The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect / What Are Journalists For?

By Heider, Don | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect / What Are Journalists For?


Heider, Don, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


* Kovach, Bill and Rosenstiel, Tom. (2001). The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. New York; Random House. 205 pages.

* Rosen, Jay. (1999). What are Journalists For? New Haven: Yale University Press. 338 pages.

In the past ten years, there have been quite a number of books addressing problems in contemporary journalism. From the tell-alls written by former news executives to memoirs of journalists, this is a literature that recently has not been lacking. But although many of these authors claim to have special knowledge of what's gone wrong and what should be better about journalism, few set about addressing the issue in a systematic way. Fewer still try to put the profession in a broader context.

Two recent books do just that. Jay Rosen's What Are journalists For? And Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel's The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect both set out to wrestle with big questions about journalists and journalistic practice. Neither takes a simplistic approach, neither sets about simply documenting the usual laundry list of complaints about journalism, and both want to talk, in a serious-minded way, about the role of journalism in the larger culture. These are issues central not only to journalism, but to journalism education and both books offer up a set of questions journalism students should engage before they enter the profession.

Any thinking observer of politics and journalism understands the stakes. Harvard's Robert Putnam is one scholar who has framed the issue: dropping voter turnout and lessened civic engagement. Others such as Thomas Patterson have pointed to a news industry that seems less and less likely to engage in consistent serious and helpful coverage of the political process.

At their core, both books and all three authors pose a basic question, articulated in Rosen's title: What are Journalists For? In that question they also are asking what role should journalists and journalism play in society, in the political process and in engaging the public at large. Both books also use as key building blocks the philosophical debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey, looking at whether or not the public is capable of participating in its own governance. All three authors have been active in efforts to reform journalism: Rosen is one of the founders of the public journalism movement, Kovach currently serves as chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and Rosensteil is the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Yet, despite these similarities, the two books are very different. One written by a scholar, the other by journalists, the scope and depth of these volumes vary significantly.

Rosen's book offers an interesting lesson in attempted reform. He strives to trace the history of public journalism through the last decade, discussing in some depth the ideas behind the movement and, in even more depth, the opposition it faced (and still faces). He makes his stance clear: that journalists stand inside the political community, not as "witnesses without standing in the world they tell us about." Rosen defends his intellectual position, and readers are left to decide what they think.

Kovach and Rosenstiel, on the other hand, are not as transparent. Their claim is to examine simply and carefully what journalism should be. They never address what their organizations are, how they were founded or explain any of the behindthe-scenes politics. …

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