I have been working on an essay that explores new relationships, forms, and business models for news. It is my reply to the question, “Now that your internet has ruined news, what now?” I do not pretend to predict, only to explore opportunities. On Medium, I’ll share the first third of the essay on new relationships for news to get your reaction and help. This is Part 5; find the rest on on Whither News?
“Community organizer” sounds like a punchline to a Fox News joke about Barack Obama. But if news organizations are to serve communities, they often will need to help organize those communities in very practical ways: listening to their needs, drawing their attention to an issue, convening them to gather together and discuss the issue, urging them to action, and helping them reach their goals. That would seem to violate our professional myths of objectivity and distance — that, like the crew of the Star Trek Enterprise, we operate under a Prime Directive not to interfere with other life forms, only to observe them. But the truth is that news organizations have long convened communities to take action — isn’t that our desired outcome in investigative (aka crusading) journalism: to get our readers to demand action of government, to have an impact, to bring change? I’ll avoid the tired battle over journalistic objectivity and confess that on this question I have a strongly held belief: We are not objective.
If traditionalists in my field haven’t already crumpled up this essay — or whatever one does in disgust, post-paper, with a digital screen — at my contentions that we are not in the content business and are not primarily storytellers, this may cause them to strike a match or pull the plug. Still, I’ll go farther still and argue this: If it isn’t advocacy, it isn’t journalism. Isn’t advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism? The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public’s behalf. Don’t we believe that we act in their interest? As the late Columbia Journalism Professor James Carey said: “The god term of journalism — the be-all and end-all, the term without which the enterprise fails to make sense, is the public.” When the Washington Post — whose former editor famously refused to vote to uphold his vision of objectivity — chooses to report on government secrecy or on abuse of veterans at a government hospital or, of course, on presidential malfeasance and cover ups, it is advocating. When an editor assigns reporters to expose a consumer scam or Wall Street fraud or misappropriation of government funds, that’s advocacy. When a newspaper takes on the cause of the poor, the disadvantaged, the abused, the forgotten, or just the little guy against The Man, that’s advocacy. When health reporters tell you how to avoid cancer or even lose weight, that’s advocacy on your behalf. When an editor decides to cover a crime in this neighborhood but not that one, she is advocating for the allocation of attention to the first. When TV news breathlessly covers lottery jackpots with no mention of the social cost, it is advocating for a regressive redistribution of collective wealth. I might even argue that a critic reviewing a movie to save you from wasting your money on a turkey could be advocacy (though we don’t necessarily need critics for that anymore — and I used to be one).
But what about a TV station sending a crew or a helicopter to give us video of the fire du jour with no wider impact or to hover over a tragic accident with no lesson to be learned? Is that advocacy? No. When a TV network — not to pick on TV — devotes hours and hours to the salacious details of a crime a passion that affects none of our lives, is that advocacy? No. When an online site collects pictures of cute cats, is that advocacy? Hardly. When a newspaper devotes resources to covering football games, is that advocacy? Sorry, but no. When any news organization “reports” on some celebrity’s innanities, is that advocacy? No. Is any of that journalism? Under the test I put forth here, no.
Of course, there are limitations to advocacy or else we return to the days when newspapers were the organs of political parties, doing their bidding. What separates us from that past — besides the economic support we received from advertisers — is our independence and our intellectual honesty, our ethics and standards, our credibility. That is what defines journalism versus mere advocacy. Quoting Michael Oreskes, an editor at The New York Times and then the Associated Press: “Standards practices, and ethics are the core. Without them, it isn’t journalism.” As an example of maintaining intellectual honesty, I would point to the Guardian and its coverage of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency. The Guardian’s stated mission is to be the world’s leading liberal voice; can’t be much more of an advocate than that. Still, its NSA coverage has put a liberal administration in a most difficult bind. Thus the Guardian advocates for freedom and rights and an effective democracy, not for a political side. As a journalistic organization, the Guardian had to ask whether the public had a right to the information Snowden carried, no matter which side it benefitted (so long as the public’s interests — in terms of security — were not harmed). The next issue for the Guardian was whether and how it added journalistic value. That is, of course, another journalistic test. Edward Snowden, like Wikileaks, delivered a bunch of raw and secret documents. In both cases, the Guardian added value by using judgment to redact what could be harmful, bringing audience to the revelations, and most important, adding reporting to this raw information to verify and explain.
So what is it then, the stuff we call journalism that doesn’t advocate for people or principles, that doesn’t serve a public need? At worst, it’s exploitation — audience- or sales- or click- or ratings-bait. At best it’s entertainment. The first is pejorative, the second need not be, for entertainment — whether a journalistic narrative or a book or a show or movie — can still inform and enlighten. But if it doesn’t carry information that people can use to better manage their lives or their society, I’d say it fails a journalism test based on outcomes and impact.
Journalism-as-advocacy has been bundled with journalism-as-entertainment for economic reasons: Entertainment can draw people to a media entity and help subsidize the cost of its journalism. But was it was a mistake to then put an umbrella over it all? If a newspaper creates journalism then everything its journalists create in that newspaper is journalism, yes? No. The corollary: People who are not journalists can do journalism. It’s a function of the value delivered, not the job title.
So then why not embrace our advocacy and make sure it is put to good use? Why not measure our outcomes and impact of all our work on the basis of what is accomplished? Why not partner with communities to use our abilities to help them accomplish — to advocate for — their goals? If we do that, then we must measure our success by helping a community meet its goals. And we must rethink our job descriptions and the skills needed to fill them.
We need to use or build platforms that enable a community to express and discern its goals. At a very basic level, the hashtag #occupywallstreet was just such a platform, meaning little until members of a community that formed around it imbued it with their meaning. More complex platforms would help members of a community accomplish greater goals.
One more role to list: Perhaps journalists should see themselves as educators. Of course, that should not mean that we are lecturers, continuing a one-way flow of content directed at a passive audience. A true educator empowers students to experiment, share, and build on their own, according to their abilities, desires, and needs. So, after discerning an individual’s or a community’s needs, journalists and their organizations can teach how to fulfill them. As with much I’ve outlined here, there’s not much new at the core of that notion. Service journalism has long taught readers how to accomplish what they want — to get a new job or a mortage, to use a new technology, to understand an issue. What’s new now is that the net provides us with a feedback loop that allows us to see how well we succeed at advancing knowledge and understanding. Like a good teacher, we must ask whether our work leaves our users and our communities better informed, wiser, better able to meet their goals and their potential.
Having just constricted my definition of journalism, let me again broaden it again before I move on to consider new forms of journalism. Earlier in this essay, I said that journalism helps communities organize their knowledge to better organize themselves. I’ll stick by that. Whether covering a football game is journalism is a debate best held over beers.