A wayward press: reforming media

March 25, 2001|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect," by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Crown. 192 pages. $20.

When consumers of news say they distrust "the media," it is difficult to know what they mean: Local television journalists? Local newspaper journalists? Writers and editors at the slick-paper city magazine? The journalists of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered"? Dan Rather? The producers of NBC's "Dateline" news magazine? An award-winning investigative reporter at the Wall Street Journal? The staff of the National Enquirer? All book authors and publishers, or just some of them, or almost none of them?

It seems like such an obvious point, but it is a point often lost in the discussion about journalism: Talking about "the media" as monolithic is silly. On any given story, some journalists will be as accurate and timely as humanly possible, others less so.

There is another strange phenomenon about consumers of news: Many, probably most, non-journalists say they distrust the news media. Yet much, probably most, of what those same non-journalists believe about their county, state, nation and other nations comes from - you guessed it - the news media.

Put another way, many non-journalists who are part of an event often complain that the journalists got the coverage wrong. Yet, when absorbing reporting about distant events, those same non-journalists often accept the accounts unquestioningly, sharing their mediated knowledge at the water cooler or the dinner table as gospel truth.

Such a complicated love-hate, trust-distrust relationship involving journalists and their audiences could have hopelessly complicated a book trying to appeal to both camps. Yet Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, two experienced journalists, have managed to write a brief book with valuable, fresh lessons for news disseminators and news consumers.

Kovach is well known inside journalism for his high-profile career at the New York Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, followed by his directorship of the mid-career educational program for journalists at Harvard University. Rosenstiel is well known inside journalism for the media criticism he published while employed by the Los Angeles Times. Today, they devote most of their time planting the seeds for improved reporting and editing, Kovach as chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, Rosenstiel as director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Kovach and Rosenstiel began gathering the seeds during June 1997, when they brought together 25 journalists at Harvard. All those journalists understood huge percentages of their intended audiences thought reporters and editors cared little about the rights of individuals in the news, had lost their rightful place as societal watchdogs, and perhaps were out to undermine democracy. The twist on that mid-1997 meeting, though, was this: The journalists in the room found themselves agreeing with the critics frequently.

Kovach and Rosenstiel decided to work with other journalists to clean up the mess. They believed the stakes to be huge: "Journalism provides something unique to a culture - independent, reliable, accurate and comprehensive information that citizens require to be free. A journalism that is asked to provide something other than that subverts democratic culture. That is what happens when governments control the news, as in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union."

Kovach and Rosenstiel organized 21 public forums, attended by more than 3,000 people. They formed a partnership with university researchers who conducted hours-long interviews with journalists about their values. They helped produce content studies of how journalists covered specific individuals, institutions and issues. They studied how journalists in the past had done things differently.

For this book, Kovach and Rosenstiel distilled nine principles that journalists ought to follow and that their audiences should push them to follow. The book devotes a chapter to each principle:

1. Journalism's first obligation is to the truth. 2. Its first loyalty is to citizens. 3. Its essence is a discipline of verification. 4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover. 5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power. 6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise. 7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant. 8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional. 9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

Those probably sound abstract, dry as dust. But a wonder of this book is how Kovach and Rosenstiel use those abstractions as jumping-off points for fascinating chapters, each filled with compelling examples of exemplary and less than exemplary journalistic practice.

It should be the responsibility of every journalist to live up to those principles. But because that will probably never happen, it is the responsibility of news consumers to vote with their pocketbooks, channel changers, radio settings and computer mouses. Consumers can help reform wayward journalists by purchasing magazines, newspapers and books, watching television channels, listening to radio stations and clicking on Web sites that speak truth to power.

Steve Weinberg, a freelance journalist in Columbia, Mo., is a contributing editor at a bimonthly magazine on information-gathering published by Investigative Reporters and Editors, based at the University of Missouri Journalism School. He is the author of seven nonfiction books, including "The Reporter's Handbook" and "Trade Secrets of Washington Journalists."

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