A Prescription for Journalism's Ills

By RJI on July 17, 1998 0 Comments

by Tom Rosenstiel, Director - Project for Excellence in Journalism, Boston Globe

Recent embarrassments such as the forced resignation of Patricia Smith at The Boston Globe, the unmasking of pretender Stephen Glass at the New Republic, and the faulty Vietnam expose at CNN might make some people think the sky is falling on journalism. Or is it possible journalists are doing a better job of policing themselves and admitting their mistakes publicly?

Actually, both are true.

There is more honesty in journalism about screw-ups, in part because journalists know that the public distrusts them. There is also more pressure in news organizations to draw a crowd.

Media companies increasingly evaluate their journalism by the balance sheet, a simple fact of life in a world where news is gathered inside large corporations traded on an increasingly impatient Wall Street.

And making money has gotten harder, since more news outlets are competing for a shrinking audience. That puts more pressure on standards. As a rule, accuracy and truth are more complex, more time-consuming, and less sensational than argument and allegation.

What, then, is the remedy for journalism? There is no easy answer, of course, to pressures brought on by large social and economic shifts.

Yet there is a path for those who practice journalism that can help renew credibility and, ultimately, protect financial health.

First news organizations have to recognize that in the future they will be less able to distinguish themselves by the speed of their reporting, the depth of their information, or the cogency of their interpretation, especially as we move toward electronic instant delivery of print. The perpetual news cycle will synthesize virtually all new reporting and comment into a kind of constant blend, with information an increasingly abundant commodity. Those first with a new fact or insight will have their exclusive only for an instant.

Instead, newspapers, magazines, Web sites, and television stations increasingly will have to distinguish themselves - and establish their brands -by the values and standards they bring to their journalism.

Some will publish only what they know is true. Others will publish rumor and innuendo to have the most startling and comprehensive account. Some will separate information more carefully from opinion. Some will separate fact from fiction. Others will blend them into a kind of infotainment.

Those who want to maintain historic standards of journalism will have to make them explicitly part of their identity. How?

Step 1: Each news organization should do a great deal more to decide in advance what its news values and policies are.

What, for instance, is the paper's policy about printing unsubstantiated rumors or reports from other news organizations that cannot be verified? Do you print everything but try to help readers sort it out? Or will you say, we will print here only what we believe is true - the more classic definition of journalism.

When is the sexual behavior of public officials relevant? What is your policy on using anonymous sources? How many do you need to go with a story? When do you use them, and what is the test for believing what they say? If it changes case by case, why? And how do you communicate that to your readers?

As journalism changes, taking on multiple shapes, each news organization must decide what kind of journalism it is practicing. If you veer in various directions, you will antagonize and confuse not only your readers but your reporters.

Step 2: The news organization must make it clear to those who work there that these are the values in place. Journalism is part art, part literature, and very little science. Reporters are motivated by the values of the institution and by a sense of mission. They need to know what the mission is to thrive.

Step 3: A news organization must make these values clear to the audience - in effect, making a covenant with the public about what it stands for. This covenant is critical. It is the only way for the audience to fairly judge what it thinks of a news organization. It is also the only way for journalistic values to matter to the bottom line.

Step 4: If you feel the need to deviate from your standards and values on a given story, explain why somewhere in the paper or telecast that day.

Each news organization must take these steps individually. The First Amendment is built on the notion that we will have a diversity of voices in the press.

This kind of branding by values is nothing new. A century ago, as publishers began to free their journals from political parties, they established themselves by enunciating their principles, declaring them in front-page editorials,inscribing them on buildings, adding them to their nameplates. Adolph Ochs wanted to distinguish The New York Times from the yellow journalism of Hearst and Pulitzer, which he considered seamy. Thus the paper's marketing slogan became, "All the News That's Fit to Print."

So what is the remedy for good journalism? Simple but difficult: Tell us what you stand for. Then practice what you preach.

Copyright 1998, The Boston Globe