A Fine Critique, but What’s the Solution?
The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect
By Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel
208 pages; $20.00
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (email@example.com), AJR's senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
This is a book about the finest ideals of journalism, but it could leave you concerned about the possible death of journalism.
Could journalism really die?
Certainly news will never die. The desire to be in-the-know is eternal. But journalism is more than a raw news report, and for that reason it may be vulnerable.
Journalism is information produced and distributed in the public interest. As "The Elements of Journalism" makes clear, holding fast to this public service ideal is an embattled enterprise these days, its fate less secure than we might prefer. Selling information will always be profitable, but the market value of social service journalism isn't as clear.
Not that "The Elements of Journalism" is hysterical. It is neither shrill nor fatalistic. Its tone, in fact, is the opposite. It is a quietly elegant, positive and authoritative reassessment of what constitutes outstanding journalism.
The book, written by two respected news veterans affiliated with the Committee of Concerned Journalists, derives from two years of study including 21 public forums attended by 3,000 people, more than 100 lengthy interviews with journalists, advice from scholars and historians, and nearly a dozen content studies of reporting.
The result is what Kovach and Rosenstiel call "a description of the theory and culture of journalism....that society expects journalists to apply."
In lucid and direct language, the authors assert that journalism's true purpose is "to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing," and they identify nine principles to follow.
They spend a chapter developing and illustrating each characteristic. For this service alone, the book should become essential reading for journalism professionals and students and for the citizens they aim to serve.
But it becomes painfully apparent, as this ideal is being described, that an alignment of powerful forces is pushing today's media away from its realization. Among the usual impediments identified here are the news-as-entertainment syndrome, the loss of connection between journalists and their communities, and the double-edged role of technology. The chief culprit they name, as many others have before them, is the conglomeratization of the news media.
"The profession may face its greatest threat yet," they write. "We are seeing for the first time the rise of a market-based journalism increasingly divorced from the idea of civic responsibility."
It is hardly news that in the long-standing tiff between profit and public service, profit has gained a stranglehold. But Kovach and Rosenstiel shrewdly do not dwell on the whining. They place the issue in a much larger cultural and historical perspective--to remind us what journalism should be, to spell out how it should work, and to make a muscular case for why it is essential.
Here are the nine elements they identify:
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. Its practitioners must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
8. Its practitioners must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.
Kovach and Rosenstiel's essays on each point are concise gems, filled with insights worthy of becoming axiomatic.
On truth and accuracy: "In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism.... Entertainment--and its cousin 'infotainment'--focuses on what is most diverting.... Journalism alone is focused first on getting what happened down right."
On neutrality: "Being impartial or neutral is not a core principle of journalism.... [T]he critical step...is not neutrality but independence."
In the end, maybe journalism is about character, but at the moment, as this book reminds us, it seems to be about money. In a chapter ungrammatically called "Who Journalists Work For," Kovach and Rosenstiel complain that newsroom executives' pay and allegiances are increasingly harnessed to business goals and interests.
At this point, however, the book bumps up against the all-important issue of how to reverse journalism's skid toward over-commercialization. In the entire chapter contending that journalists owe loyalty first toward citizens, the book has almost nothing to say about how to sell this creed to Wall Street, to bottom-line-watching publishers or to the nonjournalists who now dominate media conglomerates.
Once again, we have a splendid book by major-league thinkers that proclaims principles from the pulpit without much of an action plan for achieving them.
It is a little hard to blame the authors for failing to solve a problem this tough. Public service is tricky to quantify. In a world where we have let loose the pernicious notion that so-called fiduciary responsibility should trump old-fashioned virtues like duty and the public interest, it is difficult to know where to begin the counterattack.
So, this book is heartfelt and convincing, eloquent and accessible, but also frustrating. It is almost as if the authors have won us over to their concept of journalistic excellence and then told us it is located on the planet Pluto. All we need to do is figure out how to go there and retrieve it.###