April 19, 2010

Facts : Journalism :: Air : Life

I’ve been fascinated with Jay Rosen’s simple fix for “messed up” Sunday talk shows. It’s a fix that makes sense and attracted the attention of ABC’s This Week. David Gregory, of NBC’s Meet the Press, isn’t so sure.

Journalism is big craft practiced by many types of people for many reasons. The most ethical among them practice it with the primary purpose of giving citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. The most effective among them are custodians or fact operating with a discipline of verification.

The Sunday talk shows certainly show important guests talking (sometimes snarling and blathering) about important issues. But in the absence of fact-checking, the content of these shows cannot be properly labeled journalism. These shows fail ethically by failing journalism’s primary purpose. And to fail in terms of facts is to turn potentially important civic discourse into (entertaining) partisan blather.

(Note: My assumption here is that insider wrangling and partisan sniping gives citizens very little politically useful information, i.e. information they can use to understand civic problems and then act on their own behalf.)

The hosts and producers of these shows have an important question to ask themselves (to the extent they are capable of asking and answering): Do we intend to serve journalism’s primary purpose or something else?

4 Responses

  1. Tim 

    The Elements of Journalism

    There are, we have distilled from our search, some clear principles that journalists agree on — and that citizens have a right to expect. They are principles that have ebbed and flowed over time, but they have always in some manner been evident. They are the elements of journalism.The first among them is that the purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.To fulfill this task:

    1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.

    2. Its first loyalty is to citizens.

    3. Its essence is a discipline of verification.

    4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

    5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.

    6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.

    7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.

    8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.

    9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

  2. acline 

    Tim… It’s a good list. But I’m really focused (stuck) on that primary purpose thing. It is a very good whip 😉

  3. Tim 

    I’ll highlight the sentences above that precede the list:

    They are the elements of journalism. The first among them is that the purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing. To fulfill this task:

    Is it a good list? Truth, citizenry, independence, …?

    What kind of information do a free and self-governing people need? Sports? Arts? Science/Technology? Crime? Judiciary? Business/Finance? Governance? Policy? Politics?

    Thomas Jefferson speaks to me:

    It is a melancholy truth that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day. I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens who, reading newspapers, live and die in the belief that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time; whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables. General facts may indeed be collected from them, such as that Europe is now at war, that Bonaparte has been a successful warrior, that he has subjected a great portion of Europe to his will, etc., but no details can be relied on. I will add that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this. Divide his paper into four chapters, heading the first, Truths; the second, Probabilities; the third, Possibilities; the fourth, Lies. The first chapter would be very short, as it would contain little more than authentic papers and information from such sources as the editor would be willing to risk his own reputation for their truth. The second would contain what, from a mature consideration of all circumstances, his judgment should conclude to be probably true. This, however, should rather contain too little than too much. The third and fourth should be professedly for those readers who would rather have lies for their money than the blank paper they would occupy.

    Maybe, not. Maybe TJ is just a whiner and the above is just a rant.

    Lippman-Dewey Blogosphere

    What matters isn’t who “wins” or “loses” but the quality of deliberation among governors and between governors and the governed. This is where the political contest narrative breaks down. Where politics stops being about campaigns and focuses on governance. This is the dark matter in modern mass media, the lost art of journalism, press politics as it should be, and where republicans and Deweyan democrats among the governors and governed meet to deliberate unnoticed and in defiance of the “patterns of public thinking at a mass social level” (more).

  4. Tim 

    Bias Or Balance? Media Wrestle With Faltering Trust

    The Journal-Constitution asked readers what they want — and made a big change. “What we found is they don’t want us to be a newspaper with a strong point of view,” says Julia Wallace, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief. “But what they do want is, they want balance. If we have a view to the right, they want a balance of a view to the left. And they want us to be transparent about how we go about our work.”