Reinvigorating the public purpose of journalism

January 23, 2017 01:30

By Kevin Benz, RTDNA Contributor

Call it whatever you want — the post-truth era, a post-fact world, a biased fourth estate — journalism is under siege and there is plenty of blame for that to go around.

This is not just an American problem either, this is a worldwide problem. “Journalism with a public purpose is being overwhelmed in a do-it-yourself world of communications that has led to a so-called post-truth movement in which facts and expert opinion are sidelined in public discourse,” says the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) in a new report released this week called “Ethics in the News.”
 
There has been much written about the death of journalism, particularly after the November election, but this new report from EJN is the first to place all of the 2016 events into some context, building a simple if quite concerning narrative reflecting on both the failures — the Trump election, Brexit, fake news, the public re-emergence of hate groups and hate speech, poor coverage of migration — and successes — the Panama Papers— of modern journalism.

“The challenge of the coming years,” according to the report, “will be to reinvigorate the public purpose of journalism and to assist media to reconnect with citizens more effectively. This existential crisis requires, above all, for journalists to recommit to their craft with reporting that reaches out to their audience and listens to what is being said and reports it in context.”
 
I’m not willing to call it a crisis… yet… but there is clearly work to be done as journalism has rarely been under so much pressure from so many sides. As the report suggests, “the crisis outlined here is not just one of professionalism, it is a watershed moment for democracy.”

The report lists 7 specific suggestions for rebuilding the trust and respect journalism once enjoyed:

 
  • To develop practical and sustainable solutions to the funding crisis facing independent journalism.
  • To support the public purpose of journalism through more investment in public service media.
  • To launch campaigns to combat hatred, racism and intolerance.
  • To provide more resources for investigative reporting and ways of promoting minority voices.
  • To encourage attachment to ethical values in the management and governance of journalism.
  • To put pressure on social networks and Internet companies to accept responsibility that as publishers they must monitor their news services.
  • To support expanded media and information literacy programs to make people – including politicians and others in public life – more aware of the need for responsible, tolerant communications.
RTDNASPJ, the Excellence in Journalism conference and other institutions have worked to attack many of these issues but I still hear often from journalists asking for more coaching and training particularly when it comes to issues of covering hate speech, racism, cultural understanding and fairness.
 
Of course that training requires courageous corporate leadership willing to pay for it and success requires a news consumer who cares and understands the value of truth even when that truth stands in opposition their beliefs.
 
Journalism at its best takes facts, places them in context and makes them meaningful to the news consumer — meaningful as in important to their lives. Journalism without importance is frankly a waste of the reader’s time.
 
This takes us to that last bullet point from the EJN report: “To support expanded media and information literacy programs to make people – including politicians and others in public life – more aware of the need for responsible, tolerant communications.”
 
This point has rarely received the kind of attention it needs. Journalism institutions and news organizations need to support, even create expanded media literacy programs for their customers. These programs should aim to develop better-informed citizens and I believe they are the key to helping news consumers become more interested in facts and the truth and be able to discern them from the trash heap that is their information feed today.
 
In my opinion, local news organizations are the best place to begin this kind of news literacy. It is local news that has the most direct contact with the news consumer, and it is the local news that still enjoys some of the highest public trust.
 
Solving the challenges before us cannot be left to governments or policy wonks. The future of journalism lies with those who practice the craft with integrity and respect. Journalism is only as good as those on the ground are willing to make it — great stories that educate, enlighten, and protect the communities served.
 
When we teach young journalists about the importance of “enterprise journalism” we define it simply: journalism that is important, timely and affects our community.
The EJN report spells out a number of times journalism has fallen short of those goals and it offers specific ideas for how journalists can do a better job rooting out fake news, educating the public, handling sources and covering specific issues like immigration. It’s worth the read.
 
“Public trust will only return,” EJN reminds us, ‘when people have confidence that powerful institutions – government, the state, corporate power – are accountable and listening to their concerns. Journalism at its best can do this job.”
 
And a healthy democracy requires journalism at its best.
 
You can find the Ethics Journalism Network report, “Ethics in the News.”


You can follow Kevin Benz journalism blog at i-mediastrategies.com/journalists. A former RTDNA Chairman, Kevin coaches newsrooms in ethical journalism, covering race and culture, enterprise and talent performance.