The most recent issue of Columbia Journalism Review asks the question, What is journalism for?
I get tired of people telling me that because of the Internet and social media, journalists’ jobs are changing. People don’t say that about doctors or lawyers or teachers, even though the technological revolution may be affecting how they do their jobs. No one is challenging the underlying value of those jobs.
Journalism should be the profession that people rely on to receive the facts about what happened in their word. Journalism can have a point of view, but that point of view should be separate from its straight reporting, and a media outlet’s slant on the news should not distort its coverage of the news itself.
In my book, I cite a 1947 report of a blue ribbon commission on freedom of the press. That report observed that it was a reporter’s job to “prefer firsthand observation to hearsay. He must know what questions to ask, what things to ask, what items to report.” Aside from the sexist assumption that all reporters were “he,” that’s a pretty solid definition of what journalism is for.
The reason that journalism’s very raison d’être is questioned so often is that many journalists fail to live up to their calling. They get lazy about reporting the facts, sometimes not bothering to separate the true from the untrue for their audience.
Some journalists even declare that helping readers and views discern what is true is not their job. I was dismayed when I read Chuck Todd opine about the media’s role in coverage of Obamacare, and widespread lack of public support or understanding of the new law. “What I always love is people say, ‘Well, it’s you folks’ fault in the media.’ No, it’s the President of the United States’ fault for not selling it.” He clarified in a later tweet that people shouldn’t expect the media to do the White House’s job of “selling” Obamacare to the American public. But even with his clarification, to me that comment means that Todd is absolving the media of any responsibility to actually do the hard work of reporting the facts on what the law actually will do. According to Todd, it is not his or the rest of the media’s job to challenge either the Administration’s claims of benefits or the Republicans’ charges of harms.
If that’s not Chuck Todd’s job, then why the heck do the networks pay him such a large salary? Why do we, his audience, bother to listen to him at all?
If journalists aren’t willing to be a trusted source of unbiased information about issues that must inform our democratic discourse, then what is journalism for? I certainly don’t benefit from the insights of a bunch of wisecracking pundits to chat about the prospects for the next election, although I might sometimes find it entertaining.
Even breaking news, where journalism used to excel, merely demonstrates the failings of many of those in the profession. On September 16, when the Navy Yard shootings in DC were playing out in real time, we all would watch our smart phones relay different narratives from print and broadcast news outlets. Yes, news was fluid, and unclear. That’s why you’d like news outlets to say just that: “There are reports that four people have been killed but we can’t confirm that number. We will continue to update you as we confirm.” But that’s not what these outlets did. They kept reporting what they heard as facts, and then let time sort things out.
Of course, cable news coverage of the shootings was often much more egregious. Jon Stewart’s commentary best points out the problem of stream of consciousness reporting. It’s no better than your great-aunt Betty telling you what she sees. It lacks any judgment, any perspective. It doesn’t help anyone arrive at the truth.
We don’t need a new definition of journalism. We need more journalists who actually live up to the definition we have.