A little chaos can be a good thing

Posted on November 02, 2010 by Janet Coats

At the Online News Association conference in Washington, I was struck once again by just how much chaos there is in the journalism world right now.

Over and over, I listened to people have that moment of discovery: “You’re working on that? I’m working on that idea, too! We need to talk.’’

When I was first doing research for The Patterson Foundation about the state of journalism innovation, this was the theme I heard over and over again. I began calling it “the fog of war.’’ There is so much change in the air, so much need and opportunity, so many innovators trying to rise to that challenge. As traditional structures have morphed, diminished or just fallen apart, its become increasingly difficult to see just what is going on.

I had thought that a shame. Think of how much momentum could be gained if we could share the work of innovators across all the different silos of modern journalism.

Now, I’m not so sure it’s a bad thing.

I’m beginning to understand – and appreciate – that journalism is not one large network of people working toward a common goal. I’m beginning to understand that there are many networks, in various stages of maturity, that are taking shape.

Some day, those networks may link together more efficiently to learn from each other and develop a common state of practice across shared values and goals.

Or they may not. And that’s ok, too.  Not only is it ok, but it is part of the better tradition of journalism.

Journalists have always shied away from the idea of strong association among themselves. There’s a reason most journalists will tell you they are engaged in a craft, not a profession. A profession has a common code of conduct. A profession has a board that establishes standards and metes out punishment to those practitioners who fall short of that standard.

Journalism doesn’t have that. Sure, there are ethical guidelines promulgated by the Society of Professional Journalists and others, and most people who consider themselves journalists would nod in agreement to at least parts of those. But at core, the ethical underpinnings of journalism are something that evolve for each practitioner. I know as an editor, I made difficult choices based on my sense of ethics and my understanding of the broader ethics of my field, only to have other editors I thoroughly respected completely disagree with my reasoning.

We live in times of great change, when we’re struggling with the role of journalism, the role of communities in journalism, the place of opinion and voice, the idea that “just the facts, ma’am’’ ignores the meaning those facts have for different communities.

So while it might be efficient, it might create momentum for some better practices, if we all linked together to work those issues through, that’s an impractical thought – and probably something not to be wished for anyway. The complexity, the very messiness, of how journalism is changing is part of the joy of it. It’s not a time for sanding off the edges and yearning for conformity. It’s a time to embrace the roughness and marvel at the vibrance that comes out of what can look like nothing but chaos.

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