What, really, is journalism, anyway?

Journalism is not, at its core, a business. The central goal of journalism is to invigorate people “to address issues in a powerful, focused way that shows how ordinary individuals can make a difference” (Denton & Thorson). The preamble to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics (Society of Professional Journalists, 1996) suggests that the journalist has a civic duty to further public enlightenment, justice and democracy by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.

Kovach and Rosenstiel (2001) identify six broad principles of journalistic responsibility to wider society: disinterested pursuit of truth; loyalty to the public; commitment to the rigour of diligent verification; independence from other interests, including employers and subjects; independent monitoring of the powerful few in society; and brokering for public debate, criticism and compromise.

The authors’ position appears to be that the journalist’s primary responsibility is to report factually and impartially on relevant issues and current events. These ideas about the responsibility of journalists are consonant with the underlying philosophy of civic journalism.

However, opinions diverge regarding the role of civic journalism in relation to mainstream journalism. Merritt (1998) posits that civic journalists must set aside some reflexes instilled by mainstream journalism. Such reflexes include conceiving of readers as spectators and not potential participants, and assuming that an attitude of detached objectivity will lead to credibility.

On the other hand, McMasters (1998) argues that journalists must be dispassionate and detached in their coverage of news, and that too much involvement in community issues compromises their professional competence. The disagreement highlights a philosophical divide between a civic and a mainstream conceptualisation of the essential nature of the journalistic enterprise.

In fact, even among proponents of civic journalism, no consensually delineated definition of the term has yet emerged. Since its emergence in the United States of America following the 1988 Presidential Elections, civic journalism has become highly contested as a theory and as a practice (Davis, 2000). Voakes’ (1999) highlights four dimensions and indicators of civic journalism: enterprise, information for decision-making, facilitation of discourse, and attention to citizens’ concerns (p. 759).

Nip (2008) lists six ideas and techniques that are components of civic journalism. His list includes listening to the public to help shape the news agenda, giving ordinary people a voice, and covering stories in a way that facilitates public understanding and stimulates citizen deliberation of the problems behind the stories (p. 180).

According to Rosen (2000), civic journalism involves:

seeing people as citizens rather than spectators…making it easier for people to become engaged in, as well as informed about public life, local culture and politics. Seeing discussion and debate as democratic arts that journalists have a clear interest in strengthening…learning to frame the news in a way that invites people into civic activity and political conversation…reducing the personal and professional costs of an unearned or reflexive cynicism that is strongly rooted in newsroom culture. Finally, reclaiming for trained professionals a stronger civic identity, so that journalists can be better citizens and better journalists for fellow citizens (p. 680).

To define the nature of journalism is to answer the central question of what fundamental responsibility, if any, the journalist has to society. As Klaidman and Beauchamp point out, “We cannot reasonably demand that the press give an account of itself or improve its performance until we determine what it is the press is responsible for doing” (p. 210).

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One thought on “What, really, is journalism, anyway?”

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