News judgment is political judgment

News judgment is political judgment

: Jay Rosen takes all the discussion around the showing of the Abu Ghraib photos — and the not showing of the Nick Berg murder video — and, characteristically, finds what is really at stake for news media.

The nut of it is that news judgment is political judgment.

When you decide what to run and what not to run because of it how might affect people, you are necessarily making a judgment about the political impact … and you should be open about it (though most are not).

Alternatively, when you decide not to run things because you think people can’t handle it, you are condescending to the people you are there to serve. Jay decries that kind of protectionist journalism:

You shouldn’t do it, because if you keep doing it you will soon be talking about “the masses” and what they will swallow. Soon after that you will be talking about what the masses should be fed. I don’t trust anyone’s argument–left, right, middle, fringe–when it assumes that others (the big audience, the mass public, the voters overall) will react with less nuance, intelligence, or critical thought than the writer and the writer’s friends. To me it’s a warning sign: anti-democratic attitude here in evidence.

You know populist me: I was whooping on the couch when I read that.

I also think the political implications in what Big Media does are often under-discussed by journalists and critics alike, while the political motivations of the gatekeepers are over-drawn. (They’re easier to speculate about, they generate more outrage, and they appear to “explain” a lot.) And along with this I believe we should all grow up a little.

Don’t be calling for self-censorhip by Big Media today when you may be hoping for less of it tomorrow — because the images have changed, and the implications are different. Be aware that if you want gatekeepers to let pass more of the news that helps your side, and less that helps “them,” then you aren’t really addressing the gatekeepers at all. In fact, you have surrendered the topic of news judgment to politics and its manuevers. You’ve politicized it.

Way, way underneath these debates I find a disturbing fact. Even the smartest people in the major news media–and this is especially so in television news–have not really determined for themselves or explained to us exactly what their role should be in the worldwide fight against terrorism. “Cover it responsibly and well” doesn’t begin to provide an answer. For it must have occured to people high up in the network news divisions that the videotape of the beheading was made not only for Bush but for them, in their professional capacity; and that is a fact they have to live with, think about, whether or not they show us the gruesome act.

We are a long, long way from coming to grips with the fact that political violence worldwide incorporates media coverage worldwide. Terrorism can be many things, but it is always a communication; and a free press in an open society “completes” the act. So it’s not true that Al Queda kidnapped and beheaded an American. Al Queda kidnapped and beheaded an American and videotaped it in order to shock and sicken us when we found out. It’s not easy to decide what to do with that if you run a news network. But there is no option not to decide. There may have been a time when news judgment and political judgment could be kept safely apart, but that was an era unlike our own.

Well said, of course.

I look at this on many levels, as Jay lays them out

: Democratic — not condescending to the audience by protecting them from news.

: Political — knowing that the news judgments you make have political sources and political results.

: Global — for even murderous, evil, terroristic slime are media savvy and every act they make is about using media and every response from media is a tactical and military response.

: Finally, on the most practical, even mundane level, this is about source material. In the old days, we the people didn’t have access to source material; one job of news media was simply to digest it all because paper is expensive and time and spectrum are scarce. But today, because bits are cheap and their supply unlimited, we do have access to source material. Thus, the role of news judgment as a selection process is diminished. And the opportunity to let the people see the source and judge for themselves is greater. So, not showing the Nick Berg murder video at dinnertime is a defensible decision, so is not exploiting it for ratings. But there is no reason a news show could not point you to it online (and it doesn’t even have to host it; all the show has to do is link to it).

This is an extreme example of the revolution journalism is facing: When the people can see the news for themselves and judge for themselves, what is the role of journalists’ news judgment? Are we merely to become a pipeline for source material? Are we merely fellow citizens, like our readers, with opinions of our own? Do we still think we know more (and better) than the audience or do we admit that the citizens know more we do?

: GRADUATION DAY: Relevant to this are comments from the graduation ceremonies at UC Berkeley.

Orville Schell, dean of the J-school, told the graduates:

:”We are at a state in journalism that may be a tipping point,” Schell told the 43 graduates of the two year program. …

“We have reached the place where journalism is considered irrelevant. The press is … no more than another lobby group.”