In journalism, gathering a diversity of opinion isn't simply a matter of hewing to politically correct dogma. It often helps increase the accuracy of reporting.
By Bill Kovach
One of the benefits of writing the ombudsman column is that it keeps me in touch with a lot of people who care about journalism and sometimes wonder what it's all about.
Bert J. Warner, for example, asked by e-mail: "How did journalism 'start' as a profession[? W]hen man lived in tribes, were there journalists and how did they get people to believe their stories?"
It's a question that seems to come up a lot in my mail and phone calls. Especially in this time of mixed media, in which it is hard to tell who is a journalist and who is a special-interest spinmeister on the latest television talk show. So this month the column will be a little different in order for me to try to answer the question.
The fact is that there has always been a sort of journalism because humans are curious animals. The political and economic elites of the world for centuries had their own private systems of communication that kept them aware of movements and trends and helped them make decisions. One of the oldest known of these, the Acta diurna, kept Roman emperors on top of the events of the day. The financial empires of great trading and banking houses were built on the factual detail their private newsletters provided. But the great mass of people knew the world only as interpreted by their political, economic, and spiritual leaders or through the heroic tales circulated by legend or traveling troubadours. When Gutenberg perfected movable type, he set in motion a democratic enlightenment that broke the church and state monopoly on information and undermined the centralized control of both.
The earliest newspapers, with names like the Spie and the Scout, sought out the information that had been previously available only to the ruling elite. In order that they be believed, these early newspapers provided details about time and place and sources of their information. They corrected errors and in other ways set out to prove they were better and more reliable than gossip. The novelty of this newly visible world that periodical publication brought to a largely ignorant society took root and captured an immediate and enthusiastic popular following.
Average people became aware of cause and effect in the world around them. They learned for the first time of the characters and the mechanics by which power was organized and wielded. The discussions, debates, and arguments about the facts nourished by this news created a phenomenon1public opinion. This newly informed public involvement would lead to democratic self-government.
The citizens who organized the new government of the United States were acutely aware of the importance of independent, reliable information in their lives. In fact, they refused to accept the Constitution that had been written for them in Philadelphia until a free press and other personal liberties were guaranteed in a bill of citizens' rights. For this reason, John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, has called the First Amendment's freedoms, including freedom of the press, "a gift of the American people to themselves."
The twentieth century introduced the competition of a journalism full of sensational crime, scandal, thrill-seeking, and celebrity worship. These were the years of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, characterized by the liberal use of comic strips to substitute for news. The most prominent comic was one called "The Yellow Kid," which gave the press of this era its name: "Yellow Journalism."
This new press was the product of an extraordinary convergence of events that were reshaping all aspects of American life. The country had stretched itself from the Atlantic to the Pacific in a laissez-faire fashion and was now confronting the resulting economic system to support the exploitation of such a vast area. Railroads, telephones, and the telegraph had connected all its separate parts; electricity and the assembly line focused its energy and its people in urban centers. Those people had new needs. Among them were two that the press, financed by advertising, quickly realized and filled.
One need was that of the retail department stores to lure this growing audience and to educate its members in brand name marketing. The other was society's educational need. Immigrants flooding in from Europe needed a new language. Tabloid journalism with short stories made up of simple words amply illustrated with the sign language of pictures became the immigrants' primer. For both foreign-born and American rustics streaming in from the backwoods there was a need to learn to cope with this new, complex environment. From raw material in the form of the Horatio Algers of the new environment, the tabloids created stereotypes of accomplishment such as the Boston Brahmins, with the New York Five Hundred providing simplistic lessons on how to behave and how to make it big in the big city.
From this heady mixture of new marketing possibilities developed a frenzy of competition to find the cheapest and most effective way of capturing the greatest number of potential consumers for the advertisers, very much like what we are seeing at the turn of the century. World War I and the disillusion it engendered gave way to the "Don't Care Age" of the 1920s accompanied by a press typified by the birth of the gossip column.
But the period was also accompanied by a slowly strengthening journalism that attempted to reconnect the citizen to public affairs. Generally labeled "muckrakers," these journalists dug deeply into American life to expose the corrosive damage done to thousands by a social system left to its own devices without the check of an informed and engaged citizenry. The result was a "progressive" movement toward more professionalism in government and public life in general. Walter Lippmann was a perceptive student of this new movement. In a 1922 book entitled Public Opinion, he explained how the news served progressive government: "The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act1.[N]ews, as we have seen, is precise in proportion to the precision with which the event is recorded...the more all interests concerned are formally represented, the more issues are disentangled, the more objective criteria are introduced, the more perfectly an affair can be presented as news."
That's what the best journalists are after. But decades of debate and argument, guided sometimes by political ideology and sometimes by a postmodern deconstructionist academia, hasn't resolved this notion of truth. Truth, it seems, is too complicated. Objectivity is rejected as impossible, for we are all subjective individuals. Good arguments, maybe even true. But they miss the point of what journalistic truth is. It is not truth in the philosophical sense. It is not the truth of a chemical equation. It is the continuous pursuit and presentation of a subject in a way that allows each recipient of that information to "know" the subject well enough to make an independent judgment. It is the organization of the details free of prejudice, clearly documented, and organized in a way that places the subject in a context that is relevant to the decision-making recipient of the news. It is, in short, a process by which journalism attempts to get at the truth in a confused world by stripping it first of the attached misinformation, disinformation, self-promoting information.
It is, then, a process. The creation of journalistic truth begins with a new story1a news story1indicating a new thing or event. It may begin simply with an account of he said/she said, for the truth of a matter is seldom discovered by a single reporter in a single story1even a story of a car wreck.
So journalistic truth could be described as a continuing journey toward understanding, a process of refinement by which we navigate in a world that can be frightening or rewarding, depending on how well we understand it.
And because it is a process of refinement, we cannot often count on single articles on complex subjects such as welfare reform to ever hope to achieve a useful understanding. This notion of journalistic truth is a protean thing that, like learning, grows as a stalactite does in a cave, drop by drop over time.
In the end, Thomas Griffith, a senior editor at Time Inc., wrote as good a description of journalism as any, in an article entitled "The Pursuit of Journalism" in the 1959 Nieman Reports: "Journalism is in fact history on the run. It is history written in time to be acted upon: thereby not only recording events but at times influencing them....Journalism is also the recording of history while the facts are not all in."
Copyright Brill Media Ventures, L.P. 2000