by Bill Kovach, Founding Chairman - Committee of Concerned Journalists, Amherst College, Amherst, MA
This speech was presented on March 31, 2006 as part of a Amherst's Colloquium on the Constitution and the Imagining of America (CIA).
I have been asked to speak on whether or not democracy can survive 21st Century journalism. But as the recent annual report on the State of the Media by the Project for Excellence in Journalism suggests, a more urgent question may be whether or not journalism itself can survive the 21st Century.
Every indicator records sharp reductions in the number of journalists at the nation’s best metropolitan papers---The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times---continuing a trend of almost two decades duration of shrinking journalistic resources even as outlets for mass communication steadily increase.
The predicament of newspapers was emphasized when the Knight-Ridder chain of 32 newspapers was put up for sale attracting only a single bidder, the McClatchy Company. McClatchy in turn promptly announced it would put 12 of the papers up for sale to help recover some of the costs of their purchase.
The sale of the Knight-Ridder chain throws into stark relief the question of whether or not the economic model on which the news business has been built in the last century will support its transition into the world of open worldwide communication; whether or not the market sufficiently values the role of the press as a self-governing society.
The market’s answer to this question in recent decades has not been encouraging. As new communications technologies create more and more outlets for information, the market has led newsrooms to steadily reduce the number of trained observers who discover, verify, organize and prepare information for the public. It rewards, instead, outlets like cable TV, talk radio, and much of the internet that invests little in reporting while they turn the information others produce to build niche markets and fragment the citizenry.
As the sale of Knight-Ridder suggests, this trend is accelerating. In an effort to avoid the market judgment that eventually forced its sale, Knight-Ridder management drastically reduced staff at most of its newspapers. Few doubt that McClatchy will soon cut staff at many of the papers it has acquired to eliminate duplication of effort. Few doubt that similar staff reductions will take place at the 12 newspapers that are up for sale as they are picked up by new owners. Few doubt this because many stock analysts and investment advisors have concluded print on paper is a dying industry and advise stockholders to cash in on their investments.
There is one potential outcome of the McClatchy decision that would offer some hope. The 12 newspapers for sale might produce alternative economic models to the open market. Linda Foley, the president of the American Newspaper Guild, has gathered financial support to bid for some of the union newspapers to turn them into employee-owned papers, a model that would offer significant tax advantages. There are also groups of concerned citizens considering raising money to keep ownership of their newspapers in local hands and still others who are talking to philanthropic institutions about setting up one or more of the newspapers as non-profit operations.
One thoughtful economist, David Warsh, believes a successful transition by newspapers into cyberspace is possible despite the current judgment of the market. In his weekly online column, He recently in his weekly on-line column, “Economic Principles,”Warsh notes:
Just as newspapers met the challenges of radio and television, they’ll accommodate to the internet, too, and so remain our most powerful engines of consensus…old advantages die hard. For many of the same reasons that historic cities remain in places for thousands of years—Paris, Rome, Jerusalem, New York are still where they started---newspapers are likely to remain at the top of the chain that creates and distributes provisional truth and sets the agenda. Because paper and ink are tangible and endure, newspapers are archived, in libraries, on microfilm and in servers; they cannot be changed with a few keystrokes.
So, while it is still not clear what the future holds for the survival of journalism, there is enough room for hope. I should try to address the question asked of me. And the short answer is that democracy’s future depends upon where 21st Century journalism goes from here. It is, in fact, the same question a number of us put to ourselves at the end of the 20th Century in 1997, when we met to form the Committee of Concerned Journalists.
Then, as now, a crisis of confidence was spreading among journalists fearful that journalism was disappearing into a world of unlimited interactive communication and that the public had no way of distinguishing between journalism and the new tide of self-interested communication and propaganda.
We concluded our meeting by calling on journalists to join in a national conversation to rediscover the values that set their work apart from other forms of communication. Over the next two years in 20 forums around the country, we engaged more than 3,000 journalists and journalism educators in a conversation about why the public should care whether journalism continued to survive. At the end of that exercise, the Committee was able to describe the following values that journalists say define journalism:
A commitment to truth as a primary purpose; loyalty to citizens first; verification as the essence of its discipline; independence from those they cover; to serve as monitor of people and institutions of power; to provide a public forum for criticism and compromise; to make the significant interesting and relevant; and to keep news comprehensive and proportional.
Today, nearly a decade later, a study by the Center for Media Design at Ball State University tells us just how deeply we have become immersed in this world of competing media. Their study of media usage in “Middletown USA” found that those they monitored spent 2/3rds---2/3rds---of their waking hours engaged with media. This is the new media environment within which 21st Century journalism will exist if it survives. Citizens are becoming editors of their own knowledge of the outside world. They will choose what they want---when, where, how and from whom they want it.
The advocates of what some now call a world of “we-the-media”---a media for which everyone with a computer can report---believe it will make up for the reduction in trained journalists. The example often cited is Wikipedia, the theoretically self-correcting encyclopedia online that allows virtually all experts in the world to share their specific subject knowledge in a single place. Wikipedia, they say, will eventually more than make up for the disappearance of traditional journalists. But experience so far tells us that information in Wikipedia is sometimes dangerously manipulated.
The question that we must ask today is: Does the public have the time, the motivation and the skills required to become their own editors? Can they separate the true from what is suspected? What is real from what is made up?
If the answer to that question is “no” then the question becomes: Do journalists have the skill and the will to help citizens gain these tools?
Make no mistake about it---other mediating powers already fill any void the new technology provides to dominate public thought. As they have for the past hundred years now, other political, economic and social organizations continue to invest in research to use new technology just as they did when they created new industries like advertising, public relations and spin to direct and control public thought when 19th Century technology made possible the 20th Century’s mass circulation press.
Think for a moment about the evidence today of the ability of these other mediating institutions to condition public thought.
- Government institutions routinely insert propaganda into the public information stream to create conditioned responses to government actions and proposals. This information shaped by material drawn from the most sophisticated computerized profiles of intimate details of public behavior and private life even developed to determine how to package it in the most appealing form. Research allows those in the political sphere to create reality for us, as an advisor to President George Bush told Ronald Suskind for his report in the New York Times Magazine. Remember the quote? It was:
- “[Journalists] are in what we call the reality-based community…that’s not the way the world really works anymore…when we act, we create our own reality. While you are studying that reality…we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too.”
- And the entertainment industry that rivals all the other mediating institutions in the ability to create realities---realities that increasingly shape a popular culture with images and messages that engender fear and self-indulgence---conditions that encourage a passive public and not the informed and engaged public democracy requires.
- And there are social institutions like churches, that use their communicating power for political purpose to create new realities in the form of communities not of tolerance and love and compassion, but communities that encourage conflict between belief and pragmatic science; that demean independent pursuit of knowledge in favor of dependence on inspired individuals to interpret cause and effect.
- And always there is the market whose only reality is one of consumers, not citizens.
Looking at the state of the media today from this perspective it is hard to ignore the fact that the press is the weakest competitor in this universe---a free and open information system that will work most effectively to the disadvantage of self-government if it is allowed to become a system of unexamined assertions, proclamations, advertisements, and self-serving promotions.
To mention only one obvious example of the effects of such a system, think of the virtually unchallenged assertions about weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the war on Iraq. Assertions their chief advocate now confesses false and a “blot” on his career.
This steady erosion of the quality of information available to the public is the threat that lies behind the question posed by this meeting. A threat our founders hoped a free and independent press would help the people avoid, as James Madison noted when he said that, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
That is the premise of our democracy and it is why we are all concerned today. When slogans and anecdotes are considered sufficient to inform the public, the whole tradition of openness in the American system is challenged.
No doubt these efforts to move people by slogan and story rather than simple, accurate, verified information are often the acts of well-meaning people, maybe even with noble purpose, but they can just as often be misdirected purpose, the kind justice Louis Brandies warned against when he wrote that:
Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning, but without understanding.
Advocates of today’s “we media” suggest that since citizens can communicate with each other more easily, they will be closer to real truth and the result will be more accurate information; such a potential may reside in cyberspace. No doubt people can communicate more easily. But whether or not the end result is more verified and truthful information ---more knowledge---depends on the degree of commitment to those goals that the “we media” culture eventually develops. For no matter how widespread “we media” becomes, history tells us that the most powerful institutions will use new technology in a very disciplined way to perpetuate power.
The driving force of the Age of Enlightenment out of which the notion of individual worth and a public press grew was a search for truthful information. Information that freed the public from control by the kind of centralized dictatorial or dogmatic power developing in our society today. If journalism of verification is to survive in the new information age, then journalists must become a force in empowering citizens to shape their own communities based on verified information.
One way to think about the wired world is that it replicates the change in immediacy of access to information that printing introduced in the Enlightenment. Then as now the public was acutely sensitive to current news.
The difference is that when news broke then, dialogue was sought in public spaces where communities of local interest were formed. Today when news breaks it is in the intimacy of private communications systems and dialogue is most often among family and personal friends, and a disembodied community is formed in cyberspace---community that requires a new way of thinking about the role and responsibility of the press.
As Walter Lippmann said more than 80 years ago, “Citizens in a democracy do not act on reality but on the picture of reality that is in their minds.” Most of the guiding principles of journalism are shaped by this concept. As an organizing principle for newsroom values it has served democracy well.
But the world has slipped beyond the reach of the light Walter Lippmann cast. Today we live in a media world in which competing interests are creating realities designed to encourage communities of consumers, communities of belief, communities of allegiance. It is this competition a journalism of verification must meet by learning how to use the new technology to support communities of independent thought---prepared for self-government.
The role of the press since its beginning has been to help the people overcome the scarcity of information upon which they could make thoughtful and informed decisions. And the new role of the press is to help the people make sense of the over-abundance of undifferentiated information that washes over them.
So, can democracy survive 21st Century journalism? As I said earlier it depends upon how journalists meet the demands the new technology has placed upon them.
The most important challenge facing this generation of journalists is to find tools that enlist their methodology of verification in a more citizen oriented way to help the public balance what they are told daily by popular culture and political spin. And do this in a faster, freer and looser atmosphere of assertion that has little time or patience for verification. We must do this because our popular culture shapes us and we in turn shape our popular culture.
The ultimate promise of democracy is that the combined experience, knowledge and intelligence of the people can shape a more just and more secure community. Unless our complex system of education that includes formal education and the ongoing education by the media equips us with the knowledge to make informed judgments about how we want our political, social and economic cultures to be shaped, then democracy itself may be dissolved in the solvent of other imperatives. Imperatives to perpetuate power, for belief over reason, for maximum profit. Imperatives that may eventually prove Rupert Murdoch right when speaking in Singapore of the relative importance of liberal politics and free markets, that people “are interested more in a better material life than in the right to vote.”
Meeting the challenge to journalism transitioning into cyberspace will be difficult and will require owners of great vision and agility; creative and competent managers; more professional and ethical journalists.
Journalists must come to realize newsrooms are think tanks for creating the tools of citizenship. It is the journalist’s concern for the public as self-governing individuals that will make their work unique and worthy of lasting value.
The first step into this new journalism is greater transparency. A transparency that makes clear the processes by which journalists work to verify information in order to help educate and create a more knowledgeable and sophisticated audience for their work.
Journalists must ask themselves:
Can we effectively invite citizens into the process of gathering, organizing and developing information---use the interactivity of the new technology to make them active participants in a community of verification and discussion?
Can this be done with well thought out tools to engage citizen journalists as sources for reports? As analysis experts? As assignment advisors?
Are there uses we can make of computer applications like SimCity or Wiki to help our audiences build communities based on current news disclosures or to aid them in finding solutions to community problems? Can we apply the tools of video, sound, data mining, narrative, and interactivity to connect ourselves to the public in appealing, even educational ways? Can we find an opportunity for more civic education to help people unlearn what they are told by a popular culture that employs fear and self-indulgence and blind faith. In short, if there are to be new realities, why can’t we help the public build their own realities based on verified facts?
Encouraged by the sudden renewal of large public interest in the plight of poor Americans in New Orleans after Katrina, journalists are now looking for the kind of narratives of public affairs that can help citizens create and sustain new communities of interest.
The search for a journalism for the 21st Century has to recognize that in order to assure its principles and purpose do not disappear, it must adjust to those things that are irrevocably changed by technology. Recognize that the distribution will be determined by the portability of technology and by the end user; recognize the organization of our material must be adjusted to serve many differing audiences and the interactivity of the technology must be used to create new relationships with the public to bring them into the verification process.
It will first require an increase in the use of research librarians---specialists in information management and organization---to monitor the ever changing information stream.
It will require more journalists of more expertise in social and political sciences, in health and education, in economics and foreign policy, to help the public separate what out there in the flood of information is true and what is misleading. Experts who are able to turn what is known into what it means and how the information can be used by citizens.
And then it will require journalists who can use all the tools of storytelling now available to most effectively tell the news and deliver it to all the various devices technology provides.
Engaging a new kind of critical thinking among journalists in this transition to a new journalism for a new age is imperative if we are to continue to provide citizens the accurate and reliable information they need in order to make informed judgments. To survive in the long run we have to be in the business of converting information into knowledge, of organizing material on the basis of what it means---how things happen, why things happen, are there precedents that help us understand what they might portend?
As Justice Learned Hand has said, in a democratic society we “have staked everything on the rational dialogue of an informed electorate.” And philosopher Hannah Arendt refined that insight by adding that, “freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed.”
So, finally, my answer to the question posed is: If, and only if, journalists themselves become active, aggressive and vocal participants in the debate and the decisions about the future of journalism and, with public support, can successfully navigate the transition into cyberspace with their stated values intact, will journalism or democracy survive the 21st Century.
Thank you for allowing me to contribute to your colloquium.