It doesn’t seem controversial to suggest that journalism in America (and beyond) is in trouble, and there are any number of factors contributing to the malaise.
A particular concern of mine has been the decline in the efficacy of what we’ll call “objective journalism” – that is, the institutionalized press that dominated newsgathering and production throughout the better part of the 20th Century. These institutions and brands are still quite viable economically (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, ABC, CBS, NBC, Reuters, AP, etc.), but the sad fact is that consolidation, layoffs and ratings frenzies have dramatically eroded the value these agencies provide to a society in need of top-quality information and insightful analysis. You can’t make good decisions on bad information, and increasingly you can’t get good information from the legacy press.
At the same moment when the institutions are faltering we’re experiencing an explosion in “non-traditional journalism.” Blogging, “citizen journalism,” “Pro-Am journalism,” “crowdsourcing” – these are practices and terms that refer to the increasing role of non-professional sources in the development of the news. Much of what transpires under these banners is predictably crap, although there’s no arguing the power and potential of emerging social media. We have reached the point where “who is a journalist?” is a lot more problematic a question than it was a few short years ago.
As a former professor teaching mass media in a journalism school, I’m keenly interested not only in the press generally, but in the process by which we train future journalists. While on the faculty at my former institution I became convinced that journalism as we have known it is dying, if not dead already. Even in places where they’re trying to adhere to the principles of reporting as set forth in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, staff reductions and poor training have undercut the integrity of reportage to the point where the informed reader has to expect mistakes on a daily basis.
It seemed to me that not only was legacy journalism doomed, but that it was going to be replaced by whatever we choose to call the world of blogging, citizen J, advocacy reporting, etc. (I still haven’t come up with what I think is a perfect term – it’s like New Journalism in its best moments, but that term doesn’t quite capture the full field of practices. More on terminology later.) And since this brave world of new reporters come to the table with lots of attitude, tremendous technological capacity, and precious little grounding in the fundamentals of good journalism, our information landscape seems fated to be more noise and less signal.
The stakes are too high to let this happen. The truth is that while reporting might become less “objective,” there’s no reason at all why more “subjective” approaches can’t do a good job serving our culture’s need for dependable information and analysis. A blogger who has studied the principles of newsgathering, who has taken the time to understand how to vet the claims of scientific and social research, and who has cultivated a clearly stated code of ethics is bound to be of greater value to his or her readers than one who hasn’t.
To this end, I proposed to my colleagues in the J school that we launch a new graduate program in what I informally termed “Interpretive Journalism” (the official tag we eventually applied to it was “New and Literary Journalism”). We devoted considerable time to building a strong rationale for the program and to detailing its curriculum.
I left the school and the project appears to have died at that point, but I continue to believe it was and is a good idea. So, over the next few days I’ll be publishing a multi-part series on Interpretive Journalism, and will conclude with a curricular blueprint that a J school could use to drive its own conversations about how to address the dramatic shifts in the news industry. Certainly this program doesn’t solve all of journalism’s problem, but at the least I think it’s an interesting and important discussion.
I hope you’ll engage this series and offer your own thoughts.
Next: The end of Objectivity