Journalism, Politics

Journalism and Democracy

We are at a time when journalism – or at least the potential to perform journalism – has become democratized in ways previously never thought possible. There are more “journalists” and outlets supposedly performing “journalism” than ever existed in history before. There are more people and outlets posing as journalistic. There is more coverage of “news” than ever previously thought possible.

But, despite this, it seems to many people, myself included, as if it is getting harder and harder to find what we recognize as good journalism, or even passable journalism. The real deal is getting lost in “infotainment” and other far more well-meaning, but unfortunately amateur attempts at “real” journalism. The serious problem with this is that most people do not or will not recognize the lack of journalistic quality in most “news” they receive, or if they do they don’t care enough to complain.

(As an aside, the authors of the book I am about to discuss cite studies which show that the audience does indeed recognize the lack of quality journalism, and will complain, but these studies are based on relative assessments – for example one local TV news station against another – and are focused on people who regularly watch the news, not a majority of people.)

In The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Ted Rosentiel argue that it is more important than ever to define journalism. But more importantly, to me anyway, they make a compelling case that journalism – of the kind they defend – is necessary for the successful functioning of any democracy. As a proponent of representative democracy as the best (or least bad) system of government in human history, I find this not only worth repeating and discussing, but utterly fundamental to a good citizen’s basic knowledge.

The authors identify 10 elements. Much of this is quoted verbatim.

1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth (as opposed to a narrative constructed by participants involved in the story)

Practical truth is a protean thing that, like learning, grows like a stalactite in a cave, drop by drop, over time…
[Truth is] a complicated and sometimes contradictory phenomenon, but seen as a process over time, journalism can get at it. It attempts to get at the truth in a confused world by first stripping information of any attached misinformation, disinformation, or self-promoting bias and then letting the community react, with the sorting-out process to ensue. The search for truth becomes a conversation.
This definition helps reconcile the way we use the words true and false every day with the way we deconstruct those words in the petri dish of philosophical debate. This definition comes closer to journalists’ intuitive understanding of what they do than the crude metaphors of mirrors and reflections that are commonly handed out.
We understand truth as a goal – at best elusive – and still embrace it. We embrace it in the same way Albert Einstein did when he said of science that it was not about truth but about making what we know less false. For this is how life really is – we’re often striving and never fully achieving. As historian Gordon Wood has said about writing history: One can accept the view that historians will never finally agree in their interpretations” and yet still believe “in an objective truth about the past that can be observed and empirically verified.” This is more than a leap of faith. In real life, people can tell when someone has come closer to getting it right, when sourcing is authoritative, when the research is exhaustive, when the method is transparent. Or as Wood put it, Historians may never see and present that truth wholly and finally, but some of them will come closer than others, be more nearly complete, more objective, more honest, in their written history, and we will know it, and have known it, when we see it.

From pages 44-45

2. Journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens (as opposed to government, editors, owners, corporate entities, groups, etc)

Obvious, I think.

3. The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification (i.e. fact-checking)

Fairness and balances…are really techniques – devices – to help guide journalists in the development of their accounts. They should never be pursued for their own sake or invoked as journalism’s goal. Their value is in helping get us closer to more thorough verification and a reliable version of events.
The intellectual principles of a science or reporting:

(p. 87)
  1. “Never add anything that was not there;
  2. Never deceive the audience;
  3. Be as transparent as possible about your methods and motives;
  4. Rely on your own original reporting;
  5. Exercise humility.”

4. Journalism must serve as an independent monitor of power


5. Journalism must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise

I cannot agree with the latter more.

6. Journalism must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant to the average citizen

But this does not mean it should be infotainment.

7. Journalism must keep the news comprehensive yet in proportion

8. Journalism’s practitioners have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience

This feels like it is in direct conflict with the bizarre attempt to present “objective” information. I agree that this is the way to go, not to pretend we’re “objective.”

9. Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news

The authors address of each of these and I think make a very compelling case for all. I have only quoted a few passages for the ones I consider most important for today’s dearth of quality journalism.

As citizens, we need to demand better journalism from our media. We should not accept journalism that does not thoroughly check facts or relies on other outlets for research. We should create greater demand in the market place for this kind of journalism so the corporations that own most of our media outlets are compelled by their own profit motives to give us better journalism. If we don’t do this, it is one of many ways in which we will slip slowly into a society that is less liberal and less democratic than the one I was born into. The crisis of journalism is as much a crisis of democracy as anything else.

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