Day #10: Back to Basics

By Daina Beth Solomon

FASPE’s hotel in Krakow provided copies of the Times of London and USA Today, legacy newspapers that set the tone of mainstream media coverage worldwide. / D. Solomon

For generations, reporters have aimed to be the watchdogs of government and society, striving to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” in service of the public good. These values have been considered journalism’s role for so long that they often go unquestioned, without clarification, skepticism, or discussion.

Yet, every conversation about ethics during the two weeks we spent visiting Berlin, Krakow and Auschwitz during our FASPE fellowship led us to the same question: What is the purpose of journalism? As we tackled weightier issues — such as how to cover offensive ideas, dig into private affairs with sensitivity, be transparent with consumers, and decide whether to change minds or simply reflect public opinion — it felt essential to articulate what we want to accomplish as reporters.

Sure, that may sound like a first-day homework assignment in “Journalism 101.” But confronting that question head-on was surprisingly tough, forcing us to justify the conventional wisdom about journalism’s capacity to be a force for good and to do some soul-searching about the ways that we want to make journalism meaningful and impactful.

Some of our conclusions, brainstormed at Krakow’s historic Jagiellonian University during the 20th session of our trip on May 31, would be right at home in legacy newsrooms. We agreed that the purpose of journalism is to:

  • Discover and report facts accurately and fairly, with rigorous verification.
  • Inform the public.
  • Hold powerful institutions accountable.
  • Bear witness to our times and chronicle key events.
  • Tell compelling stories that often entertain.
  • Amplify the voices of people who are traditionally unheard.

Other roles that we proposed are not as timeworn and familiar; their importance has developed over recent months in response to the public’s growing mistrust of news organizations and the low barrier to entry for emerging media outlets. Journalism, we said, should also strive to:

  • Build trust with audiences. Encourage consumers to follow a variety of stories, even, and especially, the ones they wouldn’t seek out independently.
  • Distill, interpret, and provide context for news. Separate signal from noise.
  • Be conscious of journalism’s power to shape society and public discussion. Do not underestimate that capacity, and take responsibility for it.

A range of other purposes also fit the goal of informing the public, even if they do not always overlap. For example, we often aim to:

  • Build a sense of community. Be the local public square.
  • Discover news, issues, and conflicts that are unreported.
  • Explain topics of public interest and/or importance.
  • Identify broad trends shaping society and culture.
  • Prompt action and change to help fix societal problems.
  • Explore little known cultures and cultural trends.

We felt cautious about including the long-held ideals of “balance” and “objectivity,” terms that had stirred up debate in our previous discussions. In a time when multiple sides surround every issue — and each side can easily share its opinions online — balance does not necessarily lead to accuracy, truth, and fairness. Thorny topics such as climate change may require editorial judgment to ensure fair coverage, even if basic news stories on lawsuits and murder charges still call for our typical inclusion of multiple viewpoints.

Objectivity also merits a closer look. In separating signal from noise, journalism often presents a specific viewpoint — one that is informed, accurate, and fair, but not necessarily free of personal or institutional values. Media scholar Jay Rosen has often argued this point, warning that objectivity can be the “view from nowhere,” an inadequate bid for an audience’s trust.

“If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority,” he wrote in 2010. “It may even add to it.”

Our FASPE group also tossed around ideas of serving the “public good” and “public interest,” but I find these outdated and flawed. The “public” is not a monolithic entity with a single standard of “good.” The interests of our communities, both in the United States and worldwide, are constantly clashing. To think that journalism can and should serve a single interest seems dangerously naïve.

Several major questions remained open at the end of our discussion, and even at the conclusion of FASPE. We wondered: What is our responsibility to shape public opinion? Is our role to change what people think, or merely to inform? And if we decide that we do want to prompt people to think differently, how do we do that effectively? Is it possible to encourage change while maintaining trust? What if the news we want to report is unpopular, or difficult to absorb?

As we grapple with these questions while studying coverage of the Holocaust, I have to wonder if our profession — traditionally dependent on advertising and subscriptions — is sometimes at odds with its goals. After all, reporters during World War II sometimes were constrained in their ability to sound the alarms of a crisis when readers didn’t want to know about them, as Marvin Kalb wrote in his 1995 book, “Why Didn’t the Press Shout?” Newspapers, including The New York Times, relegated coverage of the death camps to short pieces on the inside pages, unwilling to risk shocking readers. The Associated Press even agreed to the Nazi regime’s editorial law of 1933, which banned any news that would be harmful to the Reich.

Technology has put pressure on journalism’s business model, forcing reporters to fight for public trust while facing competition from an explosion of online media. We need ammunition. A clear list of our objectives would be a crucial part of that, spelling out what we want to achieve while holding ourselves accountable. It may even mean doing away with tradition and gearing up to change the rules.

 

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