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CJR asks the question: What is journalism for?

From high-school teachers to new-media whiz kids, conservative pundits to liberal wonks, African poets to Google executives, CJR asked dozens of people to answer the question, What is journalism for?, preferably in 100 words or less. You can add your own response in the comments section, and we will round up the best of these and post them in the coming weeks.

Arianna Huffington

Journalism is meant to give people a true sense of their world, so they can participate and have a voice in how their world is structured. Relentless horse-race coverage, obsessive reporting on meaningless polls, prioritizing balance over the truth, and a narrow focus only on what’s not working does not give the public a real sense of what’s going on. Journalism should also shine a light on what is working, so people can act on their innate desire to help their neighbor and make their communities, and their world, a better place.

Arianna Huffington is the chair, president, and editor in chief of Huffington Post Media Group.

Alexander Jutkowitz

In today’s digital age, plenty of people and organizations have the means to share what they know. Journalism happens when someone tells a compelling true story. Period. The practice need not be limited to an elite group of professionals called “journalists,” but those who attempt it must tell great stories and share knowledge. A tongue-in-cheek essay, an infographic that makes a complicated topic instantly accessible, or an in-depth piece of reporting that teaches, inspires, or reveals—all of these things make people smarter and better able to navigate the world. That, in turn, makes societies better.

Alexander Jutkowitz is managing partner of Group SJR and a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers.

Monica Almeida

As a young reporter in 1987, one of my first big assignments was to cover the aftermath of the eviction of artisanal miners in southern Ecuador. Along with a two-man camera crew, I drove four hours and linked up with two guides and several mules. Police were patrolling the main road into the mining community, so the mules were the only way up the hill. After three hours of slow climbing, we arrived at a place called La Playa, where at least 200 miners and their families had been violently evicted the day before to clear land that the government had leased to La Tigrera, a mining company.

There were fresh traces of blood on the ground and bullet holes on the main house’s walls. We could hear children crying, while just a few women stood around, waiting. They had no guns; their only defense was to keep their urine to protect themselves against tear gas if the police returned.

Officially, there were only two men killed, about 50 wounded, and several missing. The police claimed the miners received them with dynamite, but no officers were reported dead. Even now, more than 25 years later, what actually happened is not clear. It has been under investigation by a government truth commission, created in 2007 to investigate human-rights violations allegedly committed during the term of President León Febres-Cordero.

That day I shared the rage, indignation, and grief of those women. At 23, I understood that I had to reveal stories of injustice lest those stories disappear into oblivion and indifference.

Since then I have written many stories, about everything from violent events to white-collar crime. Each one has been a great responsibility and a big challenge. It is not only about being accurate and pursuing the truth; it also is about using words with a purpose. Sometimes that purpose is to give people better information so they can make better choices, sometimes it is to provoke a change in a specific situation, or to defend fundamental liberties, or to stand up for someone or something. Sometimes it is also a matter of not following the agenda set by the powerful, but of telling the stories of people affected by that agenda.

And during these 25 years, I have been threatened in different ways; nothing too grave compared to places where journalists are jailed or killed for doing their jobs. But now, for the first time, I feel that I won’t be able to fulfill my journalistic pledge. A new media law has gone into effect in Ecuador. Under this law I wouldn’t be able to print the story about the miners. The law censors me. Under its terms, stories of crime and corruption will not be reported. Now I have to learn a new meaning of journalism, one that serves the government but not the citizens. Shall I call that journalism?

Monica Almeida is an editor at El Universo, a daily newspaper in
Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Brenda Butler

Journalism is for the people. It is community-centric yet global in perspective. It is to inform and enlighten; to expand the dialogue; to probe and provoke; to stimulate and engage; to show the way or present another way; to open the doors and to uncover wrong; to give the voiceless a megaphone.

Brenda Butler is executive director of Columbia Links, a high-school journalism, news literacy, and leadership program in Chicago for at-risk teens.

Andrew Revkin

On a complicated, fast-forward planet enveloped in information, journalists who thrive will be those who offer news consumers the same sense of trust that a skilled mountain guide provides to climbers after an avalanche. A sure trail cannot be guaranteed, but an honest effort can. Cronkite’s “That’s the way it is” no longer applies. Authority will derive less from an established media brand than through the constant scrutiny of the crowd. Effectiveness and impact may still come sometimes through a competitive scoop, but more often through collaborative networks in which insights flow in many directions.

Andrew Revkin is a science and environmental journalist who writes the Dot Earth blog for The New York Times’ op-ed page.

Michelle Chavez

Remember the days when we relied on the newsboy to give us the latest happenings in town by tossing a tightly rolled bundle of newsprint on our doorstep? I don’t. The newsboy has long since traded in his bike for a mobile device. People today share news updates through social media, forwarding information from a news source or from a friend. News outlets have gone from being the sole providers of content to asking citizens to contribute information that journalists will process and forward back out. Now that anyone can provide “news,” people assume that everyone can play the role of the journalist. But it’s not that easy. In fact, the bombardment of information reinforces the idea that we need journalists now more than ever.

The Internet has made it possible to access news and information quickly, but it also has made it easy to disseminate inaccurate or misleading information. It is more crucial than ever that we be able to distinguish fact from fiction.

That’s where the journalist comes in—and where it becomes clear why the term “journalist” should not be used loosely. News outlets are supposed to provide the “final word,” the most accurate, up-to-date information. This implies that consumers should be able to trust the information they get from journalists. Too often, though, these outlets, in an effort to break news and be the first to report something, sacrifice accuracy in the service of speed. Mistakes, they seem to think, can be corrected later if necessary. Who is there to trust for that “final word” if the news industry plays this speed game? If journalists want to maintain—or regain—the respect and trust of the public, they need to deal with this dilemma.

Michelle Chavez is an incoming freshman at the University of Maryland, majoring in broadcast journalism.

Clark Bell

The same as it ever was. Journalism informs and educates an audience. It adds context and perspective to issues that can be difficult to grasp. It is a tool, a platform, and a forum for truth (and accuracy). It can be practiced in a multilayered professional newsroom or tweeted from the privacy of one’s bedroom. It helps to have an editor. It helps a lot. The best kind of journalism is rooted in research and reporting. It blooms with clear, colorful language. The same as it ever was.

Clark Bell is director of the journalism program at the McCormick Foundation.

Bonnie Warne

Journalists consistently ask probing questions about what is happening and why, and continually seek more places to look and viewpoints to explore. The public relies on them for the information required to make knowledgeable decisions and be effective citizen participants. Within a democracy we disagree, but we negotiate those disagreements together. There will be successes and failures, but we can acknowledge both, knowing that we have ongoing information and, with that information, the ability to renegotiate and try again. We have the freedom to direct and redirect our course. The freedom of journalism is the measure of a people’s freedom. Without journalism’s contributions, we cannot judge and act responsibly as we work together.

Bonnie Warne teaches English at South Fremont High School in St. Anthony, ID.

David Cohn

I often say that journalism is a process, not a product. That process is to collect, filter, and distribute information. In a world where more information is produced in a day than anyone could consume in a lifetime, value has shifted from unearthing information to verifying, curating, contextualizing, interpreting, and manipulating it.

But to what end? We say, idealistically, that journalism is a check against power and corruption. And this is true. But I wonder if that is what journalists are really “for,” or if that is just a positive consequence of something else. If journalism is only for these noble goals, then what is the purpose of journalism that doesn’t check power and expose corruption? The journalistic process still applies, but stories about new businesses, cultural events, even real estate can help a community talk to itself. Whether the community is defined by geography or interest, members of human tribes must communicate to have internal cohesion and to coexist with other tribes. “Social media” is the latest buzzword, but media has always been social. To be a journalist is to collect, filter, and distribute information that serves as social glue for a community.

David Cohn is founding editor of Circa, a startup that is creating “the first born-on-mobile news experience.”

Chris Hayes

Journalism is much more a thing that someone does, than journalist is a thing that someone is. All kinds of people can practice journalism, the way all kinds of people can write novels or build decks. And like those practices (novel writing, deck carpentry), there is a wide range of quality in how people practice journalism. The best journalism is truthful, compelling, furthers our understanding of our world, gives citizens the tools they need to self govern, challenges us to think more clearly and rigorously about the assumptions that guide our understanding of society, and functions to hold people in power to account.

Chris Hayes is editor at large of The Nation and host of Up w/Chris Hayes on MSNBC.

Judy Moore

As a young person, I asked a lot of questions that were followed by my opinions about those questions. My mother nurtured both the asking and the opining by encouraging me to write everything down, which later evolved into my capturing stories with a camera. By the time I got to junior high school, journalism was an obvious fit. But as much as I tried to tell stories as they were, I saw everything through the eyes of an African-American female. Is that journalism?

Growing up in DC during the 1970s and ’80s, the news involving African Americans was rarely positive. Thus I’ve spent my life questioning the validity of bias. Journalism should be a vehicle that disseminates facts and information—and it is. But the reality of who decides what news gets released and how, is plagued with bias.

Very few of my students, most of whom are African American, watch the news. They simply don’t feel that it’s for them. Unfortunately, I can’t say I totally disagree; yet I encourage them to seek out some news daily to ensure they are informed about the world around them. Every year we analyze Soldiers Without Swords, Stanley Nelson’s documentary about the evolution and decline of the black press, which highlights the need for African-Americans to tell their own stories. This sparks strong opinions and connections among my students about the information reported in the news today. While they are very expressive in their poetry, they feel disconnected from journalism.

So what is journalism for? A better question may be who is journalism for?

DC’s public schools are nearly devoid of journalism courses, despite research that shows students who take journalism in high school become better writers and critical thinkers. It was the first course cut from the curriculum at my school in 2009-10. McKinley Tech, it should be noted, was a nationally recognized blue-ribbon school in 2012. Journalism is woven into the mass-media courses that I’ve taught for the past nine years, but it is being squeezed out because the administration considers the content art rather than a necessary technology.

So I continue to ask: Do we want African Americans to be viable voices in our society? Journalism should be about delivering current and factual information for and about the diverse communities it serves, without a bias. But is the absence of bias even possible?

Judy Moore teaches mass media at McKinley Technology High School in Washington, DC.

Peggy Noonan

I’ll start out with the first thing I see in my head when I think of reporters. A reporter is—or was, in my generation at least—someone who as a little boy grew up with distracted parents or, more crucially, a depressed mother.

At the dinner table one day he mentions that last night he saw a funny car parked in front of Mrs. McGillicuddy’s house. His mother comes alive at this, or at least seems interested. “What did the car look like?” Mr. McGillicuddy has been away. That flirt Herman Smith has a ‘58 Chevy.

“A ‘58 Chevy,” says the son. “And it was there this morning,” he adds eagerly, not knowing why this is important but sensing somehow that it is.

“Tell me if you see it again!” says mom, affectionately ruffling his hair.

A reporter is born.

But you asked what a journalist is. My sixth edition (2007) of the Oxford English Dictionary, shorter version, says a journalist is “a person who earns a living by writing for or editing a newspaper or periodical. Also, a reporter for radio or television.”

That sounds a little limited and old-fashioned, though the “earns a living” part is interesting: It implies the journalist spends most of his time committing journalism, which implies he sees it or approaches it as a profession.

My try: A journalist is a person professionally engaged in attempting to gather and publish information on issues of broad public interest. He or she operates in a public forum, such as a newspaper, website, blog, magazine, newsletter, broadcast or cable network. A journalist knows and adheres to the rules and traditions of his profession; he reports within certain guidelines, such as striving for accuracy, playing it straight, not making things up. Ideally, he is familiar with the history and literature of his profession. Journalists are subject to libel and slander laws, and related laws such as those touching on issues of reckless disregard. Journalism is not a free pass. On the other hand, nobody minds if they get some extra protections because we need them and, as a democracy, cannot function without them.

You don’t have to go to journalism school to be a journalist, but it’s certainly not terrible and may not hurt you at all. You may be a gifted natural. But no matter whether you are academically trained or not, you have to be a pro. You have to know the rules. These rules used to be taught, and sometimes with a rough hand, by older editors and reporters. But in the past 10 years they took the buyout. No one has taken their place. No one can. This is a bigger threat to real journalism, and carries with it more unhappy implications for the future, than any new technology.

Peggy Noonan is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and the author of eight books on American politics, history, and culture.

David Sassoon

At its best, journalism is for guarding democracy and guaranteeing its promise of equality and justice. It is for exposing tyranny in order to stop it—tyranny that arises unavoidably in human affairs from the exercise of power, the accumulation of wealth, or the habits of hatred and corruption. How ignorant we would be without the explanatory powers of a free press, how diseased with dark secrets without its antiseptic action! No one could enjoy the duties and privileges of citizenship or be secure in their liberty without it. Isn’t all this obvious?

David Sassoon is the founder and publisher of Inside Climate News, which won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting this year.

Craig Newmark

A while ago I blurted out that “the press is the immune system of democracy.” Maybe I remember civics class too vividly, but that biases me in terms of what I consider the major role of a journalist: to hold the powerful to account. We need government that we can trust, and we need good, trustworthy reporting to make that happen.

Among professionals, trust is built upon a code of behavior. That means a code of ethics, and then, the hard part—some way to hold the professional to account. I’m an outsider, a news consumer, so I can’t say how that should happen, but the country needs news it can trust. We should do better as consumers, listening only to journalists who avow a code of ethics and are accountable to that code.

Craig Newmark is the founder of Craigslist and a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers.

Ira Glass

Journalism is to document and explain what’s going on in the world. The kind of journalism we do at our show also takes as its mission to entertain. On a weekly schedule, we don’t think you have to sacrifice the idealistic, mission-driven parts of the job in order to entertain.

Anyone who’s trying to get at the truth of a situation can be a journalist. It’s not f*cking rocket science. Talk to people, write down or record what they say, use good judgment in picking quotes and evaluating the overall truth of what’s happening. Try to summarize it interestingly for others. A kid can do it.

Ira Glass is the creator and host of This American Life.

Marc Ambinder

Your plane crashes. You tweet a picture of survivors stumbling away. You’ve just become a reporter. You’ve told us what happened. Anyone can be a reporter today. Technology has dissolved the line between newsgatherers and news subjects. All the world’s been deputized.

But journalism belongs several echelons above reporting. It often requires withholding information in the service of understanding it better. Journalists resist the demands imposed on reporters by the marketplace and the audience. They are detectives. They gather reporting. They build cases. When they publish or broadcast, they force us to consider what’s going on and not merely to notice or accept it. Journalism holds powerful interests accountable because its output interrupts lazy, instinctive, and tribalist thinking. The best thing a journalist can hear is, ‘Wait, what?’

The world is a blur. Journalism is a superconductor.

Marc Ambinder is a contributing editor to The Atlantic, The Week, and GQ, and senior contributor to Defense One.

Errol Morris

People say that journalism has radically changed in the last 10 or 20 years; that it has been transformed by the Internet, social media, cellphones, and digital cameras. We have access to more data than ever before—not only existing data but the additional data that we all are constantly producing; there really is data being shared everywhere. But let’s not get confused. There’s a difference between the availability and sharing of data, and journalism.

Abu Ghraib is a perfect example. Technology made the exposure of the Abu Ghraib scandal possible. By 2003-04, small, lightweight, digital cameras had become ubiquitous. It was possible to store hundreds of digital images on CDs and use the Internet to transmit them around the globe. The generals and colonels realized what was happening. They tried to collect the images of abuse and burn them. Burn the CDs; burn the cameras. It was almost comical. They just didn’t understand that things had changed.

But the traditional function of journalism—assessing what is true and what is false—has not changed at all. Just because we live in a sea of information doesn’t mean we no longer need to figure out what the information means. And for that reason, journalism has become more important than ever.

Errol Morris is a filmmaker whose movie, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2004.

Francis Kpatindé

Beyond being a beautiful job, journalism is a state of mind. It is a school of modesty that requires a good general knowledge, openness to others, strong analytical skills, and a real ability to question its own certainties and what may appear to the general public or mandarins as evidence. It is not easy to meet all requirements, especially when there is no way to stand back as a historian and no time for the necessary reflection.

As a result, journalism cannot accommodate just anyone, although it must avoid, for its own survival, becoming a caste. The immediacy and the speed specific to new media will not change those basic requirements. Rigor and accuracy will equally apply to tweets, as well as to stories published by, let’s say, the Senegalese official daily Le Soleil.

Francis Kpatindé is a French-Beninese freelance journalist based in Paris. From 1997 to 2005, he was the Africa Editor for Jeune Afrique, a newsweekly in Paris, and from 2005 to 2011 he served as the West Africa spokesman for the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

Curtiss Clark

In discerning what journalism is for, it is useful to remember that it is an “ism,” a belief system, and not an “ology” that we can study empirically. It is a philosophy that holds that creating an accurate record of events benefits communities and society as a whole by laying the groundwork for informed public discourse.

As with all evolving belief systems, however, there is no settled doctrine or orthodoxy on what journalism is for, and there is evidence of this muddle across all media platforms today. Still, these five journalistic purposes hold true for me:

• Journalism is for the community, serving its needs and interests above all others.

• Journalism is for those navigating change—sometimes devastating change—who are in need of a rudder.

• Journalism is for those who don’t understand the question or the answer.

• Journalism is for the satisfaction of the curious and the vexation of the complacent.

• Journalism is for telling the truth of ourselves, to ourselves.

Curtiss Clark is editor of the Newtown Bee, in Connecticut.

Ben Smith

Journalism now is for what good journalism has always been for: telling people things they didn’t know about the world, answering questions, and telling your readers everything you know and everything you can find out. Online media took a bit of a detour during the “search era” into tricking machines, but now we’re back to informing and delighting humans. And the transparency of the social Web means we can see what questions our readers are asking, and they can tell us what they think of our answers.

Ben Smith is editor in chief of BuzzFeed.

Sebastian Junger

A journalist is someone who is willing to disappoint himself with the truth.

Sebastian Junger is an author and journalist.

Uesugi Takashi

Journalists used to be conceived as mediators between all sorts of dominions and the ‘ordinary mortals,’ the public. The ideal journalist was supposed to be watchdogging the powers that be. However, the real journalist has not always lived up to this ideal. In coverage of the f*ckushima crisis, for instance, it’s difficult to placidly declare that Japanese journalists have stood up for people’s interests. With social media emerged a host of new expression platforms. As in any group or movement, there will be wheat and chaff. Who’s going to separate them? I am afraid the public itself is already at work.

Uesugi Takashi is a journalist, author, and CEO of the Japanese media company No Border.

Michael Mason

The Tulsa World always portrayed Tate Brady, a founder of Tulsa, OK, as an all around nice guy, a ceaseless city booster who died in 1925. According to Brady’s family, all those nasty rumors about the Ku Klux Klan were untrue. But in 2011, a guy named Lee Roy Chapman, who had never done a lick of journalism, went in search of the facts of Tate Brady’s life. The ugly stuff wasn’t online; it was in the New York State Library archives, and hidden away in a few boxes in Norman, OK.

Chapman learned that Brady wasn’t merely in the Klan, but that his violence extended to the whole human race. Brady tortured people, beat them up, and schemed to segregate Tulsa. He helped the Klan earn a powerful foothold in the city. All these facts about Brady had been sitting there for nearly a century, but it took a guy like Chapman to organize them into a story.

This Land Press published Chapman’s “The Nightmare of Dreamland: Tate Brady and the Battle for Greenwood,” in September 2011. Tulsans had been saying the name Brady a thousand times a day, when they suggested meeting in the Brady District, or going home to Brady Heights, or gathering at the corner of Main and Brady. Now, thanks to Chapman’s journalism, they know that the Brady name is synonymous with violence, racism, and intolerance.

The World, Tulsa’s paper of record, reported for years on the story of Tate Brady. But it only reported; it didn’t question or investigate. The World would probably argue that it conducted journalism; I’d agree, only I’d give it a failing grade. Here’s the kicker: Chapman had never published an article in his life. He explored Tulsa’s history as a hobby. Should he be allowed to call himself a journalist, or to say he conducted journalism?

f*ck, yes. The act of journalism doesn’t require a career. It requires a 42-year-old Lee Roy Chapman hunched over a 90-year-old document in the Western History Collection at the University of Oklahoma. And when that act of collection and contextualization gets refined through skill and craftsmanship, journalism takes on even greater qualities. Chapman’s 3,500-word article forced all of Tulsa to address its racial divide. At its height, journalism does not simply displace power or shed new light; it is power and it is light.

Michael Mason is the founder and editor of This Land Press, Oklahoma’s first new-media company.

Richard Gingras

Journalism should keep us honest. Honest to ourselves. Honest to our ideals. Honest to the darker shadows of our world and our culture. Journalism should be the illuminating force within our collective consciousness, the force that challenges our widely held assumptions and presumptions. To do this effectively journalism must be about individual journalists giving us their wisest take on any situation or issue, without awkward and self-defeating notions of false balance. Let the sum total of the large conversation find its own level and balance, not in the contorted expressions of a journalist to surface the binary, both sides, in a rich, multifaceted world.

Richard Gingras is senior director of news and social products at Google.

Jesselyn Radack

My mom worked for Kitty Graham. I grew up believing that journalism meant Woodward-and-Bernstein-style ferreting out of government wrongdoing, exposing misguided and sometimes illegal policies, and cutting through doublespeak and disinformation. That ethos inspired my representation of whistleblowers, the modern-day Deep Throats.

Unfortunately, since 9/11, the majority of the mainstream media have served, at best, as stenographers, and at worst, as propagandists—especially in the national security arena. Just as troubling, journalism’s overdependence and often-exclusive reliance on anonymous government officials delegitimizes stories and turns reporters into government mouthpieces. This led to the national press’ failure to scrutinize US intelligence on Iraq’s weapons capabilities, the predicate for starting a war. As a whistleblower attorney, there are fewer than 10 reporters in this country to whom I will take client stories.

This journalistic subservience dovetails with an unprecedented, one-sided crackdown on “unauthorized leaks,” which more often than not are whistleblower disclosures. Rather than the usual retaliation of demotion or termination, the Obama administration is prosecuting former public servants for revealing some of the biggest scandals of the Bush administration—torture and secret domestic surveillance—and is doing so under the draconian Espionage Act, a law meant to go after spies, not whistleblowers. Reporters have seemed mostly unconcerned that this chills speech and could dry up their sources. Over the past three years, I have warned in vain that President Obama’s war on whistleblowers is just as much a war on journalists, whose identities litter every single indictment. Most journalists refused to consider these possibilities until it became public that the government secretly subpoenaed Associated Press phone records and obtained a search warrant for Fox reporter James Rosen’s private emails—both in connection with “leak” cases.

I am heartened that the press, which has far greater institutional power than a single whistleblower, strenuously pushed back. But despite new, stricter guidelines from the Justice Department that supposedly shield reporters from being prosecuted for simply doing their jobs, Attorney General Eric Holder did not withdraw his subpoena of New York Times reporter James Risen to reveal a confidential source. This resulted in a disastrous appeals court ruling that eviscerates, in one judge’s words, the “freedom of the press [that] is one of our Constitution’s most important and salutary contributions to human history.”

I hope journalism finds its way back to its First-Amendment function of informing the people about the activities of their government and fostering open discussion and debate—a critical element of public oversight. Keeping the government’s secrets does not protect national security and our uniquely “American” way of life. A free, rigorous, questioning, and independent press is what is indispensable to the informed public debate that lies at the heart of a democracy.

Jesselyn Radack is national security and human rights director for the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit that defends public and private whistleblowers.

Michael Oreskes

Journalism is a way of thinking. It is a system for gathering and distributing information that rests on the faith that, as John Adams put it, facts are stubborn things. For journalism, authenticating facts and presenting them in a transparent, reliable, and coherent way is an end in itself. We report; society decides. What makes someone a journalist? Above all is a commitment to the integrity of facts, without fear or favor. If the outcome is more important to you than the facts, you are an advocate but not a journalist (you can be an advocacy journalist, or an editorial writer, by adhering to the facts while urging an outcome). In pursuit of the facts, journalists risk their lives in dangerous places and their careers in confrontations with the powerful. They do it because they believe their work is a service to society.

Michael Oreskes is senior managing editor of The Associated Press, and a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers.

Chris Hughes

When done right, journalism deepens our understanding of the world and educates us as people and citizens. It tells stories of the epic and the everyday in a way that cultivates empathy and galvanizes us to action.

Chris Hughes is a co-founder of Facebook, and is editor in chief and publisher of The New Republic.

Tolu Ogunlesi

Once upon a time journalists were gatekeepers, controlling and often monopolizing access to news and newsmakers. The Internet and social media have now broken the walls in so many places. To be a journalist today, one must understand how much things have changed.

Where once people consumed whatever they were given, they now have to be given what they would like to consume. The attention once paid to imperially deciding what is news and what isn’t must therefore now be devoted to understanding audiences and their needs: for the dots to be connected in a world overloaded with information; and for ‘news’ to be packaged for communal, not individual, consumption.

And yet this is not about pandering to keypad-wielding mobs. To be a journalist today, one must understand how much things haven’t changed. The rules—fairness, balance, scrupulousness, responsibility—ought to remain immutable.

Tolu Ogunlesi is a Nigerian journalist, poet, and author.

Stephen B. Shepard

More than ever, quality journalism is what matters—on whatever platform, using whatever technology, done by anyone who has the ability.

I mean a journalism vital in this era of information overload and media fragmentation. Original stories you wouldn’t think of asking for on Google. Relevant stories that engage communities. Important stories with in-depth reporting, deep understanding—and on our best days something approaching wisdom.

Perhaps our children will get this wisdom delivered on a wireless information appliance implanted in their brains. So be it. But even as the medium changes, the human need for thoughtful journalism in a free society will never go away.

Stephen B. Shepard is a former editor in chief of Businessweek, and the founding dean of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Wenxin Fan

I am a firm believer that every person can be a journalist. Who has never once told an accurate story? But obviously, not everyone is a journalist. The value of journalism is equal to the cost of achieving that accuracy in the sea of information. Not everyone has the time, resources, and willingness to find original sources or run fact-checks. Journalism is therefore the quality control for information. What happens on social media can only be called journalism when those practices and values become standard on Twitter and Facebook.

Wenxin Fan is a reporter with Bloomberg News in Shanghai.

Matt Welch

Want to circumvent, at long bloody last, the tedious, multidecade debate over who is and isn’t a journalist? Repeat after me: Journalism is an activity, not a profession. It may be a calling for many of us, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a legitimate side-hobby for many millions more, including (shudder) those who don’t share our basic set of sourcing traditions or political assumptions. Journalism is writing headlines and ledes, sharing photographs and jokes, discussing politics, advancing conversations, providing eyewitness testimony and independent verification. We’re lucky to live in a time when so many are doing what we love.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason.

Chris Miller

The job of a journalist is to present accurate information to the public about events that are believed to be in said public’s interest. The word journalism carries a certain weight that I equate with integrity. This weight includes the work that has been done to research the facts in such a way that, when reviewed by the public, can be counted on to be the truth, or the beginning of a road that should lead us to truth. This is a high bar, as “truth” can have its own versions, depending on the subjective nature and context each individual brings to information.

This is why a great deal of the public has been drawn to “pundit journalism,” which echoes in a loop between pundit-journalists and their audience. This feedback loop serves all parties on its surface by reinforcing entrenched ideas for a specific audience and its specific “news provider.”

But is there an audience that wishes to have its worldview challenged consistently, and a support structure for journalists to deliver the kinds of provocative, fact-based stories that do that?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then we must first accept that there is more than one version of the truth. A soundbite we often hear is, “You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.” At face value, this seems obvious. But though many of us would like to believe that the definition of facts and truth are absolute, they are not.

If we accept this as fact, it is likely to lead to the most effective journalism: deeply researched stories that come as close to the truth of an event as possible, delivered through a point of view. This is similar to the greatest works of literature or film, which have moved society to think of the world differently by finding creative ways to tell stories that certain audiences thought of as absolute in their facts or feelings, but came away from those stories feeling very differently about the same facts and feelings. The best we can hope to accomplish is to provoke an audience to thought, within their own world and at their own speed.

Chris Miller is a filmmaker. He was the executive producer of Undefeated, which won the Academy Award in 2012 for Best Documentary.

Michael Stoll

When my news organization applied for nonprofit status three years ago, we hewed closely to the suggested legalistic description of our purpose: “To promote the instruction of the public on subjects useful to the individual and beneficial to the community.” While newsrooms might sound silly bending their mission statements to conform to IRS rules, the agency would be wise to include “journalism” as a synonym for “education,” which qualifies for tax exemption. New nonprofit organizations doing investigative and accountability reporting should be encouraged to assume the community’s public-education role, as the shrinking commercial press strays into sensation and entertainment.

Michael Stoll is executive director of the San Francisco Public Press.

Nat Hentoff

There have been times in our history when the purpose of journalism was to inform the citizenry of the urgent need to act before we were no longer a self-governing republic. The first example was in 1798, when President John Adams led Congress to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts. Awakened by the press to this turning of the First Amendment upside down, the new Americans denied Adams his second term as president.

But never before in our history than right now have the media been more needed to keep demonstrating to Americans how close we are to losing our most fundamental individual liberties to the Obama administration, which ceaselessly ignores the quintessential separation of powers. In the July 12 New York Times, Randy Barnett, a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University, underscored Obama’s abuse of “the fundamental constitutional principle that the sovereign people must be the ultimate external judge of their servants’ conduct in office . . .

“Congress and the courts must put a stop to . . . these surveillance programs [and] danger . . . to the rights retained by the people.”

But how can this happen unless journalists persistently stay on this story and reveal the mounting un-American facts that demand that We the People seize accountability and restore the Constitution?

Nat Hentoff is a journalist, novelist, historian, music critic, and civil libertarian. He writes about jazz for The Wall Street Journal.

Yasemin Çongar

A journalist is first and foremost a questioner. We ask. That’s the most important thing we do. Before all the highbrow analysis, instant commentary, or in-depth reviews, there are simple, straightforward, spontaneous, sometimes unashamedly naïve, and often-mundane questions.

For a journalist, questions should come before answers, for it is only by asking that we dig deep into the shining surfaces of the well-manicured, ready-to-print statements we are so often presented.

Everyone wonders. Everyone suspects. Everyone believes there is more. But not everyone is in a position to ask. Journalists are. It is our job to give voice to the silent questions that breed in the minds of everyone. Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? These are magical words. They have been a journalist’s best tools for centuries, and they still are in the digital age.

Yasemin Congar was a founding deputy editor in chief of Taraf, a crusading Turkish newspaper. She now lives in Istanbul and writes for T24 and Al-Monitor.

Sid Bedingfield

Digital production and networked communication allow anyone to create content and disseminate it widely. In this environment, we should consider journalism as an approach to content creation. Those who employ the journalistic approach strive to produce content that helps users understand and navigate their communities. This approach is characterized by rigorous research and verification, the fair presentation of competing ideas, and a commitment to independent inquiry that follows the facts, challenges the facile, and engages with complexity and ambiguity. The journalistic approach is not limited to those who identify as journalists. It is the act of informing and enlightening that defines content as journalism, not the actor who created it.

Sid Bedingfield is visiting professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

John R. MacArthur

I hesitate to say that journalism is for fun, since hardly anyone doing it is having fun anymore. Nevertheless, I find few things in life more enjoyable than rocking the boat to the water line—when one of my stories or columns provokes outrage in powerful people. Unpaid blogging has taken a lot of the fun out of our trade, so I will add the caveat that journalism should also be remunerative. Only then will there be enough serious journalists—not just journalists who take themselves too seriously—to properly inform a public starved for authentic revelation.

John R. MacArthur is president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine.

Carroll Bogert

A journalist in India once told me that, ‘Here in my country, we can name, but we cannot shame.’ If that were really true, why did he bother going to work in the morning? It sounded like the definition of journalism not achieving its purpose. People who hold power will be tempted to abuse it, and generally what prevents them from doing so is the fear of exposure and disgrace. Embedded in the purpose of journalism is its craft: strong stories, well-told, that make people pay attention. Otherwise, it’s just another tree falling at the printing plant.

Carroll Bogert is deputy executive director for external relations at Human Rights Watch.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.

Who, what, when, where, why, and how (2024)
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