Journalism and the Difference Quotient

Response to “What is Journalism For?”

Last week we read excerpts from the book “The Elements of Journalism” by Kovach and Rosenstiel in which they posed the important and timely question: “What is Journalism For?”

For Kovach and Rosenstiel, journalism is a timeless function of our human instinct to know about the world around us – what they call “The Awareness Instinct”. According to uncited anthropologists, pretty much all people around the world share the same definition of news and news values. They trace the history of journalism from publick houses in England to its present day and assert that its purpose has remained essentially unchanged across that time until this particular moment of crisis. What is that purpose? What is journalism for? They answer:

The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing. – p 12

The journalism described in the essay is high-minded and has everything to do with good moral things like justice and democracy and nothing to do with bad evil things like propaganda, nation-building, scapegoating, war-mongering and hate-building (all things I would claim that the media in a democratic society also do). This journalism is an abstracted ideal that the authors attempt to naturalize with links to supposedly inherent human instincts and to strip of its specific cultural and historical manifestations by claiming that it has been ever the same across all time and space until this particular moment of corporatism. I became less irritated by this essay once I stopped thinking of it as a bad historical or descriptive account and started thinking about it as a defensive manifesto for a field in crisis trying to justify its existence.

As a manifesto, it raises valuable questions – What are our ideals for journalism in the 21st century? How linked is journalism to the institutions – newspapers, tv news, their corporations – that produce it – and is journalism’s power directly related to being part of large, powerful organizations that many people see and many people trust? In an increasingly globalized world where the media entities are part of corporate conglomerates can journalism maintain any of its supposed “free press-ness”, it’s ability to report independently on powerful interests? And as the corporations get bigger, the audiences get sliced and diced in ever-smaller niche chunks. As audiences move to a “pull” mode of delivery where we increasingly select which news we wish to be exposed to, how can journalism be an engine of difference versus an echo-chamber for our existing selves?

Ok, so now I’ve diverged into my own questions. But it’s sort of like driving a car versus taking the bus. They accomplish the same purpose but with radically different “difference quotients” – i.e. how much of the world are you exposed to that you don’t already know (and that you might not choose to be exposed to even if you did know?) In a car you are your own little individual car-person. You choose, you turn, you arrive. You are the great consuming last man – comfortable in the power of your consumer choice to determine your destiny. Whereas on the bus, you go the bus’ way. There are probably people who are not your color. There are probably obnoxious people or homeless people or kids doing weird things. You hear little conversations, sit uncomfortably close to strangers, and probably learn more about these people than you ever care to.

But at the same time there’s something to be said for that bus experience, right? There’s something to be said for just smelling other people occasionally.

So, I’m not sure I buy the heroic story of journalism as the timeless bulwark of a democratic society, but I do think that one of the things that should be troubling to us in the whole journalistic crisis is that the difference quotient of our individual lives is being diminished with every shrinking public good, whether that is public transit or public information. And when we see, smell, hear and feel less difference we are less tolerant. And therefore less democratic. When we need to look for everything we want to know we will be entertained and engaged like never before but completely unaware of the many complex worlds that used to sit next to us on the bus.



3 thoughts on “Journalism and the Difference Quotient

  1. I like your coinage of the “difference quotient” to describe the breadth, diversity, and perhaps serendipity of our experiences and news consumption. I know there are news app developers who are thinking about this question of how to create algorithms of serendipity to marry the experience of pull news reading on a smart phone with the out-of-your-control joy of the newspaper’s story bundle. I’m really interested in thinking about interventions similar to the bus that create new public spaces and keep us brushing elbows with difference. Can we do this through digital ritual? Can we make it easy? Curious to hear your ideas.

  2. I agree with you and Erhardt – super interesting topic. I’m meeting with a guy trying to build one of these systems on Sunday at 2pm if you want to join the convo.

    Catherine, I also like how you introduce the (very fair) critique of the piece’s focus on journalism as solving the information deficiency problem, when often it appeals to our emotions, for better or worse. Many news stories excite, motivate, scare, and depress, beyond simply creating the awareness Kovach and Rosenstiel describe.

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