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.


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