The Purpose of Journalism

Over Memorial Day weekend at the ICA conference in Boston I spoke on a panel about the purpose of journalism organized by Ted Glasser. Ted posed the question, “Does the recent and rapid computerization of communication invite a fundamental reconsideration of the roles and responsibilities of the press?”

The answers were not your usual ‘future of journalism’ fare.  Risto Kunelius, for example, argued that despite suggestions that we are living through a kind of revolution that carts along with it a set of new key concepts (transparency as a solution in itself, co-production and crowd-power; aggregation, etc.), most of these are part of a long tradition of modern “publicness.” That is, new forms and capacities of communication are still fundimentally being shaped by older networks of institutions and ideas. And Barbie Zelizer warned against privileging the new over the old and reminded us that in 68 percent of countries around the world newspaper readership is stable or increasing. Michael Schudson called for an expanded view of journalism–the need to think about journalisms not journalism and democracies rather than democracy.

Here is what I said:

I.

Over the past few years I’ve been interviewing journalists about how they view transformations taking place in the news landscape. Gabor Vajda, chief correspondent for one of the most highly trafficked Hungarian-language news portals, index.hu, told me he saw newspaper people in the digital age as something like train people in the airplane age.

He said (and I quote):

“Railway companies enjoyed hegemony for a long time. But when air travel became feasible, no one expected engine drivers to retrain as airline pilots. No one expected railway companies to transform into air carriers. The task remained the same– carrying people and goods– but the paradigm had changed and new players appeared. The same is true for journalism, whether we like it or fear it.”

I really like this comparison– it seems to succinctly explain what is going on with journalism … but only at first. In fact, I think his comparison begs the question we are grappling with at this panel– and I think it’s a surprisingly complicated question.

The task of train and airline professionals is to move goods and people. If we agree that’s the case, then the metrics we must use to judge how such professionals are performing become fairly clear. Are these transportation professionals doing this task safely, dependably, efficiently, comfortably? Are they providing a positive “transportation experience”? Answer those questions and we can see how transportation these days is doing and how it might improve.

But what is the main task of journalism?  Is that the same as asking what the purpose is of journalism? I think it is, in effect, because we’re talking about the practical way priorities are established over time.

We tend to answer the question with one or another of the narratives developed over time, mostly having to do with journalism “at its best”: The purpose of journalism is to watchdog power; to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable; to deliver information that fosters democracy and serves the public interest.

These are good answers and they have been for a long time but I think they are less satisfying than they once were. Even if we all could agree that the highest purpose of journalism is to serve the public interest, we’re likely still to disagree about how journalism should best go about serving the public interest. In fact, we are likely to disagree more now about what the main task of journalism should be in the networked-media era then we would have a decade ago in the mass-media-era.

II.

There are of course many who believe the most important purpose of journalism is to hold those in power accountable. And, the rise of the web and the fall of the newspaper business model has heightened anxiety about the ability of journalists to carry out their role as watchdogs.  Few would disagree, we do need watchdogs now at least as much as ever before.

Yet watchdogging–or accountability journalism–isn’t the only task of journalism. And the preoccupation with watchdogging on the part of journalism critics and scholars is a holdover from the mass-media era. This is an issue that Rod Benson and others have raised in response to studies that judge new media by old criteria.

We can’t truly see the weaknesses and strengths of journalism today because we’re focused on the relatively small areas that we can see through the lenses we brought over from a time when journalism was a smaller thing than it is today, populated with professionals working within relatively well-established borders– a news planet that looks now like a sort of quaint federation of outlets linked by well agreed upon laws and treaties.

In this emerging networked era, the federation is breaking up–borders are loose, professional codes can’t be shaped or enforced in the same way, new media innovation point in every direction, information migrates, and genres bleed every which way.  So how can we know what the main task of journalism should be, much less how well it is accomplishing that task, if we’re not properly seeing the whole shape of the thing?

Watchdogging has already become a task taken up increasingly beyond the world of traditional journalism.

For Example, images posted on the web of the battered face of  Khaled Saeed, an Egyptian 28-year-old who was beaten to death by police, played a key role in sparking the revolution in Egypt. Those amateur images trailing on one of networked journalism’s makeshift backroads spotlighted state brutality in a way mainstream outlets struggled to do for decades.

And in the past year Wikileaks has threatened institutional sites of power more than any mainstream journalism outlet has done by exposing the dubious activities and commentary of the power elite all around the world.

These and other instances of accountability journalism emerging in unexpected forms makes me think that the main task of journalism now in the networked era may be to work to provide better and better information and communication tools and to engineer communication environments that engage the public in a new way, that engender new attitudes toward the news and provide new opportunities to gain knowledge on which to act to further public interest. The main task would then be to essentially set the stage upon which new watchdog professionals and other information professionals and non-professionals, for example, can do journalism-style or journalism-related work.

III.

One of the early public debates over the purpose of journalism pitted Walter Lippmann against John Dewey in the 1920s. Lippmann likened the average American to a “deaf spectator.”  As Lippmann put it, this deaf spectator “doesn’t know what is happening, why it’s happening, and what ought to happen.” Lippmann argued for an elite class of professionalized journalists whose job it would be to sort out issues of public concern for a passive news audience. And Lippmann’s view came to effectively dominate and shape mass-media professional journalism. Suddenly, however, in the networked era, Dewey’s ideas seem more compelling, even if they aren’t recognized as Dewey’s. He argued for a journalism whose main task was to facilitate conversation and debate.

Journalists today– by which I mean the expanded field of reporters, editors, data managers, website builders, audience-community managers, social-networking staffers, et cetera–  are breathing new life into this Dewey ideal–working to facilitate dialogue and increase understanding across cultures and communities. I’ll give you a few examples:

Some sites like Salon.com create social networking platforms to facilitate a community among their readers. Executive Editor Kerry Lauerman told me the intention of Open Salon, their social networking platform, is to “activate audience and turn them into publishing partners.”

Other experiments have succeeded in drawing from diverse and traditionally marginalized segments of the population.

Bondy Blog, was started by the of Swiss magazine L’Hebdo during the 2005 riots in France. While journalists from Le Monde, Liberation and other mainstream outlets struggled to gain access to cover exploding Paris suburbs like Bondy, L’Hebdo set up an office there to turn residents into reporters and bloggers. The Bondy blogger material  countered narratives dominating national and international press accounts and it spurred dynamic discussions about previously avoided topics such as institutionalized racism both on the site and in the mainstream press.

Another example is Gone Gitmo (created bt Noony de la Pena and Peggy Weil) an “immersive journalism” experience, which uses a gaming platform to convey the sights, sounds and feelings of the prisoners of the U.S. war on terror camps at Guantanamo Bay.

The task of all of these is to facilitate dialogue and pluralism. And these are not new tasks but I think they are being revitalized.

IV.

Today journalism includes tasks and roles that are new to the field.

1. Journalists are sometimes tech developers.

In 2005, a former Washington Post Editor, Adrian Holovaty, created ChicagoCrime.org a Google maps mashup of police data. It became the prototype for Everyblock, now at work in 16 cities, which collects micro-local information from government agencies and officials, news outlets, businesses and the public and provides space for discussion. Users discuss infrastructure improvements, local events, rate services and retail, and so on.

2. Journalist are often curators and collaborators.

For example, journalists from Mothers Jones, the Nation joined forces with environmental blogger/reports and several environmental advocacy outlet to created an alternative news wire service that included 40 reporters, analysts and editors to cover the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen.

3. Journalists are also genre innovators.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange created an extra-national news platform.  Taiwan-based Next Media Animation creates animated reenactments of news stories.  Gone Gitmo, I just mentioned, and other news gaming sites immerses players in news information and personalities.

V.

These examples are meant to point out the way the work of journalism is as diverse as ever and growing more diverse every day. And I think they support the point that we should stop judging journalism based on views that sidelined the public and other participants to make room for a small class of professionals trained to do very specific work. If we agree the purpose of journalism is to serve the public interest, we should be looking for how that task can be done to in a way that plays to the strengths of the networked news environment– that is in a way that can be carried out more broadly than ever before.

The purpose of journalism is, as many have said before, tied to perceptions of democracy. How you think about democracy will shape how you think about journalism and how journalists should be channeling their efforts. I think we have the opportunity now, while so many things related to the field are in flux, to charge up democracy through journalism by bringing the public back toward the center of the work of journalism.

Thank you very much.

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