What is Journalism?

We are learning what journalism is about, what the distinctions are that journalists have used and continue to use, how these distinctions can orient journalists to a networked future, and how the distinctions can be changed to produce more value.

We have started a wiki as a space for building and refining our work. Please join us in this discussion.

As an important note: We don’t pretend to be journalists and are learning about journalism by reading texts, speaking with journalists, and participating ourselves in citizen journalism. But the knowledge and participation of journalists directly in our work would be very valuable. Our know-how primarily lies in a design discourse that draws from biology, linguistic, and phenomenology. And our social interests lie in Web 2.0, Citizen Media, and other networked communities.


“Truth”: The Purpose of Journalism

I am reading a collection of essay about journalism called: American Journalism: History, Principles, Practices. The first article I read, “The Purposes of Journalism,” was written by Julie Hedgepeth Williams, an assistant professor at Samford University.

At the beginning of the essay she says, “The press had a purpose of publishing the truth. Should the truth be what was literally there? Or should it construct a reality that Americans presumably needed to achieve? The desire to publish truth has been in the press from the start. The basic question in that endeaver, however, is as old as humanity itself. What is truth?” (p 4)

Her story begins in Puritan Massachusetts and shows how the press has shifted between showing the citizens “what is literally there” and “shaping the reality and future” for them. Two examples she gave were:

  1. The era of the “party press”: After the American Revolution, the newly-formed parties hired editors and newspapers to write about “reality as it out to be.” These papers encouraged people to go to the polls and vote for one party over the other.
  2. The “penny press” era: In 1833, papers began printing daily papers for a penny, catered towards poorer individuals. These papers, with famous editors like Horace Greeley and James Gordon Bennett, often ran stories recounting criminal court cases that involved common people accused of drunkeness, theft, etc. This “truth” became part of the selling point for these papers. Williams claims that the notion of objectivity as part of truth arose during this period.

Williams finishes the article saying at the end of the 20th century, traditional media was “firmly convinced that “truth” meant “the world as it is.” (p 12)

My question is what is “the world as it is”? The world is seen through the eyes of an observer and doesn’t exist outside of the language and stories that the observer has to talk about the world. So for a journalist to “see” the world, he/she is already interpreting it. How do journalists deal “objectivity as truth” when there is no “objectivity”?

Tensions in the Checks and Balances

by Coyote Jack on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons License Attribution 2.5I watched Part 1 of Frontline’s News War on PBS a few weeks ago, and I left the show with many new questions. What are the constitutional freedoms and constraints of the government and the press? What values (or wastes) is our current media structure producing? Who are the customers of the media and the government? I would like to share a few highlights of the show with you that opened up these questions in me.

  • The Changing Role of Confidentiality: Tom Rosentiel claimed that before and during Watergate, confidentiality was a tool offered to reluctant sources in order to have them speak. Now, this has changed; often the source imposes confidentiality on the reporter. He uses the example of Deep Throat to show that a case of a reporter urging his source to speak was very different than a high-level politician speaking to a journalist and spinning the journalist under the guise of confidentiality.
  • Confidentiality as an Integral Part of a Journalist’s Role: Leonard Downie Jr. talked about the precept in journalism that a journalist should protect his/her sources at all times. This ethic protects the journalist tradition: if a journalist breaks her promise of confidentiality, that journalist can no longer be trusted by her sources and thus can no longer perform her job.
  • The Branzburg v. Hayes Case and the Rights of a Journalist: Branzburg v. Hayes (in my limited understanding) was a case brought before the Supreme Court asking the question if journalists are protected by the constitution not to testify in criminal cases against their confidential source. The Supreme Court decided they were not . About it, Earl Caldwell said that the First Amendment protects the process of free speech along with free speech itself. James Goodale claimed that the press cannot be the arm of law enforcement because then this group, responsible to showing citizens what is happening in their world, including in the elite sectors of government, business, entertainment, etc., is not able to uncover and show problems as well. Another opinion was given by William Bradford Reynolds, the prosecutor on the case, who said that he understood the principle that journalists held, but that is was also the duty of a citizen to tell the authorities when they know of criminal action happening.
  • Confidentiality as a Structure to Support Important Relationships in Society: Another articulation I found very valuable from this conversation was that certain confidential relationships are protected legally from having to testify against their counterpart: husband & wives, lawyer & client… Confidentiality in these relationships are protected as a way (declared by whom?) to build important societal relationships. Another question I have here is why are journalists not protected under the constitution the same way as lawyers/clients? What is the (legal and other) understanding of journalism in our society? Who declared it as such and what problems/advantages did this bring and is bringing now?

The tension that I see (from this documentary and in our present society) exists between journalists protecting their sources as a way to reveal the major secretive breakdowns in domains of our society and the protection of the citizens against criminal and terrorists acts. When does one practice reach a point where it can be declared that it is harming the values of the country and where is it acceptable?

And as I finish writing all of this, an articulation is coming to me in a visual image. Our country is not an innately “free and democratic” entity but instead is a ever-changing mesh where if you pull on it in one direction, tension increases and other domains shrink. This could happen when one aspect of society increases power, and another loses freedom. This balance seems to me to be very delicate, and as citizens, we should be diligently responsible to watch these tensions and act when they are no longer producing the shape of the country we want to live under.