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Media Shapes Reality: The Purpose of Journalism | Notes on Ch. 1 of "The Elements of Journalism"

Profile picture of Samson ZhangSamson Zhang
May 24, 2021Last updated May 24, 202114 min read

In June 1997, 25 of the top journalists, authors, and television and radio executives gathered at the Harvard Faculty Club. "The digital age was only beginning, but the journalists gathered that day already thought something was seriously wrong with their profession," Chapter 1 of The Elements of Journalism recounts.

There was a growing public distrust: in 1999, only 45% of Americans believed the press protected democracy; by 2011, 42% would believe the press hurt democracy instead of helping, and only 15% would believe that the press was independent. Journalists themselves were skeptical about the publications in which they worked, too: "In the newsroom we no longer talk about journalism," Maxwell King, the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, shared at the 1997 meeting. "We are consumed with business pressure and the bottom line," another editor added.

This wasn't because the public valued professional journalism less. 67% of the public prefers getting news from sources with no political point of view, a number which grows to 79% regarding online news, according to a 2008 Pew Research Center report (The Elements of Journalism cite similar 64% and 74% figures). Rather, journalists weren't living up to the standards expected of them, and lacked clarity on what these standards even were.

To remedy this, former New York Times Washington bureau chief Bill Kovach and American Press Institute Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel founded the Committee of Concerned Journalists following the 1997 meeting they attended. The goal of the committee was to identify what exactly made journalism distinct and valuable, and how to restore the profession to a point of effectively fulfilling its purpose. Four years after the meeting, Kovach and Rosenstiel published the first edition of The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, containing their findings.

Two updated editions have been published since, the most recent in 2014, with additions about the role of social media and internet news. Recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists, Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, and various organizations, the book was finally recommended to me by fellow journalist-techie Lauren Huttner.

The book contains a rigorous, insightful, principles-up analysis of what journalism is, and why it matters. It's the kind of understanding I've been trying to piece together on my own, so I was delighted by this book as soon as I began reading. As I did while reading Lenin, I'll be writing notes on the foundational ideas I'm reading here, chapter-by-chapter.

"What is journalism for?" asks the first chapter, laying out theoretical ideas for journalism's power and relationship with the public, and discussing how they've been impacted by commercialization and the digital revolution. The chapter doesn't dive deeply into ideas about the nature of truth or of journalistic practice (later chapters do), rather providing a high-level overview of journalism and at times media in general.

Media defines reality

News has existed in a relatively common form "throughout history and across cultures," Kovach and Rosenstiel quote historian Mitchell Stephens as writing.

Kovach and Rosenstiel argue that this is because news serves a basic, instinctual human need. "People have an intrinsic need...to know what is occurring beyond their own experience, the events over the next hill," they write. "Being aware of events we cannot see for ourselves engenders a sense of security, control, and confidence."

This gives us the fundamental purpose of media broadly, and journalism in particular: to shape individuals' worldviews and understandings of reality. More impactfully, it creates common worldviews at a community level. "The news helps us define our communities. It also helps us create a common language and common knowledge rooted in reality. Journalism also helps identify a community's goals, heroes, and villains."

Journalism is the bedrock of democracy

The implication of the above analysis of the power of journalism is that news controlled by the public lays the foundations for democracy, while news controlled by a specific party enables totalitarian rule.

What does this look like in practice? Kovach and Rosenstiel tell the story of Anna Semborska listening to the comedy show 60 Minutes Per Hour on the radio, which joked about the Communist regime that controlled Poland in 1981. "We felt that if things like these can be said on the radio then we are free," she's quoted saying.

Then, in December 1981, Poland instituted martial law and cracked down on all media and communications in the country. People protested state media by turning off their TVs and walking their dogs, or turning off their TVs and displaying them to the streets. "They were sending a sign to one another and to the government. 'We, too, refuse to watch. We also reject your version of truth,'" Kovach and Rosenstiel describe.

Allowing people to produce news content allows them to shape definitions of reality; thus, one of journalism's most central purposes is to empower democracy and resist totalitarian rule. In Poland, an underground press grew. Polish scholars identified "public opinion" as a new phenomenon, a democratic establishment of reality, which led to the downfall of Communism in Poland and many other countries. "Public opinion was something totalitarian officials could not dictate," Kovach and Rosenstiel write. "At best, they could try to understand it and then manipulate it, not unlike Western democratic politicians. But they would not succeed." (I'm reminded of the role that communist newspapers played in enabling communist revolution in the first place: news about widespread terrible working conditions clarified to workers the reality of class oppression, and empowered them to imagine a better revolutionary, socialist society. Whatever the ultimate outcome, these revolutions started off as democratic movements in which newspapers played the same crucial role as they did in resistance against their creations decades later.)

"Perhaps in the end journalism simply means carrying on and amplifying the conversation of the people themselves," Kovach and Rosenstiel quote Columbia professor James Carey saying. Ultimately, they arrive at Chicago Tribune publisher Jack Fuller's statement: "The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing."

The press is no longer a gatekeeper

Traditionally, journalism served the public by enabling to know things they wouldn't have otherwise. In this sense, the press functioned as a gatekeeper, deciding what to research and share with the public, and what not to.

In today's internet-dominated landscape, there are very few circumstances when the press can still serve as a gatekeeper. If one publication decides not to publish a story, a smaller internet publication or social media account will. Sites of newsworthy happenings, be it a local city council or the White House, are also readily sharing information via their own websites and livestreams.

The role of journalism must thus shift towards interpretation rather than reporting, some argue. "What we need in the new economy and the new communications culture is sense making," Xerox director John Seely Brown is quoted as saying. "We have a desperate need to get some stable points in an increasingly crazy world." Kovach and Rosenstiel call the idea that journalism should abandon the information collection parts of the process and move upstream the "Displacement Theory of News."

Others argue against this displacement, rejecting the validity of internet-gathered information altogether. "The civic labor performed by journalists on the ground cannot be replicated by legions of bloggers sitting hunched over their computer screens," former Executive Editor of the New York Times Bill Keller is quoted as saying in a 2007 lecture.

"Both views go too far," Kovach and Rosenstiel assert. The new information age undoubtedly changes the responsibilities of journalists, but it's dangerous to equate the reporting responsibilities of journalists with the sharing of information from citizens or institutions.

In place of being a simple gatekeeper, Kovach and Rosenstiel name the following tasks of journalists, many of them finding magnified importance in the present internet age:

  • Authenticator: formal journalists have the role of analyzing informal information shared elsewhere, offering commentary on what is true and what is false.

  • Sense maker: journalists have the role of putting events and pieces of information in context. Why does something matter? What are its implications? This requires subjective judgement, and the use of evidence to explain the merit of viewpoints presented.

  • Bear witness: this is the traditional reporting role of journalism, to share information when a journalist is the sole observer of an event. This role is important even if there's an abundance of information already floating around. "Learning the facts of an event is a multidimensional process of discovery -- an official action, event, or revelation, followed by inquiry, reaction, and observation, new questions, then more inquiry," Kovach and Rosenstiel write. There's still a lot of work for journalists to do beyond interpreting the information already out there.

  • Others: curator; forum leader (highlighting certain community voices/discussions), empowerer (sharing voting information, for example), role model, community builder

The internet age has ended journalism's position as a gatekeeper of information, but made more important its other tasks, which range between information gathering and interpretation even more so than before.

Journalists write for an interlocking public

If the news serves the public, what's the nature of the public? This is a judgement that journalists must make as they work. "Journalists have always been engaged in something more important than merely the production of news," Kovach and Rosenstiel write. "Whenever editors lay out a page or website, or reporters decide what angle or element of an event or issue to emphasize and explore, they are guessing at what readers want or need to know based on their personal interaction in daily life. As they do so, they are, however, unconsciously, operating by some theroy of democracy -- some theory of what drives politics, citizenship, and how people make judgements."

In his 1922 book Public Opinion, famous journalist Walter Lippman argued that people are naturally unable to engage with information in such a way to self-govern effectively. "We may have had the freest press imaginable, yet over the last thirty years the number of Americans who could even name their congressman was as low as there out of ten," Kovach and Rosenstiel write. Americans get news primarily from local television, which largely ignores government-related issues, and vote at rates lower than in countries without press freedoms. People don't care to engage with self-governance, and when they do they do so in ways "undermined by human bias, stereotype, inattentiveness, and ignorance." The 20s were a "time of pessimism about democracy," Kovach and Rosenstiel write, with the collapse of democratic governments in Germany and Italy and the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia, and Lippman made the compelling argument that citizens are like "[theatergoers who] arrive in the middle of the third act and leave before the last curtain, staying just long enough to decide who is the hero and who is the villain."

At best, then, the public is a passive audience to the actual workings of government, and at worse a destructive interference, according to Lippman. This view came to shape the last 100 years of journalism, Kovach and Rosenstiel say. Polling has replaced voter interviews, and policy is now presented as sports-like power plays. "Citizens have become an abstraction, something the press talks about but not to."

This view wasn't without opposition, though. Columbia professor John Dewey, and a contemporary of Lippman, argued that democracy is the end goal of government, not a strategy for running it. Democracy is the basic ideal to strive for, a society where each citizen has a say in their governance. If the government that results is ineffective, we should do all we can to improve it; abandoning democracy itself is out of the question.

Kovach and Rosenstiel present their own key counterargument: the "public" is much more complex than a monolithic, passive whole.

They share a piece of print layout advice from editor Dave Burgin: "Imagine...that no more than 15 percent of your readers would want to read any one story on the page. Your job was to make sure each page had a sufficient variety of stories so that every member of the audience would want to read at least one of them." The insight here is that readers aren't just passive or ignorant in general: they're invested in, even expert in, certain issues, and don't care about others. Kovach and Rosenstiel develop this into a "Theory of the Interlocking Public," which they present using three example levels of engagement. For a certain topic, there is an "involved," "interested," and "uninterested" public, they write. This has practical implications for how stories should be written, and what audiences they're written for. "Several editors...noted that they must keep two kinds of readers in mind," Kovach and Rosenstiel quotes New York Times public editor Byron Calame. "One is an expert on whatever subject we are writing about, someone who will read this story no matter what, but who will be judgemental...the other is your basically curious person, but without a lot of time, who is, in my mind, the real challenge. [They] might read the story. But it has to hook them. The game in my mind is: Okay, how do we write this so that it is accurate and has weight, but is still fun to read for someone who really doesn't care about say, college dorms or tutoring?"

Not understanding the nuances of the public, and reducing your readers to either passive audiences a la Lippman or focusing only on the highly engaged "expert elite," are key ways that journalism fails to serve the public and democracy. A contemporary example is discourse about polarization in America. Since coverage of the social movements of the twentieth century, Kovach and Rosenstiel argue, journalists have resorted to generalizations and the extremes as representation rather than a fair assessment of what people actually think. 73% of Americans today support more background checks on gun buying, for example, yet this is framed as a polarizing issue. Social media only exacerbates this. "The mistake we often make is imagining that discourse in social media is somehow more real, or closer to the true public, because it is unmediated," Kovach and Rosenstiel write. "When the Pew Research Center monitored the discourse on Twitter over the course of a year and compared it to scientific samples of the public answering survey questions on the same issues, it found little correlation. The sentiment in social media, rather, tended to be dominated by whatever side was outrated in a given moment."

The new challenges of the traditional purposes of journalism

"Can journalism sustain in the twenty-first century the purpose that forged it in the three and a half centuries that came before?" Kovach and Rosenstiel present this question at the end of Chapter 1.

The past few decades has seen the "economic collapse of news," Kovach and Rosenstiel write. "The crisis facing organized journalism is more fundamentally a revenue problem. Though the audience has migrated to news publishers online, revenue has not."

This presents a threat fundamental to journalism's ability to maintain independence and serve the public. "Only a press free of government censors can tell the truth. In the modern context, that freedom was expanded to include independence from other instituitions as well -- parties, advertisers, businesses, and more," Kovach and Rosenstiel write. In the 1930s, steel and chemical industries bought control of journalism in Europe, preventing it from empowering the public's resistance against facism. Today, journalism's commercialization problems are driving business interests (i.e. Bloomberg Terminal and Bloomberg News) and political causes (i.e. advocacy groups) to become more involved with journalistic institutions, again eroding journalism's ability to serve democracy and the public.

"Can journalism sustain its purpose?" Chapter 1 defines this purpose -- empowering democracy by informing and thus defining the realities of the public -- and the rest of the book purports to answer the question now clearly set up.

On Media and Journalism

Thoughts on news media, new media, and institutional journalism's relationship with society