So what is journalism anyway?

Posted on May 04, 2010 by Janet Coats

As someone who has been in journalism for 25 years, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what it was.

Now, I’m not so sure. Instead of being shaken by that uncertainty, I’m finding it pretty exciting.

For years, I would have argued that being a journalist meant you covered the news for a newspaper or a television station. And the news meant the institutions and beats we covered – city hall, the courts, the school board, the police station.

As my career evolved, I started to understand that covering the news wasn’t enough. Providing context and helping to further understanding were also worthy goals of journalism.

Then in the 1990s, I worked for a visionary editor, Buzz Merritt, in Wichita, Kansas. Buzz argued it wasn’t enough to cover the news, and it wasn’t enough to add context to that news. Buzz wanted to “move beyond the limited mission of telling the news to a broader mission of helping public life go well. When public life is going well, true deliberation occurs and leads to potential solutions’’ to a community’s problems.

From Buzz, I learned that journalists often use what we believe to be journalistic principle (objectivity, impartiality, “fairness’’) as a shield to keep from taking a stake a public life. What we saw as appropriate journalist dispassion, Buzz argued, our communities saw as just flat not caring. That was damaging our credibility, and that would come back to bite us, he believed.

Lots of journalists mocked that idea – that journalism could possibly be about helping a community do better instead of simply documenting what was wrong with it. I’d argue that Buzz had the last, sad laugh in that argument, given what happened to institutional journalism’s credibility with its community in the last decade.

In the last two weeks, I’ve been hanging out with people who are trying to figure out what journalism will look like next. At a seminar at The Poynter Institute this week, faculty member Kelly McBride offered this definition of journalism:

“Journalism is information that helps individuals connect with communities and uphold their civic duties.’’

During a meeting of the Reynolds Fellows at the Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute last week, the conversation pushed beyond that. Is the role of journalism to actively build community? And what does that mean? Is a more activist journalism, one that still presents news and information but also includes a call to action and even enables that action, more relevant?

I’ve been trying to frame in my own mind he question of what makes journalism journalism in a digital, social age, in which news itself is largely a commodity. Here’s how I’m thinking about it now:

The real value of journalism is embedded in journalists who understand the communities they cover so deeply that they know where true expertise lies and then use that expertise to advance both knowledge and action.

What do you think? Can journalists and journalism help build community? What would be at risk if we did that more actively? What would be gained?

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.