Imperfect Union

Want to Save Newspapers? Then Journalists Need to Grow Up.

Being America’s Watchdog Is Critical, But It Isn’t the Press’s Most Important Obligation

Newspapers are in trouble. Not just because of the Internet and advertising and subscriptions. But because, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, only 28 percent of Americans think that journalists contribute a lot to society’s well-being.

That’s pretty bad considering that journalists like to consider themselves guardians of democracy. This chasm between vaunted self-regard and dismal public opinion suggests that journalists are out of touch with the public they claim to serve.

In other business enterprises, such public disdain would be a cause for alarm. But newspapers are different. Ethics codes emphasize the importance of journalists keeping their distance from the community—and from the sorts of conflicts of interest that arise from normal human interaction. Criticize journalistic professionalism, and you’re likely to hear a thing or two about the importance of the First Amendment, or my favorite catch-all self-justification: If people are unhappy with us, “we must be doing something right!” Really? Is that the only reason people might be unhappy with you?

Like most Americans, I understand the need for journalists as watchdogs. I absolutely see how vital it is to our democracy to make sure that the powers that be are upholding their sworn civic duty. But the unquestioned primacy of its watchdog duties has given serious journalism an air of self-righteous adolescent rebelliousness and sanctimony.

Veteran journalist James Fallows has written about this phenomenon in more polite terms. By falling “into the habit of portraying public life in America as a race to the bottom,” he wrote in his 1996 book Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, journalists foster greater public cynicism. This cynicism leads to more citizen disengagement, which, ironically, hurts the business of journalism. “If people thought there was no point even in hearing about public affairs—because the politicians were all crooks, because the outcome is always rigged, because ordinary people stood no chance, because everyone in power was looking out for himself—then newspapers and broadcast news operations might as well close up shop … If people have no interest in politics or public life, they have no reason to follow the news.”

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, former dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, has made the same argument. “If you cover the world cynically and assume that everybody is Machiavellian and motivated by their own self-interest, you invite your readers and viewers to reject journalism as a mode of communication because it must be cynical, too.”

I’m less concerned with the fate of journalism than I am with the state of our democracy. If the press is to uphold its self-proclaimed duty to protect our system of governance, it has to envision itself as being more than an elite defender of the public interest removed from the social fabric.

Instead, journalism should fully embrace a more affirmative—and dare I say grown-up—role as the very connector of that fabric, the web of communication that defines the contours of our diverse society. As a practical matter, such a role would make journalism more central to our lives, making it harder to kill off newspapers. But the merits of such a shift go far beyond journalistic self-protection.

Nearly a century ago, philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey reminded us that “a democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.” For democracy to function, he argued, citizens need to understand not only the inner workings of government, but also how our actions and opinions—as well as those of others—play out in society as a whole. In a nation as vast and varied as our own, journalism is the best device we have for introducing our countrymen to their own country.

Today’s journalists rarely refer to themselves as narrators, but that may be their most important societal function. The first newspapers let townsfolk know who their fellow townies were and what they were up to. As journalism shifted from mere organized gossip to art form and profession, it developed ways to give us a sense of community, nationhood, and place without recording the goings-on of every individual citizen.

In 1923, one-time journalist and University of Chicago sociologist Robert E. Park argued that this duty of narration is essential to making democracy work. “If we propose to maintain a democracy as Jefferson conceived it, the newspaper must continue to tell us about ourselves.” That remains true today. Democracy, like journalism, is a conversation among townsfolk magnified to the nth degree.

But these days Americans aren’t talking to one another, let alone exhibiting the civility that allows for the kind of compromise democracy requires. Sure, journalists still tell great stories about our country and its communities. But covering the news isn’t the same thing as making a concerted effort to give voice to our nation’s people and places. Too few Americans see themselves in daily journalism today. The magnificent complexity of our country rarely makes it into the pages of major newspapers.

If hiring statistics are any indication, professional journalism may not even care whether it reflects the nation. For all the talk of the ascension of Dean Baquet as the first black editor of The New York Times, he is part of a small minority of non-whites in U.S. newsrooms. Despite the fact that our country has gone through a major demographic shift over the past generation, the percentage of overall newspaper staffers and supervisors who are non-white has remained unchanged since 1994.

And opportunities for non-journalists to contribute to newspapers are increasingly narrow and meager. The op-ed pages of major newspapers have long since been given away to professional opinion makers, interest groups, and the powerful. The independent bloggers we like to think might rise up to fill this void are highly partisan and write to and for their own particular niche.

If American journalism ever wants to properly reflect the public it serves, it needs to discover new ways to bring regular people into the conversation. I’m not talking about more cheap social media tricks that ask people whether they agree with a court decision or what they plan to do over the long weekend. I’m referring to ongoing efforts to bring real people’s stories—with their conflicts of interest, their messiness, their refusal to be categorized in partisan terms—directly to the public.

The loss of thousands of journalism jobs in recent years has made journalists even more self-obsessed. This concern about the survival of their careers and their outlets is understandable but counter-productive. Journalists don’t look very useful when Americans constantly see them talking amongst themselves about themselves.

If you want to save journalism, make it more reflective of the public it strives to reach. Journalists, look beyond the next website redesign, the new business model. Think about being not just democracy’s watchdog but an active participant in its making.

  • Hard to find a “journalist” today without an agenda. What happened to old-fashioned, hard-nosed, impartial reporters?

    • juepucta

      Agenda has never been the problem. Not even in the glory days of newspaper. Unless you are talking “who, what, where, when, how?” all journalists have a point of view. What you do is try to be fair. Show the other side, as many sides as possible actually. But never confuse opinion with fact.
      You can actually read a paper, and i do, that is diametrically opposed to your views and still get the news – if they do their job right. One might not agree with the analysis and what comes afterward but the news is the news.
      The USian obsession with this mythical impartiality is what makes the current journalism horrible for the most part and why under the guise of “opinion” people spout ignorance and intellectual dishonesty.
      The Washington Post, NY Times, London Times, Guardian, Wall Street Journal, FInancial Times, Le Monde, Corriere De La Sera – have at their best done amazing work while maintaining a clear point fo view. So much so, that you picked up those papers knowing if they leaned left or right, for example.

  • C. David Burak

    Mr. Rodriguez presents an impressive set of reflections, accompanied by what can be described as well reasoned exhortations re: modes of approach to writing which can move journalism forward &, perhaps, establish anew its connections & contributions to the public good.

  • bevanmanson

    Good points. There is some good investigative reporting out there, but the concentration on corruption in high places, unethical behavior in business, negative glitz such as the Sterling fiascos all seem to reinforce cynicism. We are missing a sense of place too often, a sense of ourselves

    . One of the things that can be done is to report more on local culture, local events, and the positive efforts of those who try to create community, local jobs, local improvements.

  • lizmassey68

    Well said, very well said.

  • MiledAnimal

    Americans do have a low opinion of the news media but that has nothing to do with anyone’s perception of journalists as being cynical. It’s because 72% of us see the obvious Leftist bias in most news reports and are weary of the narrative that they keep trying to ram down our collective throat. News sites like Fox, The Drudge Report and Breitbart are increasingly popular because they actually do present both sides of an issue, no matter what their detractors claim.

    Mr. Rodriguez intones that journalists should “reflect the nation” and “be part of the social fabric” and “embrace a more affirmative role as the very connector of the social fabric” and “be more reflective of the public it strives to reach.” The real issue is that the public no longer trusts the mainstream press. Journalists won’t regain that trust until they stop trying to shape public opinion and return to reporting what’s happening and asking the tough questions, even if doing so works against their own political and social views.

    • Robert Anasi

      Fox News is the most duplicitous news agency in the world, with the possible of exception of Russian state media, and I large reason why people don’t trust the media. Don’t believe me? Here’s a study on Fox’s coverage of climate change.
      There are literally hundreds of other examples. Unfortunately, many people think that the truth is whatever supports their prejudices.

    • pointoffact

      Thanks to MiledAnimal for actually demonstrating the problem here, which is people who think that Fox, Drudge, Breitbart etc. are some kind of news organizations.

      They aren’t. They’re pure advocacy groups cloaked in just enough news veneer to fool the really, really gullible.

      Oh well, my grandma used to call the National Enquirer “the newspaper.”

  • Robert Anasi

    Seeing that Mr. Rodriguez took the trouble to write this article, I read it twice before deciding to criticize it. Sadly, a second reading only sustained the sense of empty platitudes and faulty reasoning. Mr. Rodriguez engages in classic ‘blame the messenger’ thinking. Apparently, he has a problem with newspapers focusing on corruption in public life. Should journalists not then have reported on say, Governor Christie’s ‘Bridgegate’ or that bully’s most recent scandal of having the Port Authority overpay by tens of millions for some abandoned industrial property? Americans distrust journalists? Sadly, this is in part due to a politicians who slander the ‘liberal’ media when their hands are caught in the cookie jar and to the onslaught of celebrity coverage that has only one purpose: to sell papers. As to what journalists should do, Mr. Rodriguez only offers vague panaceas like giving ‘a sense of community and nationhood.’ I have no idea what this means, but it seems a short step away from blind flag waving. Increasingly America is becoming a country run by oligarchs and the money they spray over elections. We are not united; we are dominated by rich folks who keep getting richer. The average man doesn’t have much of a chance – his vote really means almost nothing when the Koch brothers can buy a hundred thousand over a weekend. Being an ‘adult’ journalist doesn’t mean putting your hands over your eyes: it means speaking truth to power. If what Mr. Rodriguez wants to say is that journalists should do more to report on the lives of working people in this country, well, I certainly can agree with him there. Perhaps Zocalo can help to effect this change by printing more of those stories. Journalism, like the porn industry, is in trouble for one reason: the internet. People won’t pay for what they can get for free.

  • warren woods

    Journalists, like entertainers on tv, enjoying patting themselves on the back is an ego issue that is hard on one’s stomach. Their typical response to the death of newspapers is that citizen journalism is fraught with unprofessionalism is laughable. I raise my glass in a toast to the death of “professional” journalis.