By Jan Schaffer
Pew Center for Civic Journalism
Knight Journalism Fellows Reunion
June 20, 1997
Is it still possible to do good journalism amid these seismic
upheavals? I think yes. But not by maintaining the status quo.
Furthermore, I suggest that the status quo is not very good journalism
and not deserving of the hand-wringing going on these days in
a lot of newsrooms.
I've had the chance in the last couple of years to step back from
the grind of putting out daily sections of The Philadelphia Inquirer,
to step back from the small screen of my computer and look at
our profession on a big screen.
I've also again and again found myself "on the other side"
of the news -- as the subject of stories -- and the level of sloppiness
and inaccuracy I've encountered has been a sobering, distressing
experience. I would recommend a tour "on the other side"
to every journalist. It's an eye-opener.
I've come to the conclusion that while, sure, there is some excellent
journalism out there --- not all of it is good. In fact, a fair
amount is quite broken. And this brokenness is increasingly being
documented: 56% of the American public think the press is often
inaccurate -- and in my experience I have to agree.
And they think television is more accurate than newspapers. They
think the media is biased, opinionated, sensationalistic. They
think we emphasize bad news too much and we intrude too much on
the privacy of others. This all comes from very recent surveys
by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Who did the public blame for the Richard Jewell case? The law
enforcement folks who leaked it? Nope, the media that reported
it. Who did the public blame for the Dallas Cowboys rape allegations?
The police? Nope, the media.
In fact, it's so broken that Steve Brill, creator of The American
Lawyer magazine, is seeking venture funding for a clone, a magazine
that will take arrogant, lousy journalists to task just like its
counterpart did to lawyers. Imagine someone who actually sees
mass-market potential in a publication that bashes journalists.
For many of our
colleagues, it will be like the Great Adventure waterslide: One day,
they're at the top of the celebrity ladder; the next day they're doused at
the bottom of the pool.
Can we still do good journalism? I would ask
by whose measure?
- By what other journalists think is good
journalism? A scoop, an incremental advance, some cosmic investigative
- By what public officials think is good journalism --
because it adopts their spin?
- Or by what our readers think is
good journalism -- because it helps them find their way out of their
confusion, tells them something they didn't know, gives them information
they need to play a rolein our democratic enterprise? Readers, after all,
are -- or should be -- our primary audience.
of a weekly paper in Tampa, Fla., recently told me how he struggled to
frame stories about the privatization of a local public hospital. He said
the St. Pete Times and the Tampa Trib were all doing articles
about winners and losers, but he found that a discussion group of citizens
scratching their heads over much more basic issues. Such as what does it
mean to privatize a hospital that no long receives public funds? Would the
new entity still care for the community's needy? And what were the options
to privatization? For the first time, he said, he felt assured of what he
should be covering.
If we keep going down the current path, I don't
think good journalism will result. And corporate bean counters and the
Internet will not be all to blame. Journalism needs to change -- and I've
come to learn that change freaks journalists out -- even change that seeks
to get them back to their core values.
What are some of the changes I
think are needed?
The goal of all of this is to build a better product: One that meets today's
information needs, that will stand the test of time and that the public can
rely on. These are the challenges that the rest of the business world faces
every day -- so perhaps the guidance of some corporate moguls might be useful.
I think it's time to stop pointing our fingers at Walt Disney or Westinghouse,
at Bill Gates or Bell Atlantic. I think it's time to stop whining and hitch up
our pants and get about the business of improving our business.
Change is all around us. The bottom line is that we have to change too,
or we will be as dead as every other institution that refused to change
in the middle of change.
- We need to figure out not how to give
readers what they want, but to give them what they need. And we should not
assume that we automatically know what that is by virtue of holding a title
- We need to listen to our readers -- and viewers -- not
to pander to them, but to figure out what's missing and how to engage them.
It means listening, instead of interviewing. Having conversations instead
of grilling them.
- We need to break out of the conventional
wisdoms that are currently straitjacketing so much of our coverage. Is it
possible for us to write a story about PBS without assuming everything it
does is mired in its funding status? Or closer to home, to write about
civic journalism without falling into a four-year-old convention of calling
it "controversial" and framing it as a debate, pro and con/ Will a
reporter think of it or an editor allow it?
- We need to open
up our news coverage: To appreciate and do the legwork to show that there
are more than two sides to most stories. And to convey to our readers that
truth may be a plural -- not a singular -- word, depending on the point of
view. Again, the Tampa example comes to mind. Sure hospital board members
were pitted against citizens. But there was a whole group of African
Americans who had yet other issues, namely broken promises.
- We need to get back to some basics. Consider that competitive
pressures have long caused some of our most respected newspapers to give up
the two-source rule of attribution and to require that comment and
responses be !--#include virtuald in the same news cycle as the original allegation
- We need to change our recruiting practices and bring
new types of people into our newsrooms.
- We need
entrepreneurs and risk takers -- who will find new groups of news consumers
and develop the products to meet their needs. Who will break out of the
box and enter joint ventures with local magnet schools or religious groups
who may fulfill a journalistic function -- if we guide and train them.
- We need to let go of our words -- and, yes, this hurts some.
But I think we need to hire fewer wordsmiths wed to long narrative stories.
We need to include in the mix some other kinds of information purveyors --
people who can tell readers about issues in quick charts and grids --
just as ably and as beautifully as a well-crafted story. And for our writers,
we need to develop some new writing styles that will better synthesize complex
webs of concerns, abandon less useful anecdotal leads (there is no "everyman"
any more), and respond creatively to space constraints with serializations or
other new ideas.
- And we need a new cadre of leaders -- people willing to experiment
and improvise. People willing to let go of an inverted pyramid that was
invented in the Civil War. People who are not going to keep looking over
their shoulders and wonder what their buddies at ASNE will say -- but will
have the courage of their convictions to carry on.