Erhardt’s Response to The Elements of Journalism

In working on my response to Kovach and Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism, I read a piece by Ann Marie Lipinski for Nieman Reports drawing parallels between Aaron Swartz and Eugene Patterson, who both happened to pass away around the same time last month. She discussed the comparison with Nicco Mele and recounted his observation concerning the state of the institution of newspapers: “One of the questions raised by the comparison is about the role of editors and journalists in our communities…. Eugene Patterson’s life makes it clear that newspapers were a crucial perch for true leadership—a disappearing perch. And I’m not sure we’ve got any institutions poised to fill that void…. Aaron was, in a sense, the spiritual heir to the crusading editor. How do we encourage more nerds to be like Aaron?”

Mele had earlier cited Swartz’s “moral suasion” as the characteristic which seems to align him with the high principle and high calibre journalist Patterson. This resonated with my current thinking on journalism, which has been to try and reduce journalism down to its basic elements, not unlike Kovach and Rosenstiel attempt to do. What I find is a set of principles and processes, traditionally embodied and practiced by the institutions of the newspaper and the profession, whose members we call journalists. However, I believe these institutions can be separated from the elements of journalism and reconstituted as a civic skill set, exemplified by Swartz at his best, which is to say the pursuit of knowledge, openness, and democracy through principled practice.

In their introduction to The Elements of Journalism Kovach and Rosenstiel argue, “The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” And, “The first task of the new journalist/sense maker […] is to verify what information is reliable and then order it so people can grasp it efficiently.” The authors underline their argument with two theories: journalism should have a theory of democracy and should address the “interlocking public.” When talking about a theory of democracy, they refer to a debate between Walter Lippman and John Dewey over the goal of democracy. According to the authors, Dewey claimed the goal “was not manage public affairs efficiently,” but rather “to allow people to develop to their fullest potential.” Kovach and Rosenstiel suggest that Lippman’s view is still driving journalism today, and resulting in appeals to the elite managers. They imply that a better theory of democracy may be one that fits a broader public looking to actualize.

Their Theory of Interlocking Publics suggests that the audience for journalism comprises a spectrum of expertise and interest in any given story, which could be completely reversed for another story (i.e. the farmer who is interested and expert in agriculture news may be disinterested and novice in healthcare news). Appealing to this interlocked public is the challenge of the journalist in writing their story. If your theory of democracy is Lippman’s than you write for the interested experts, the elite managers. But if it’s Dewey’s, you aim to write a story that appeals to the broadest possible audience: a little something for everyone.

Kovach and Rosenstiel’s main fear is the rise of “market-based journalism,” which is more capitalistic than democratic, and niche rather than appealing to the broader interlocking public. Such journalists respond to the economics of writing this or that content rather than to principle. They cite three factors as contributing to this trend: the nature of new technology to disassociate news from geography and therefore community, conglomeration forcing news businesses to be subsumed and deprioritized by parent companies, and globalizations reducing the variety of news content to appeal across cultures. Certainly when I look at examples like The AOL Way, I agree that this is a considerable source of concern. But as someone who generally enjoys the bit of celebrity drivel or list of cute cat pictures, I’m more concerned about the continued concentration, and essentially outsourcing, of the principles and practices of journalism, to what’s left of the journalism industry.

I’ve argued before, that the “participation gap” forecasts a new inequality in democratic participation between those that are skilled enough to amplify their voice via new media and engage in emerging political fora online, and those that are not. (Digital literacy divides have been empirically confirmed since then.) The perspective that Kovach and Rosenstiel maintain is that journalism is something that is wrapped up in institutions who produce journalism. While they throw a bone to citizen participation in journalism by allowing for dialogue with the audiences as “an integral part of the story as it evolves,” they fail to realize that the most effective way to “provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing” may be to teach those citizens to be journalists themselves. I’m not advocating here for a techno-utopian vision where everyone is the producer of their own news. Instead, I’m interested in teaching journalism’s principles and practices to youth in the same way we force them to learn how a bill becomes a law in high school civics. Contemporary journalists should be at the heart of this effort. They should be the teachers in the classroom coordinating journalistic learning projects. Our class is a good model for this; as are student newspapers in high schools and colleges across the country. Committing acts of journalism are like committing acts of democracy. Dewey’s theory of democracy is best experienced, as is engagement with a broader (interlocked) public: the communities that Kovach and Rosenstiel feel like we’re losing in a digitized and globalized age.

As Mele observes, we need more nerds like Aaron, who embody the same principles and processes as a credible journalistic institution.

I also believe teaching journalism as a civic skill set not only makes the “audience” better prepared to self-govern, but more likely to appreciate professional journalism when they come across it. It’s simply good for business. I for one still love reading the news.

Dan Gillmor in We the Media suggests that the age of journalism and the professional journalist as the broadcaster and arbiter of truth is over, that participatory media allows for the natural conversation between the journalist and the former audience combine expertise and produce journalism together through dialogue, and pull rather than push. I agree with Gillmor that a new journalism is both possible and necessary in this age but I don’t think we are there yet. In fact, I know we aren’t there yet because I still get (and prefer to get) the majority of my news from traditional journalistic institutions. I subscribe to The Economist because I know I get a quality product filled with international news and tightly edited perspective that I can rely on, even if I don’t always agree with it. The reason why I still rely on news sources like The Economist is because I can count on the established norms of credibility for journalism embodied by the traditional news institution; there is not a good alternative system for determining and establishing credibility or authority from “expert” blogs and social media. Perhaps, I can use the wisdom of the crowds to find technical advice on programming from StackOverflow, the funniest new memes by karma on reddit, or even a quick introduction to the history of Sumo on Wikipedia, but for current events on any given topic I still rely on news organizations.

We need the equivalent of a public avowal of The Elements of Journalism for (citizen) journalists. A good model has been proposed by bloggers like David Weinberger, who prominently links to his “Disclosure Statement.” Web rings used to provide a kind of a referral network to validate sites that were deemed relevant and worthy to be members of the community of circularly linked websites. Which brings us back to the hyperlink, long used as a proxy for credibility online either by simple citation or by creating a directional network graph among webpages that can power measures of influence and validity like Google’s PageRank algorithm. We need another nerd like Aaron to devise a better system.

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About Erhardt

Erhardt Graeff is a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab and MIT Center for Civic Media, studying information flows across mainstream and social media, and exploring technologies that help entrepreneurs from marginalized groups, especially youth, to be greater agents of change. Erhardt is also a founding trustee of The Awesome Foundation, which gives small grants to awesome projects, and a founding member of the Web Ecology Project, a network of social media and internet culture researchers. He holds an MPhil in Modern Society and Global Transformations from the University of Cambridge and B.S. degrees in Information Technology and International Studies from Rochester Institute of Technology.

5 thoughts on “Erhardt’s Response to The Elements of Journalism

  1. You might have seen this, but Aaron Swartz actually did have a proposal for a better system that he outlines in these blog entries- and

    Also, I think your suggestion that we teach kids about journalism in school is great. That will not only help people “commit acts of journalism” and lower barriers to participation, but would give people the understanding necessary to improve the news in the future.

  2. Lots of interesting stuff in here, Erhardt. I’m interested to think about whether the interlocking publics idea survives the encounter with unbundling that Shirky talks about in this week’s readings – if we’re only encountering that which we’re expert and interested in, do we end up having the dissemination of issues and concerns we need. Your idea of pursuing authority metrics beyond PageRank is a rich one and one you should explore at some length… remind me to talk to you about Evgeny Morozov’s work on aggregation before he took on his current perma-critic stance.

  3. I like the examples of specific tools and concrete practices that can help bridge the professional journalism ethics with web norms. I love to see these tools and practices encoded into actual publishing platforms, rather than rely on bloggers like David Weinberger to adopt the noble practice. (So, for example, Flickr prominently allows Creative Commons licensing and search by that criteria, where other sites like Facebook do not.)

  4. You make a compelling case for upholding journalistic principles and standards while extending them to a broader public (notably youth) who are envisioned as legitimate authors and participants in civic discourse rather than simply “the marketed to” or “the audience” or “kids posting weird stuff to their friends”. Perhaps we can think about those principles and standards as the most important legacy of journalism and import some of those values into web creation now.

    The other reason that I think focusing on the educational setting is important (and related back to my post this week on the Difference Quotient) is that in that setting we can structures encounters with difference in a way that is not possible elsewhere in everyday life. You have the power of the “assignment” to request that students explore an area or take a path that they might otherwise never choose and employ a new frame of reference (say, the frame and values of the journalist) while following that path. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this might work in practice.

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