A lot of very important things came into focus on September 11 last year. Before 9-11 or after 9-11 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 9-11 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 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 tremendously 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 unpredictable and understand the nature and sources of danger. In a world awash in unlimited forms of communication, what we all 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 9-11 receded, 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 or 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 question is 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 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 consider 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 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 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 John Walker Lindh. And 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, which developed in Western Europe in the early 17th century, made public opinion in an organizing world possible. Before publications like the Parliament Scout promised to “search out and discover the new” in England in 1643, there was no common base of information upon which a public opinion could form.
Without journalism — without a steady, reliable flow of independent information without which the creation, care and continuation of a public opinion would not be possible — self government would disappear. Journalism and self government will rise or fall together.
This is the reason that federal District Judge Murray Gurfein, in his ruling in the Pentagon Papers case in the 1970s, 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 wartime.
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 11 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.
Let me juxtapose four recent events to illustrate this concern.
The first pair of events is from two weeks ago. One was publication of an op-ed piece by a graduate student at Harvard in The Washington Post in which he argued that he thought ABC was correct in seeking to replace Ted Koppel and Nightline with David Letterman because the late-night chat shows, Saturday Night Live and MTV were more important links between a cynical nation and its government than traditional journalism.
The piece appeared the same day a traditional journalism organization — the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — announced its annual award winners, including Jacques Pauw, a television journalist who, at the risk of his own life, went undercover to document the involvement of an Anglican bishop in the genocide in Rwanda; Mark Davis, who defied defamation proceedings of the Australian government to disclose that government’s effort to suppress details of massacres in East Timor; and Rick Tulsky’s findings of a pattern of behavior by U.S. Immigration judges of refusing asylum claims and returning the people to those from whom they are seeking asylum. None of these stories appeared on late-night chat shows or MTV.
The other pair of events were really images from The Washington Post a few weeks ago. On the one hand were images of a young American man who lost his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan and, in the other picture, a mounted policeman who was trying to minimize the destruction of shops and homes along U.S. Highway 1 by University of Maryland students celebrating a basketball victory.
Taken together these images suggest to me that, despite the events of September 11, we have yet to develop a connection between the nature of our freedoms and the obligation they place on each of us to recognize and protect the values they represent — especially with the emerging generation.
For all that the speed, techniques and character of the news delivery has changed, the primary purpose of journalism has not: 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.
The world in which the well of accurate, reliable, factual information is not being constantly replenished is one that 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 processes of newsgathering.
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.
And, clearly, the ombudsman is in a crucial position to do just that. Ombudsmen can be the pathfinder in creating a demand for quality journalism because they help the public see how the sausage is made — to see how journalists work; what informs their decisions; why it is important to the public that journalism works as it does.
The first step would be by clearing up some of the confusion in the public’s mind; by articulating our values more clearly.
Take objectivity for example: a subject Tom Rosensteil and I take on at some length in our book, The Elements of Journalism. 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 as Don Wycliff pointed out recently in one of his columns in The Chicago Tribune, they are prepared to see willful bias in any story with which they disagree.
But again, history tells us another story. And it’s one we have allowed ourselves and the public to forget at our own detriment — maybe at our peril.
When the concept originally evolved, it was not meant to imply that journalists were freed of bias, which is the way most of us have responded to the argument. But just the opposite is true. The term began to appear in the 1920s, out of 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, Freud was developing his theories of the unconscious, and painters like Picasso were experimenting with cubism; reporters and editors were developing a greater recognition of human subjectivity, becoming more aware of the rise of propaganda and the role of press agents.
Good intentions, or what some might call “honest effort” by journalists, were not enough. The solution was for journalists to acquire more of 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, which the sources of news have responded to mistakes and missing elements in the first, and the second to a third, and so on. Context is added in each successive layer. In most 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.
This practical truth thus becomes a protean thing that grows as a stalagmite in a cave, drop by drop over time. And the process by which it grows is transparent to the audience. This is the process we should help the public understand. Help them by urging them to look at the documentation of the story. Urging them task the most important question they can ask of a story — how do they know that? — and if the answer 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.
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 must 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 to reveal as much as possible about sources and methods. How do you know what you know? Who are your sources? How direct is their knowledge? What biases might they have? Are there conflicting accounts? What don’t we know?
This transparency that the ombudsman represents 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 ongoing debate over whether or not quality journalism is worth the cost to produce.
An educated public will be 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 the public receives the information needed to effectively take part in community affairs.
That tool becomes more, not less, valuable when a 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 — the institutions that made us the most successful and admired country on the face of the earth.
For, 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 that the free flow of information has made freedom and human dignity possible.
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