What’s wrong with journalism? Look in the mirror

Alan Bass

Alan BassPrepare yourself. If 2008 was a crappy year for the news business, 2009 is likely to be a lot worse. We’re going to see more journalists lose jobs and more news organizations fail. Some are questioning the future of journalism itself.

But this could also be the year that launches journalism’s rebirth. That is, if we as journalists are finally ready to admit that the main problem with journalism is – us.

Yes, you read that right. What’s wrong with journalism – what’s been eating away at it for some time – isn’t Canwest or Quebecor. It isn’t satellite television or the Internet. It’s isn’t the shift of advertising money away from newspapers and network TV to video games and social media. It isn’t spin doctoring or public relations. It isn’t conservatism or liberalism or capitalism or socialism. It isn’t even the recession.

It’s us – the people who call ourselves journalists. We are responsible for the position we find ourselves in today. And if journalism is to survive the structural crisis wreaking havoc in the news business, it will because of what we did or did not do in response.

Journalism’s challenge

What makes talking about the future of journalism so difficult – if not downright futile – is that so few journalists are willing to acknowledge and address the disconnect between the mission of journalism and the commercial evolution of the media business. Until we do, journalism’s future will remain out of our hands.

Journalists still use phrases like “the press”, “the newspaper business” or “broadcasting” as if they were synonyms for journalism. We often speak and act as if we are the media, but we are not and have not been for a long time – at least since the birth of the penny press in the 1800s, when the core mission of the media business shifted from providing information to citizens to building audiences for advertisers. Since then, the one constant in the evolution of the media business – as newspapers diversified their content beyond news and comment, as radio and television became drivers of the entertainment industry and as the Internet today becomes a medium capable of mediating virtually any human activity – is the extent to which the media business is increasingly not about journalism.

The future of journalism does not and cannot depend solely on the wellbeing of existing newspaper or broadcasting companies. It cannot depend on the wellbeing of the business of media, period, because the business of media is not journalism.

If journalism is to thrive in the future, it is going to have to do it on its own merits. The future depends on our ability to persuade citizens to share our conviction that even in a world of participatory media, society needs people who work full-time as intelligence agents for the public, keeping independent watch on all of society’s institutions and reporting our findings back to citizens without fear or favour (to borrow a powerful phrase). The future is going to depend on our ability to persuade citizens that society needs journalism.

If citizens are to believe that, they need a clear understanding of what journalists do and how the public benefits from it. Journalists need to clearly articulate what journalism is; how it differs from entertainment, marketing and public relations; and why that difference matters. Then we need to find a way to identify the people who do journalism, so the public can trust their work as something that is journalism and not just something someone calls journalism.

But how? As the media world reshapes, as newsrooms shrink and news businesses fail, what can journalists do?  

What is to be done

The newsroom is the mechanism by which we traditionally define journalistic work and hold journalists accountable, but its success is debatable.

During the halcyon days, media businesses poured resources into newsrooms. Employers even tolerated journalists articulating a concept of journalism as a public service and declaring the newsroom’s “independence” from the commercial side of the operation. This inspired journalism to be better, to articulate codes of ethics, to improve journalism education and develop new methods. But even while talking independence, journalists made choices that compromised it. Newspaper newsrooms grew jobs by taking on responsibility for all non-advertising content. Broadcast newsrooms grew jobs by developing peak time “shows” designed to entertain more than inform. Without acknowledging it openly, journalists gave in to employer pressure to redefine their function to include building audience through entertainment. The distinctions that built the so-called wall between editorial and the rest of the media business became difficult to discern.

Even when times were good, these contradictions mattered. People noticed them, even if many journalists didn’t. Public opinion surveys charted a steep decline in public trust for journalists. Book after book was published excoriating what journalism had become. In popular movies, when the hero’s spouse punched out the reporter’s teeth, audiences cheered.

Let’s be honest, newsroom practices are part of journalism’s challenge. That’s not to say there aren’t solid newsrooms out there that do good journalism. Of course there are. But newsroom practices vary greatly. Some protect the independence of journalists, but others force journalists to write promotional material for advertisers. Some expect their journalists to investigate the truth of all claims, others expect journalists to rewrite press releases without so much as a phone call. Some demand journalists avoid conflicts of interest, others don’t care when journalists moonlight for the organizations they cover. Ultimately, newsroom practices are determined by employers, not journalists.

As news organizations become increasingly unstable financially, the pressure on many newsrooms to cut corners and compromise journalistic integrity is only getting stronger. Witness the growing tendency for journalists to cross-promote their employers’ entertainment products as news. Witness too how newsroom managers work to protect the market value of their employer’s brand by publicly labelling coverage and personnel reductions as improvements in journalism.

These inconsistencies and our failure as journalists to stand up for journalism’s brand contribute greatly to tarnishing journalism’s reputation. As journalists, we tend to define journalism according to best newsroom practices, but much of the public defines journalism by the worst.

The other traditional mechanism journalism has to protect itself is the integrity of individual journalists. All journalists take pride in their professional integrity (including many who shouldn’t). But the old heroic rubric about journalists being ready to quit before they’ll compromise their ethics is wearing thin in practice, especially when respect and support for journalism within the media business is so precarious and when the next newsroom is likely run by the same people running the one the ethical journalist would like to quit.  

The logic of this mechanism is that eventually all the journalists with integrity walk away. What will be left then? The journalism we deserve? There will always be an audience of some kind for news and comment and that means that whatever the media system of the future looks like, people who call themselves journalists will continue to work within it. But what kind of journalism will they practice?

And so we circle back to futility. We can criticize and theorize and proselytize about journalism as much as we like, we can huff and complain among ourselves about being abandoned by irresponsible employers as they struggle to preserve their businesses, but until we develop a functioning mechanism under our own control to protect the ability of all journalists to actually practice journalism and assure the public that this is so by holding each other accountable, it’s just so much hot air and whining.

Elsewhere, I have suggested that a model of professionalization – self-regulation of the practice of journalism by journalists themselves – offers concrete hope for the future. When I first started this article, I intended to briefly restate that argument. But as I started writing I realized that before journalists can discuss creating any specific mechanism to protect and enhance the practice of journalism in the future, they must first be persuaded that a new mechanism is needed. Before they can open their minds to a consideration of new practices, they must be persuaded that it’s time to diverge from the old. Before anything can be done, journalists must be persuaded that they themselves, as an occupational group with a definable mission and shared methodologies, can and should accept real responsibility for journalism’s future.

I know many find the idea of professionalizing journalism scary, if not downright inconceivable. After all, wouldn’t it mean licensing or some other form of credentialing? Wouldn’t that be a gross violation of freedom of the press?

I ask you, would Milton or Locke even think so if they were alive during a time when anyone with Internet access can publish and broadcast anything they like?  

Journalism practiced without fear or favour cannot exist without freedom of the press, obviously. But freedom of the press also means the “press” is free not to support journalism. I would suggest the critical question facing journalists today is: How will journalism survive despite freedom of the press? Until we open our minds enough to ask this question – and hopefully answer it – journalism’s future looks bleak.

Alan Bass is an assistant professor at the Thompson Rivers University School of Journalism and editor of the Findings section of J-Source.