Peter Finley Dunn, the late writer and humorist, once described the role of journalism to “comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.”
When I was a journalist, Dunn’s quote was at the heart of how I practiced the craft. I believed deeply in Dunn’s assessment and even scribbled the quote onto my journalism notebooks as a reminder of my charge. I considered it the golden rule of journalism.
However, not every journalist or news room agrees with Dunn’s definition of the fourth estate.
That said all journalists and journalism publications and broadcast outlets are supposed to adhere to the nine basic tenets of the craft. They vary slightly depending on the source, but I like these at journalism.org:
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 allow to exercise their personal conscience
Yet are any of these basic principles adhered to anymore? Have the tenets of journalism become a quaint remnant of the past?
Increasingly journalism seems to be revenue focused rather than on providing accurate and reliable information. For example, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism releases an annual report on journalism called “The State of the News Media.” Pew describes the report as an examination on the “health and status of American journalism.” Yet here is the lead of the 2011 report:
“After two dreadful years, most sectors of the industry saw revenue begin to recover. With some notable exceptions, cutbacks in newsrooms eased. And while still more talk than action, some experiments with new revenue models began to show signs of blossoming.”
As you can see, the report is focused on the business of journalism – not on the quality of it. The report is filled with information on social media, mobile platforms, circulation and advertising numbers and newsroom lay-offs. So how does a report on revenues, forecasts and economic models have anything to do with “excellence” in journalism?
Where is the analysis of reporting and investigations? On the state of the status of journalism as described by its basic principles?
There are many examples of where it appears that the principles no longer seem to matter to some of the largest and most powerful journalists. For example:
- Is FOX-News really trying to uncover the truth or are they manufacturing news and opinion slanted to one-side?
- Is the Wall Street Journal loyal to citizens first or to businesses, especially financial and banking interests?
- Are news outlets like the New York Times verifying facts when they continue to report on the birther movement? Were they verifying facts when they reported on “death panels” or on Iraq’s non-existing nuclear capabilities?
- How many cable news stations were keeping news proportional when they ran hours of news about Charlie Sheen?
- Are news outlets being proportional when they continue to cover Donald Trump’s alleged presidential bid and his screeds on Obama’s birth certificate and invading Libya for oil? Even when his own TV network releases a statement that they believe his run is a publicity stunt?
- Can Time magazine or NBC-News (and many other national news outlets) really be independent monitors when they are owned by global corporations (Time Warner and General Electric respectively)? Time magazine is notable for publishing cover stories on movies released by Time Warner’s film division.
So here is the question: What does journalism mean in 2011? Does the business of journalism now overshadow the principles of it? Do the principles of journalism even apply anymore in a minute-by-minute news culture? And do you think it matters?
Wikipedia entry on Peter Finley Dunn
Poynter’s guiding principals of journalism
Pew Research’s 2011 “State of the News Media” report