by Bill Kovach, Founding Chairman - Committee of Concerned Journalists
A lot of very important things came into new focus in the United States on September 11, 2001.
Before 911 or after 911 has become one of those universal markers. A way to date things without explanation, without elaboration. But for the future of journalism in the public interest one of the things that occurred on 911 was that for millions of Americans timely, accurate and abundant information suddenly became important again. Broadcast and cable television stations recorded numbers unseen since the First Gulf War. National Public Radio’s audience reached an all time high. The internet search engine Google reported a stampede to newspaper and television web sites. Hits on the news related sites increased by a factor of 60 within hours of the first attack.
After nearly two decades during which Americans turned away from serious news and immersed themselves in a world of babbling voices marinated with advertising and entertainment, suddenly we rediscovered the inescapable virtue of reliable, verified information. In a newly unpredictable and dangerous world, journalism in the public interest was again distinctive, inherently more valuable to help us cope with the unpredictability and understand the nature and sources of danger.
In a world awash in unlimited forms of communication, what we all reached out for--instinctively reached out for--was information that had been verified; information that had been put into meaningful context. The kind of news we so often in the past have reached for when confronted with a challenge—whether the challenge of a natural disaster, an economic disaster or a war.But as the galvanizing moments of agony and destruction of 911 recede and as we organized as a nation to respond to the challenge, the government and much of the public is anxious to curb our appetite for independent, timely, reliable information.
At a time when the basic institutions of our society are under threat, and a self-governing people most need accurate, independent information, journalists are told to stop asking questions, stop challenging authority. They are asked to restrain their aggressive monitoring of the people and institutions of power, to curb their skeptical nature.
Government officials and neighbors alike are asking: are you an American first, or are you a journalist? But this is a question rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of journalism in a democratic society. And it is a misunderstanding that the press allows to remain unchallenged only at its peril.
I believe it is vital to the interest of the journalist and the public alike that we engage in an urgent, forceful and consistent campaign to educate the public with the knowledge that in a democratic society the journalist is, in fact, exercising the highest form of citizenship by monitoring events in the community and making the public aware of them and their import; by skeptically examining the behavior of people and institutions of power; by encouraging and informing forums for public debate.We need to make it clear to the public that the journalist best expresses her citizenship by functioning as a committed observer, especially when the community is under stress or undergoing rapid, disorienting change.Far from being the disinterested, disengaged outsider many people believe journalists to be because they do not take a direct activist’s role in civic affairs, the journalist who works in the public interest is one who is interdependent with the needs and hopes of his fellow citizens and uses his independence in order to help all members of the community engage effectively in civic life.
This special interdependence flows from the public’s need for timely, accurate, independent information and the journalist’s need for an interested public. This interdependent role of the journalist is one of the defining characteristics of our democracy. A journalist is never more true to democracy—is never more engaged as a citizen; is never more patriotic—than when aggressively doing the job of independently verifying the news of the day; questioning the actions of those in authority; disclosing information the public needs but others wish secret for self-interested purposes.
And this sort of interdependent role is not independent to journalists. Our society recognizes such independent, often infuriating, behavior by others in order to protect our freedom and the rights of citizenship. We recognize, for example, such independent behavior in doctors and lawyers.
We may be upset but we understand when we learn that a doctor, at the scene of a prison riot, saves the life of a convicted child molester before treating a less seriously wounded policeman because deep down we know that is what a doctor’s role requires and it is in the interest of all of us that the doctor does so.
We recognize such independent behavior by lawyers who diligently and aggressively fight on behalf of a defendant in court against the government even in the most troublesome cases—witness the aggressive defense of those Muslims caught up in the government’s dragnet after 9/11. Deep down we understand that it is just such adherence to the rule of law that protects all of us.
It is important that we help the public come to an understanding of this role for the journalist which history makes clear.
The first publications we would recognize as modern newspapers that developed in western Europe in the early 17th Century made public opinion in an urbanizing world possible. Before publications like the Parliament Scout promised to “search out and discover the new” in England in 1634, there was no common base of information upon which a public opinion could form. Kings and princes had private communication networks, domestically and worldwide; bankers had private networks of traders and ship captains to help them understand what was occurring world wide. But the people were reduced to getting by on what those in power wanted to reveal to them in proclamations or edicts. That and what they might learn from a troubadour who strolled into town to sing of what was going on in another shire.
The independent information newspapers introduced into this information mix changed all that. Independent journalism provided information that allowed people to think in a context outside that controlled by people and institutions of power. People who could think for themselves created a wellspring of popular information about which they could form an opinion independent of those who had previously controlled the information they received. Informed public opinion is what makes self-government possible.
Think about it. Independent journalism and self-government were born together and will rise or fall together. Without independent journalism–without a steady, reliable flow of independent, verified information—an informed public opinion would not be possible. Self-government would disappear.
This is the reason Federal District Judge Murray Gurfein, in his 1970s ruling on the Pentagon Papers case, reminded the government -- which was attempting to suppress information about the war in Vietnam -- that “the security of the nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of free institutions.”
One of the most important of those, Judge Gurfein said, was public knowledge about the behavior of government -- especially in war time.
We need, also, to let the public know that we know it is because of the special role a journalist plays in our society that we also have a special responsibility.
If journalists are to effectively pursue the independence that their work requires, it is important that the public understand and accept that role as a valid one. The only way to assure that is for the journalist to act with the responsibility commensurate with the freedom their independence requires.
And despite the fact that September the eleventh seems to have reminded us of the fragility of the basic freedoms upon which our way of life is based, too many still take these freedoms too much for granted or fail to understand what they all mean.
For all that the speed, techniques and character of the news delivery has changed, the primary purpose of journalism has not. The primary purpose of journalism remains to provide citizens with a credible and accurate account of events in society so that they can be free and self-governing.
This definition is so consistent through history, and so deeply ingrained in the thinking of those who produce news, we can safely say that it is difficult to separate the concept of news and journalism from the notion of creating community and democracy.
A world in which the well of accurate, reliable, factual information is not being constantly replenished is one which becomes more polluted with gossip, rumor, speculation and propaganda. This is a mixture that is toxic to civic health. This is a mixture that will produce a public less and less able to participate in civic life. This is a mixture that makes it more and more likely that a self-appointed elite will be free to exercise its will on society.
In order to help the public better understand the independent role of journalists in our society and its value to them as individuals and as members of a self-governing community, journalists must create a new relationship with the public, bringing them into the process of news gathering.
Market demand is clearly the most powerful force shaping society today, so it is in the interest of journalists to worry about creating a market demand for quality journalism based on citizen first. Every journalist has a stake in confronting the effort of creating a demand for quality journalism.
How? Well the first step would be by clearing up some of the confusion in the public’s mind; by articulating the journalist’s values more clearly.
Take objectivity for example—a subject Tom Rosenstiel and I take on at some length in our book, “The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect.” Objectivity has come to be widely understood to mean the opposite of what was intended. Even by journalists. And the result is we have helped confuse our readers and they are prepared to see willful bias in any story with which they disagree.
But history again tells us a different story. It is a story we have allowed ourselves and the public to forget at our peril.When the concept of journalistic objectivity originally evolved, it was not meant to imply that journalists were free of bias, which is the way most of us have tended to define it. Just the opposite is true. The term began to appear in the United States in the 1920's, in response to a growing recognition that journalists were not free of bias.
Before that, journalists talked about something called realism—the idea that if reporters simply dug out the facts and piled them up the truth would reveal itself. At the beginning of the 20th Century, however, Sigmund Freud was developing his theories of the unconscious; painters like Picasso were experimenting with cubism; and reporters and editors were developing a greater recognition of human subjectivity with the rise of public relations, press agents and propaganda.
Good intentions, or what some might call “honest effort” by journalists, were not enough. The solution was for journalists to acquire more of what Lippmann called, “The scientific spirit….a common intellectual method.”In the original concept, in other words, the method the journalist pursues toward journalistic truth is objective, not the journalist.
The individual reporter may not be able to move much beyond a surface level of accuracy in a given story. But the first story builds to a second, in which the sources of news have responded to mistakes and missing elements in the first, and the second story builds to a third, and so on. Context is added in each successive layer. In more important and complex stories, there are subsequent contributions on the editorial pages, the talk shows, in the op-ed accounts, and the letters to the editor or the callers to radio shows--the full range of public conversation and private.
The practical truth produced by this process is a protean thing. It grows as a stalagmite in a cave, drop by drop over time. And the process by which it grows should be transparent to the audience.
It is this process we should help the public understand. Help them by urging them to look at the documentation in the story. Urging them to ask the most important question they can ask of a story—“how do they know that?” If the answer to that question is not in the story then it’s not the kind of journalism on which they want to be making the decisions a citizen must make.
A better understanding of the public interest that is invested in journalistic independence—especially in perilous times—and a better understanding of objectivity and how to recognize true bias are crucial to the future health, maybe even the survival, of a journalism in the public interest.
Journalists who talk directly to their public are the ones who can do this job most effectively. If journalists are truth seekers, it follows that they have to be honest and truthful with their audiences too—that they be truth presenters. If nothing else this responsibility means journalists be as open and honest with audiences as they can about what they know, how they know it and what they don’t.
The only way in practice to level with the people about what you know is, unlike propagandists and press agents, to reveal as much as possible about your sources and methods. Explain in your stories how do you know what you know. Who your sources are. How direct their knowledge. What biases they have. Note conflicting accounts.
This transparency signals the journalist’s respect for the audience. It allows the audience to judge the validity of the information, the process by which it was secured and the motives and biases of the sources providing it.
By these and other methods that bring journalists into a more open relationship to society and help educate the public to ask those questions, we can help create the demand for quality that makes the public the most important ally the newsroom has in the on-going debate over whether or not quality journalism is worth the cost to produce.
An educated public is better able to understand and value the importance of a free and independent press the way the founders of our government did—as the indispensable tool whereby they receive the information needed to effectively take part in community affairs. It is an ally that becomes more, not less, valuable to the public when the community is under stress, when the air is filled with rumor and disinformation; when decisions made on the basis of faulty or misleading information can have serious, even deadly, consequences.
Western thought has produced one idea more powerful than any other, the notion that people can govern themselves. And the people themselves created a largely unarticulated theory of information called journalism to sustain that idea. The two—self-government and journalism—will rise or fall together.
Our continued freedom in a dangerous, anarchical world depends upon not forgetting the past and the institutions that made self-government such a successful form of government.
In the end, if history teaches us anything it teaches us that freedom and democracy do not depend upon technology or the most efficient organization.Freedom and democracy depend upon individuals who refuse to give up the belief in the free flow of information that has made freedom and human dignity possible.