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What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect - Introduction
June 19, 2006
by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel
As anthropologists began comparing notes on the world's few remaining primitive cultures, they discovered something unexpected. From the most isolated tribal societies in Africa to the most distant islands in the Pacific, people shared essentially the same definition of what is news. They shared the same kind of gossip. They even looked for the same qualities in the messengers they picked to gather and deliver their news. They wanted people who could run swiftly over the next hill, accurately gather information, and engagingly retell it. Historians have pieced together that the same basic news values have held constant through time. "Humans have exchanged a similar mix of news . . . throughout history and across cultures," historian Mitchell Stephens has written.1
How do we explain the mystery of this consistency? The answer, historians and sociologists have concluded, is that news satisfies a basic human impulse. People have an intrinsic need -- an instinct -- to know what is occurring beyond their direct experience.2 Being aware of events we cannot see for ourselves engenders a sense of security, control, and confidence. One writer has called it "a hunger for human awareness."3
One of the first things people do when meeting a friend or acquaintance is share information. "Have you heard about . . . ?" We want to know if they've heard what we have, and if they heard it the same way. There is a thrill in a shared sense of discovery. We form relationships, choose friends, make character judgments, based partly on whether someone reacts to information the same way we do.
When the flow of news is obstructed, "a darkness falls," and anxiety grows.4 The world, in effect, becomes too quiet. We feel alone. John McCain, the U.S. senator from Arizona, writes that in his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, what he missed most was not comfort, food, freedom, or even his family and friends. "The thing I missed most was information -- free uncensored, undistorted, abundant information."5
Call it the Awareness Instinct.
We need news to live our lives, to protect ourselves, bond with each other, identify friends and enemies. Journalism is simply the system societies generate to supply this news. That is why we care about the character of news and journalism we get: they influence the quality of our lives, our thoughts, and our culture. Writer Thomas Cahill, the author of several popular books on the history of religion, has put it this way: you can tell "the worldview of a people . . . the invisible fears and desires . . . in a culture's stories."6
At a moment of revolution in communications, what do the stories we tell say about our worldview, our fears, desires, and values?
This book began on a rainy Saturday in June 1997, when twenty-five journalists gathered at the Harvard Faculty Club. Around the long table sat editors of several of the nation's top newspapers, as well as some of the most influential names in television and radio, several of the top journalism educators, and some of the country's most prominent authors. They were there because they thought something was seriously wrong with their profession. They barely recognized what they considered journalism in much of the work of their colleagues. Instead of serving a larger public interest, they feared, their profession was damaging it.
The public, in turn, increasingly distrusted journalists, even hated them. And it would only get worse. By 1999, just 21% of Americans would think the press cared about people, down from 41% in 1985.7 Only 58% would respect the press's watchdog role, a drop from 67% in 1985. Less than half, just 45%, would think the press protected democracy. That percentage had been nearly ten points higher in 1985.8
What was different that day in Cambridge was that many of the journalists in the room -- and around the country -- were beginning to agree with the public. "In the newsroom we no longer talk about journalism," said Max King, then editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "We are consumed with business pressure and the bottom line," agreed another editor. News was becoming entertainment and entertainment news. Journalists' bonuses were increasingly tied to the company's profit margins, not the quality of their work. Finally, Columbia University professor James Carey offered what many recalled as a summation: "The problem is that you see journalism disappearing inside the larger world of communications. What you yearn to do is recover journalism from that larger world."
Implied in that was something more important. If journalism -- the system by which we get our news -- was being subsumed, what would replace it? Advertising? Entertainment? E-commerce? Propaganda? Some new hybrid of all these? And what would the consequence be?
The answers matter, the group thought, to the public and news-people both. Journalism provides something unique to a culture -- independent, reliable, accurate, and comprehensive information that citizens require to be free. A journalism that is asked to provide something other than that subverts democratic culture. This is what happens when governments control the news, as in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. We're seeing it again in places like Singapore, where news is controlled to encourage capitalism but discourage participation in public life. Something akin to this may be taking root in the United States in a more purely commercial form, as when news outlets owned by larger corporations are used to promote their conglomerate parent's products, to engage in subtle lobbying or corporate rivalry, or are intermingled with advertising to boost profits. The issue isn't just the loss of journalism. At stake is whether, as citizens, we have access to independent information that makes it possible for us to take part in governing ourselves.
The group decided on a plan: engage journalists and the public in a careful examination of what journalism was supposed to be. We set out to answer two questions. If newspeople thought journalism was somehow different from other forms of communication, how was it different? If they thought journalism needed to change but that some core principles needed to endure, what were those principles?
Over the next two years, the group, now calling itself the Committee of Concerned Journalists, organized the most sustained, systematic, and comprehensive examination ever conducted by journalists of news gathering and its responsibilities. We held 21 public forums attended by 3,000 people and involving testimony from more than 300 journalists. We partnered with a team of university researchers who conducted more than a hundred three-and-a-half-hour interviews with journalists about their values. We produced two surveys of journalists about their principles. We held a summit of First Amendment and journalism scholars. With the Project for Excellence in Journalism we produced nearly a dozen content studies of news reporting. We studied the history of those journalists who came before us.
This book is the fruit of that examination. It is not an argument. It is, rather, a description of the theory and culture of journalism that emerged from three years of listening to citizens and journalists, from our empirical studies, and from our reading of the history of the profession as it evolved in the United States.
We learned, among other things, that society expects journalists to apply this theory, and citizens to understand it, though it is seldom studied or clearly articulated. This lack of clarity, for both citizens and newspeople, has weakened journalism and is now weakening democratic society. Unless we can grasp and reclaim the theory of a free press, journalists risk allowing their profession to disappear. In that sense, the crisis of our culture, and our journalism, is a crisis of conviction.
There are, we have distilled from our search, some clear principles that journalists agree on -- and that citizens have a right to expect. They are principles that have ebbed and flowed over time, but they have always in some manner been evident. They are the elements of journalism.
The first among them is that the purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.
To fulfill this task:
Journalism's first obligation is to the truth.
Its first loyalty is to citizens.
Its essence is a discipline of verification.
Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.
Why these nine? Some readers will think items are missing here. Where is fairness? Where is balance? After synthesizing what we learned, it became clear that a number of familiar and even useful ideas -- including fairness and balance -- are too vague to rise to the level of essential elements of the profession. Others may say this list is nothing new. To the contrary, we discovered that many ideas about the elements of journalism are wrapped in myth and misconception. The notion that journalists should be protected by a wall between business and news is one myth. That independence requires journalists be neutral is another. The concept of objectivity has been so mangled it now is usually used to describe the very problem it was conceived to correct.
Nor is this the first moment that the way we get news has gone through momentous transition. It has happened each time there is a period of significant, social, economic, and technological change. It occurred in the 1830s and 1840s with the arrival of the telegraph, in the 1880s with the drop in prices of paper and the influx of immigrants. It occurred again in the 1920s with the invention of radio and the rise of the tabloids and the culture of gossip and celebrity. And it occurred with the invention of television and the arrival of the Cold War.
It is occurring now with the advent of cable followed by the Internet. The collision this time may be more dramatic. For the first time in our history, the news increasingly is produced by companies outside journalism, and this new economic organization is important. We are facing the possibility that independent news will be replaced by self- interested commercialism posing as news. If that occurs, we will lose the press as an independent institution, free to monitor the other powerful forces and institutions in society.
In the new century, one of the most profound questions for democratic society is whether an independent press survives. The answer will depend on whether journalists have the clarity and conviction to articulate what an independent press means, and whether, as citizens, the rest of us care.
This book is intended as a first step in helping journalists articulate those values and helping citizens create a demand for a journalism connected to the principles that spawned the free press in the first place.
1. Mitchell Stephens, History of News: From the Drum to the Satellite (New York: Viking Press, 1988), 34.
2. Harvey Molotch and Marilyn Lester, "News as Purposive Behavior: On the Strategic Use of Routine Events, Accidents and Scandal," American Sociological Review, 39, February 1974, 101-112.
3. Stephens, History of News, 18.
5. John McCain, with Mark Salter, Faith of My Fathers (New York: Random House, 1999), 221.
6. Thomas Cahill, The Gift of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Nan A. Talese/Anchor Books, 1998), 17.
7. Committee of Concerned Journalists (CCJ) and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, "Striking the Balance: Audience Interests, Business Pressures and Journalists' Values" (March 1999), 79.