What are journalists here for, anyway?

Here are some good comments under my post on journalism and the vow of poverty questioning whether journalism’s job is to dig or inform. They are questioning a primary article of faith that is taught in journalism: that we are here to expose the bad guys.

W.J. Jones says:

Funny how that professor talked about journalists keeping a close eye on the “abuse of power” is their foremost job.

I thought journalism was telling readers what is happening in their community as quickly and correctly as you can.

At least that’s what I do everyday when I go to work.

Maybe the students are fleeing journalism classes when they realize the professor is urging them to doggedly pursue, scrutinize, challenge and scorn anything the professor himself scrutinizes and scorns.

That’s not journlalism. That’s call a vigilante with a pen and pad.

The reason the big newspapers are failing is that the reporters and editors who buy into the professor’s lie are chasing a Pulizter and trying to impress — and walk over — the reporter at the desk next to them.

In other words, they’ve lost sight of what journalism is — and isn’t — and believe a hit piece or expose will put them over the top. It won’t.

People read the newspaper to know what’s going on — not to read who got caught “abusing power.”

John Davidson says:

The way that Schultz frames this is exactly what drove me from becoming a reporter and into advertising when I was in j-school in 1987:

“The thought of starting out at $25,000 or $30,000 to expose corruption and champion the underdog just doesn’t do it for them.”

Which is pretty much the way that most of my professors framed what they were teaching me: it was the altruistic, lowly writer who was the only one brave enough to TAKE DOWN THE BAD GUYS. And thus we have the culture of conflict that the MSM has so carefully manifested over the past few decades: if it bleeds, it leads. If you don’t follow that particular ideology, then apparently democracy is lost (“I don’t mean to overstate this, but I worry about the future of democracy,” one retired professor told me. “If our journalists don’t challenge the abuse of power, who will?”) GOOD RIDDANCE.

And CaptiousNut says:

The notion that good jounalism and good business are inherently at odds is a canard propagated by those that suck at both.

Furthermore, it is rooted in elitism and the premise that the masses are stupid.

“Business” is the feedback mechanism that tells the media they stink. It is not so much the realities of business that chafe them – it is the fact that declining circulation numbers and dwindling viewship dare to impose standards on people who otherwise feel exempt.

: Meanwhile, I happened across a blog post written as a journalism assignment, as near as I can tell. The student said, in response to my saying (in a post or an article, not sure which) that Yahoo should include blogs and news together, since the line between them is blurring:

I can’t help but wonder where the future of journalism is going. Why are students like me studying journalism when the public eventually will not be able to tell the difference between citizen and professional?

Jeff Jarvis is wrong when he says,if you inform the public, you are committing an act of journalism.The public has a tough enough job of determining if something is biased without citizens informing the public.

I’m troubled if journalism students think a degree makes them journalists. Doing journalism does.

  • I think good journalism is about asking questions, reporting answers and giving facts. A good journalist keeps their personal biases out of what they are reporting on. They resist the urge to interpret and instead allow people to draw their own conclusions, based solely on the facts. At least, this has always been my understanding of professional journalism.

    I don’t watch the news anymore because I’m tired of having the news interpreted for me, e.g. seeing a clip of a person speaking, but not getting to hear what they said, having to rely instead on a journalist telling me their version of what was said.

    I turn to blogs for my news more and more these days because I prefer open conversation. When I post, it is my personal opinion I am sharing and other people’s opinions I am reading. Sure, a lot of it features personal biases, but because it’s more of a conversation, at least you get real opinions and not just media spin. This way, I get to discount openly prejudiced views, listen to views I may never have had the chance to consider, and make up my own mind as to who has a more reasoned view.

    Looking ahead, it’s possible that blogs will be serving more of a purpose than recycling the news and commenting on it. I suspect that blogs will be the place where stories break. In other words, it’s going to be the cutting edge of journalism.

  • Ravo

    Is it any wonder that we journalists have lost the public’s trust? – Mark Tapscott


  • Jeff, you are going into the business of educating “professionals.” Right? Isn’t that what a journalism school does? Or does it do something else? Whatever you answer matters only in it begins to define and describe the point of education.

    Suppose you say journalism is a profession and that journalism is a professional school, I’d ask, what do you teach you students that define their skills in ways that differ from liberal arts. So, what kinds of things will your graduates know that a student from, say, English Lit or History won’t know?

    And if it’s not a professional school, then is journalism a profession or a craft? And what is different from, say, marketing or customer service, or office manager? I don’t care about the qualities that individual students might bring. What do YOU as a school and educator bring to them and what are your goals?

    If journalism isn’t a profession, then I would venture your journalism school will soon run into trouble. At least if you want to produce journalists. Because it seems that journalism graduates go into PR and such. Because of money. And because there is no “there” there in journalism. It’s not a profession. It’s a collection of people who ask neat questions. Or something.

    I get sense sometimes that you’ve glossed over your upcoming role in some kind of Watts-Wacker-just-the-big-picture-and-the-people-rule kind of thing, when in fact you are being asked do something quite different. I could be wrong. Tell me why. I’m being a little demanding about this because I think it matters.

    Also, you’ll get great health benefits from the academy.

  • Chrees

    “The public has a tough enough job of determining if something is biased ”

    Ummmm… exactly.

  • I feel horrible that I dont have all that much to add, and that I am not exactly an expert on these topics.

    I personally feel that we have room, and a need for both kinds of journalists: The local guy, fresh out of college with some communication degree who is there to talk about the pumpkin fest, or accidents, or crime, or high school sports.

    As well as the larger scale guys. Now even then, there is room in the big picture to cover things as facts. But the larger a story gets, the more complex it is bound to be. And the more the dig and question job becomes needed again.


  • Jim S

    So, Jeff, you’re saying that there should be no such thing as investigative journalism? Because that is certainly what it comes across as.

  • Citizen journalism and/or blogs are like rap in the early days–scorned in some quarters but capable of infinite degrees of variation and innovation that will only enrich the democratic experience as rap enriched music and attracted mainstream audiences. I think we’ll see a day when so many voices will be online that every infinitsimal area of expertise and the human experience will be covered. When that day comes, the most respected, most widely read citizen journalists on any topic will be found to have adhered all along to the most basic elements of so-called journalism values, namely truthfulness and a strong sense of personal ethics, with the added virtues of direct accountability and respect for their readers thrown in. And among these citizen journalists will be many who DO speak on behalf of the underdog, expose corruption and crusade against the abuse of power, as well as many who just want to make sure parents know that their kids’ soccer game has been rescheduled. We have passed the time to ask What Are Journalists For. We should be thinking about What JournaLISM is for, which, in this crowd, should make for a heady, joyous conversation, because the essence of journalism is alive and well, even thriving as never before. It’s just no longer neatly packaged in that peculiar species of Homo sapien labeled “journalist.”

  • I get the feeling a lot Journaiists are people who go to elite schools, major in the liberal arts, say history, do an internship or two, and then get journalism jobs. That’s what a close friend of mine did. Basically, it was assumed that he brought good writing and research skills to the table, and they let him sink or swim. The same point was made to me by a CUNY Journalism prof, who told me many people go straight from the Ivy Leagues from non-journalism majors to reporting jobs. Now this isn’t necessarily fair, but I guess publishers feel like it works OK.

    I feel like although good journalism takes a lot of effort, persistance, and smarts, journalism programs are unnecessary. It’s mostly on the job training and practice, practice, practice. Still, as long as J-schools exist, might as well make them as useful as possible. Good luck jeff. I’m sure you’ll catalyze some good stuff.

  • …whether journalism’s job is to dig or inform.

    For too many journalists, it is neither of those. They see their job as to lead. Not to put too fine a point on it, they see themselves as propagandists, serving a noble cause, steering the masses in the “right” direction despite themselves.

  • Jim Not at all. But some journalists do forget that informing is not a lesser art.

  • Blame it all on the creation of People magazine.

    Not only do people devalue investigative reporting, but dismiss teaching history as well. Too much history is about mistreatment of minorities, corruption, wars and injustice. Why develop a strong sense of moral outrage in people when they can read about who is having an out-of-wedlock baby by whom?

    Journalism schools should teach the history of the muckrakers and show how journalism can play a role in improving society. If all new “journalists” aspire to is reporting on visiting firemen, we are doomed.

  • Andy Freeman

    > Journalism schools should teach the history of the muckrakers and show how journalism can play a role in improving society.

    Many of journalism’s failings come from having “improve society” as a goal.

    Journalists, contrary to what many of them seem to believe, don’t know how to improve society. They have a strong tendency to support certain kinds of things whose record is, shall we say, mixed at best.

  • Ravo

    journalism can play a role in improving society

    What specialized training gives journalists knowledge on how to improve society? Most of them haven’t a clue as to how economics or foreign affairs work.

    What puke.

  • Anna

    There’s a good post on journalism on WaPo’s debate blog—it’s challenging the “liberal media” myth. Worth leaving a comment to tell WaPo what you think of the media, whichever side you’re on … (here’s the direct link)

  • Journalism can have a variety of goals. Advocacy is one of them and that is what analysis and opinion pieces are all about. Reporting is another. It is rather the difference between argument and evidence in the law: an argument is the application of the law to the facts in evidence.

    To stretch the example a little further. A good reporter gets his facts right and can prove each one of those facts. Either he calls a witness – that would be a source – of varying credibility (unnamed being lowest, named being highest) and asks them for the facts or he finds a document and proves that it is what it says it is (Dan Rather take note) and then uses its contents.

    Now, the trouble begins when things like television get in the way of this essentially print based conception. 6000 words is a long print piece, it is the end of time itself on TV. So are questions, answers and follow ups. Looks much too much like talking heads and the click of the remotes can be deafening. The dramatic requirements of television virtually eliminate the possiblity of actually making an argument or reporting a story. At best you get a headline and a high q rating bit of snark.

    Once the values of television intrude on the world of journalism you cease to have either argument or reporting, you have an entertainment which takes for its script a version of the news. And once you have that Jon Stewart or Letterman are way better at it than “journalists” of any sort.

  • Andy Freeman

    > Either he calls a witness – that would be a source – of varying credibility (unnamed being lowest, named being highest) and asks them for the facts or he finds a document and proves that it is what it says it is (Dan Rather take note) and then uses its contents.

    Fact does not mean “something that someone will say on the record” or even “something that was written”.

    I’m still waiting to read a journalism rule-of-thumb that isn’t fundamentally false.

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