By Postman, Neil; Harwood, Richard | Nieman Reports, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

What Makes Journalism Different?


Postman, Neil, Harwood, Richard, Nieman Reports


What Is the Problem for Which Journalism Is the Answer? What Are the Problems Technology May Solve? What are the Problems Technology May Create?

A conversation among Neil Postman, Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences, New York University; Richard Harwood, founder of The Harwood Group, a research firm, and conference attendees.

NEIL POSTMAN - I've been a little disappointed so far in the conference. The theme of the conference, "Public-Interest Journalism: Winner or Loser in the On-Line Era," suggested to me that we'd hear something about the purpose of journalism. We didn't hear too much about that. There were some questions. During the last session, someone from the back said, "What is journalism?" But I had the impression this question wasn't taken very seriously.

I had the feeling so far that I often have at education conferences. When educators get together to talk about education in the on-line era, they almost never talk about the purpose of schools. They begin to talk right away about Internet, and computer technology generally. One gets the impression that whatever the technology will allow them to do, that's what education will become.

This is always depressing to me, because I think of such educators as hard-line determinists. In fact, I even heard Katherine say right at the beginning this morning, "technology, or technological change, cannot be resisted," which was a chilling remark, I thought. But no one reacted to it. I thought they would pull her down from the stage, but everyone just sat there.

I also heard Jim Steele, say, "technology is just a tool," and it reminded me of the old saying, that "to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail." And I was thinking that I suppose you could say to a person with a television camera, everything looks like an image, and to a person with Internet, everything looks like data.

What I'm driving at is that technology may be a tool, but it is a tool that has an agenda, a political agenda, an epistemological agenda, a social agenda, and I notice that really didn't come up.

I just want to say one other thing, which is that most of the people who spoke about technology this afternoon spoke as advocates. That surprised me, because I always thought of journalists as, if not entirely cynical, at least people with some distance on what was happening in the culture. So what I heard were advocates telling us what technology can do for journalism. There weren't more than four sentences, maybe three, on what technology will undo for journalism.

Anyone who's studied the history of technology, knows that it's always a Faustian bargain: it will giveth, and it will taketh away. And the question of what a technology will undo seems to me at least as important as the question of what it will do.

RICHARD HARWOOD - The conversation that I heard this morning and this afternoon was also very similar to other conferences I've been to with public officials who are now thinking about applying technology to reconnect citizens in the political process, to educational conferences that I've also attended and to many civic groups who are now exploring the use of technology. What struck me, as you were saying, Neil, is that we became enamored with the technology and left the content behind.

Bill [Kovach] and Katherine [Fulton] started, I think, very well, saying, "Look, this is about the relationship between public-interest journalism and technology, and will public-interest journalism be a winner or a loser in the new media age?"

I felt that we set up some false choices for ourselves. For instance, I remember in the first conversation, we talked about dinosaurs versus "techies," if you remember that. We talked a lot about new media versus print. what's striking about this issue, particularly as you go out and talk to the public, is that they don't make any distinctions at all.

For instance, in this "Timeless Values" report that we did for ASNE [American Society of Newspaper Editors], [people we surveyed] would have said that this conversation to them sounded very foreign. …

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