February 1, 2005

A New Journalism for Democracy in a New Age

Journalism does more than keep us informed-journalism enables us as citizens to have our voices heard in the chambers of power and allows us to monitor and moderate the sources of power that shape our lives.

In the past few decades this responsibility of the journalist in a free society has been made more vital and more difficult by the revolution in communications technology and the economic organization of journalism it has spawned.

The technology has filled the world with a flood of undifferentiated information that is changing the audience for news and information from passive receivers to pro-active consumers who decide what they want, when they want it and how they want it.

I say ‘undifferentiated’ because the system is now accessible to a mass audience at each end of the communications process-the producer and the consumer.

As a result the world of cyberspace is filled with many views of reality-many of them designed to distract us or to control and dictate our public behavior rather than inform our independent public judgment.

This new competition requires a new journalism to assure that the view of the world in which the people live is one constructed with the integrity and reliability self-government requires.

There are two aspects of this new age that journalists must think more deeply and more creatively that I would like to talk about today.

The first deals with the impact on the producer end of the information stream; the second is the impact on the consumer.

Those of you who are just beginning your career in journalism are assuming an obligation as public witness. A public witness who clearly and without distortion describes the actions and behavior of those who shape and direct public life.

To enter into the life of a journalist is to accept personal responsibility for the credibility of your work and to serve the interests of the consumer of the information. You can do that only if you fully understand how the system works.

Because of this importance of the journalist’s work to others in the community, to become a journalist is an act of character. For the public’s ability to become a force in self-government depends upon the integrity of your work.

Don’t just take my word for this. Here is how James D. Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, describes the importance of the journalist’s work:

“What differentiates poor people from rich people, is lack of voice. The inability to be represented. The inability to convey to the people in authority what it is they think. The inability to have a searchlight put on the conditions of inequality.

“A free press is absolutely vital to that objective. Freedom of the press is not a luxury. It is not an extra. It is absolutely at the core of equitable development.”

First let me discuss the problem of unlimited producers of information that itself conceals two challenges for journalism in the public interest-an economic challenge and content challenge.

The economic challenge affects even the largest and most powerful news organizations. As these organizations compete in a worldwide market the pressure to maximize profit and minimize costs has led to short-term decisions that threaten to undermine their ability to do quality work.

At the same time new producers in the form of individual bloggers–the pamphleteers of our time–many of whom are tempted to use their perceived stature as independent journalists to sell the content of their journalism as we have just witnessed in recent weeks in the U.S. in the cases of Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher.

Neither of these erosions in the quality and integrity is readily recognizable to consumers.

Too often the public’s interest has been ignored in favor of personal bias or corporate profit.

One result of these changes in the U.S., in addition to the williams and gallagher examples, can be seen in the recent scandals at CBS television news, the New York Times‘ Jayson Blair scandal, and USA Today‘s Jack Kelley. Failures that challenged the credibility of the country’s most respected news institutions. Challenges which, left unaddressed, will destroy the vital link between the people and its press on which democracy depends.

Each of those failures of journalism was the result of a thinning out of the professional staff in the newsrooms, and a failure of the top leadership to develop a newsroom culture that encourages openness, that rewards critical thinking and an acceptance by each journalist of personal responsibility for the credibility of their work.

The second aspect of the new world of producers is a new sophistication in information control by people and institutions of power. Sometime early in the 20th century those with their hands on the levers of economic and political power in democratic societies realized they are, at bottom, in the business of communications. The realization that the success of their economic plan or their political program depends on their ability to get the majority of the people to see the world in their terms.

As a result they have been involved in carefully focused and well-financed efforts to develop ever more subtle and effective ways to manipulate public behavior and understanding of the issues in which they have a vested interest.

In the meanwhile we in the newsrooms of the world have done little if anything to sharpen our understanding of how words are being used to manipulate our reports; how we react to events that are staged to determine what we deem important to cover. One of the reasons journalists in the United States now support the Committee of Concerned Journalists is the frustration they feel that news organizations in our country traditionally invest less money in the on-going training and education of their workers than almost any other industry. As people and institutions we cover work diligently to learn new and better ways to control or avoid our scrutiny we seem content to plod along in the reporting and editing ruts we formed in the 19th century.

It is this problem on news production that bleeds over into the problem of consumers that journalism in the public interest faces.

For many of our newsrooms too often work by rote, letting others decide what is important to cover and how it should be covered-letting judgments produced by vested interests be given, at best, equal display with documented, verified information produced by their own dis-interested staff–or, at worse, become the only judgment presented.

Journalists can meet this new challenge only by applying our own enduring values as aggressively to expose these artificial worlds for what they are-self-serving propaganda.

The public whose well being as citizens depends on how well we do our work are becoming disillusioned. The public–all of us–are ignorant of many things. But not stupid. They can see, sooner or later, that we failed to ask the right question at the right time; to hold a public official responsible or expose private corruption that threatened their welfare. In this new world of unlimited producers why should they stick with us? Why shouldn’t they turn to a more exciting source that agrees with their prejudices even if they don’t know the integrity of the work?

How do we begin the transition to the new journalism this new age requires?

Our first response should be to realize that our old notion of journalist as gatekeeper is obsolete. The Internet has torn down all the fences. A journalist standing by the gate-opening it to allow this ‘fact’ to pass but closing it to other information that has not been verified-looks silly because on either side of the gate the fence is down and unfiltered, indiscriminate information is flooding through.

Instead of gatekeepers, journalists now become referees. Acknowledging that our potential audience is flooded with unlimited information and no way of discerning what is of value, what is true, what is propaganda, we must construct our work to offer them the referee’s advice: this information has been checked and verified; this information has been found to be untrue; this is self-interested propaganda; this is being reported but we have yet to be able to verify the information.

Recognizing these new responses to help consumer contruct their own news package, will require us to be as focused and as constant as the challenges we face-but they have to begin with a more professional approach to our journalism–an approach that instills in each journalist a rigorous method of testing information so that personal, commercial and political biases do not undermine the accuracy of their work.

As Machiavelli said, institutions in order to survive in times of change must return to their roots. For journalists of public interest that means reaching back to the original goal of 18th century thinkers that journalist’s pursuit of truthful information be guided by a more scientific, transparent methodology of verification–a methodology that checks every assertion against the record; that asks of every claim, “How do you know that?”; that demonstrates the source of every fact.

Such painstaking verification is vital in an information environment richer than the world has ever seen.

And since our survival in this atmosphere depends upon our holding the public’s trust we must build a more transparent relationship with our audience.

This fundamental idea of transparency is simple: never deceive your audience. Tell them what you know and what you don’t know. Tell them who your sources are and if you can’t name the sources tell them how the sources are in a position to know and what biases, if any, they may have. In other words, provide your information so that people see how it was developed and can make up their own minds what to think.

And be sure that transparency lets the public see we have kept an open mind–open not only about what we hear but about our ability to understand. Some call this humility. We call it open-mindedness. Don’t assume. Avoid an arrogance about your knowledge and be sure you submit your own assumptions to your process of verification.

For as I said before, journalism must be an act of character. An act built on the authority, honesty and judgment of the people. When people decide what news to buy, or what news to watch, or what magazine to purchase, they are making a decision about the judgment, the character, and the values of the journalists who have produced that news.

In many ways those values are revealed every day when we decide what we cover and how we cover it-and what we don’t cover.

The people today have grown more skeptical–even cynical–about all the conflicting information that pours over them in forms that look like journalism. Society gives journalists a certain degree of access, status and autonomy but in return expects the irreplaceable service news of issues, characters and institutions that affect their lives and their communities in a disinterested rather than in a selfish manner.

Our unswerving commitment to maintaining the public trust and making sense of the flood of information available today is the only way journalism can retain the economic base to assure its survival.

We cannot meet these obligations unless we consciously create a newsroom culture that rewards critical thinking and discourages and exposes dishonest behavior.

Such a culture begins with a new focus on these issues by editors. One unrecognized impact of the new competitive atmosphere has been to draw editors more deeply into management of the newsroom at the expense of the more critical jobs of editing and mentoring young journalists.

Editors must develop more mechanisms of quality that place responsibility for the credibility on each person in the newsroom: after-the-fact quality control such as analyzing complaints of errors or questions of assertions and analysis; mechanisms like ombudsmen or public editors who engage directly with the public.

But beyond these mechanisms we need to build into the newsroom culture forward-looking quality assurance practices similar to those practiced by doctors in the best teaching hospitals. In these hospitals every time there is a negative outcome of a doctor-patient interaction the doctor involved appears at a meeting with other staff members at which each step in the procedure is open for examination and criticism-criticism not so much aimed at finding fault, but to learn from the mistakes. Every mistake or omission in our newsrooms should become another learning experience and another opportunity to remind every journalist of their personal responsibility.

These steps may seem too troublesome to some. But the cost of ignoring them and risking corruption of the information and knowledge we provide the public is too great. For how journalism progresses and how democracy progresses will depend upon how well we discharge this responsibility.

Time and again history has taught us the heavy price we pay when the independence, aggressive vigilance, accuracy and credibility of the press fails.

Events in Iraq today are a stark reminder to us in the U.S. that we have yet to learn that lesson. Who can say how the decision by the American government–with the support of a majority of the American public–to invade Iraq may turn out–only time will tell. But one thing we do know for certain is that the public support for that decision was built by the government’s creation of a virtual world of an imminent threat that did not exist. And brick by brick the construction of that deceptive virtual world was aided by an American press that did not rigorously enforce an independent journalism of verification.

So let me end by reminding us all of the role of journalists, do in a free society.

The first publications we would recognize as modern newspapers developed in Western Europe in the early 17th century and made public opinion possible. Before those early publications there was no common base of information upon which a public opinion could form.

The voice of the people was a babble–unheard and unimportant in the councils of government. Without their steady, reliable flow of timely information the creation, maturation and continuation of a public opinion as a force in politics would not have occurred–self-government would not have occurred. Journalism and self-government were born together. Journalism and self-government will rise or fall together.

We need to remember each day we go to work to let the public know that we know it is because of this special role a journalist plays in our shared society that we also have a special responsibility.

If we are to effectively pursue the independence that our work requires, it is important that the public understand and accept our role as a valid one and one vital to their own interests. The only way to assure that in this world of unlimited competition for the public mind is for the journalist to act with the responsibility their independence requires.

For all of us and for our continued freedom in a dangerous, anarchical world depends upon not forgetting the past–not forgetting the values that have made self-government possible. For, in the end, if history teaches us anything it teaches us that freedom and democracy do not depend upon technology or upon the most efficient organization.

Freedom and democracy depend upon individuals who refuse to give up their belief that the free flow of timely, truthful information is what has made freedom, self-government and human dignity possible.