After Donald Trump’s rant at Buzzfeed and CNN at his news conference last week, there were calls for the news media to unite against the president-elect’s bullying. The theory was that if we don’t present a united front, Trump will outflank reporters who have legitimate questions by signaling them out for abuse.
”United we stand, divided we fall” is a nice sentiment, but I trip over the particulars. Who is the “we” in that statement? Is it the weak, sad lamestream media of Trump’s Tweets? Is it the brash web newcomers like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post? Does it include the bloggers who regularly write and rant on politics and public policy? Should it include news sources with their own political slant, such as FOX, MSNBC and the Breitbart News Network?
For me, it is not a philosophical issue. It’s a question I have to deal with as a teacher of journalism at Bryn Mawr College. My students are the very definition of modern media consumers. They are cafeteria consumers: picking and choosing what information to ingest from myriad sources.
In class, I don’t even try to define the maze that is today’s news media. I have found it more useful to define what journalism is. For this I draw on a book called “The Elements of Journalism” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, veterans of The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, respectively, who went on to work in journalism research and advocacy.
At the beginning of the new century, Kovach and Rosenstiel, in assessing the emerging (and chaotic) media environment, gathered fellow journalists, academics, and others to try to get a handle on journalism. They had a feeling that journalists had grown uncertain about their status and their mission.
They emerged from this process with a clear message: Best not to concentrate on the medium, but the product. They were humble enough not to take on journalism globally, but just America. Their findings can be expressed in this definition:
American journalism is independent, fact-based, verified reporting that serves the public.
Each word has a deeper meaning. For instance, I usually have a large cadre of international students take my class — students from China, Pakistan, India, and Russia, to name a few countries. To them, independent means not state-owned or controlled. Closer to home, it means reporting that is not ideologically or politically driven or, more mundanely, based on selling your soul to a politician or a publicist to get access.
Fact-based should be self-evident, or at least it was at one time. Journalists don’t make stuff up. We observe, we report, we write what we have seen or learned.
Verified means what it says. You not only must believe something is true, you must prove it. Journalism’s “essence is the discipline of verification,” as the authors put it. Buzzfeed violated that rule by printing an unverified, report from a partisan source — and then claimed it was doing it as a public service. It did not serve the public.
In my career as a reporter, I’ve often been exposed to specious polls, reports and tips that purport to reveal the truth, usually about opposing candidates. I have tried to check them out — if they sounded plausible — but almost always came up empty. It’s harder in today’s media environment to avoid such “exclusives” but printing them does nothing to serve the public, even if you win the race for clicks.
Some might find the Kovach-Rosenstiel book hard to take because it portrays journalists almost as members of a holy order, given a scared mission by our Founding Fathers of serving democracy through truth telling. It doesn’t jibe with the modern perception that journalists are just a cynical bunch who will do anything to get a story or, at the old phrase went, to sell newspapers.
Journalists do tend to be cynical. They are tempted to produce stories as click bait. They do violate rules of fairness. They do mangle or, worse, make up facts. As a profession, we are guilty of sins mortal and venial.
But, most of the journalists I know do care deeply about the truth; they feel driven to serve the watchdog role; they try their best to be fair and independent. Their failures do not make them evil; they make them human.
My international students are often dazzled by the reporting they see in American media outlets that not only expose scandals, but also offer strong critiques of those in power. Our style of journalism is one of this country’s most valued exports, admired by journalists in emerging democracies and authoritarian states.
It would be ironic — and tragic — to have this brand of journalism grow outside our borders, while it withers within.
We in the media must unite, but not around one reporter nor one news outlet. We should call out the phonies, rally around the ideals expressed by Kovach and Rosenstiel, and hope that it carries us through this long night.
Tom Ferrick Jr. is a former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist who works as a journalist and teacher. He wrote this for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.