Finding our way to the future of journalism

Imagine a compass with different labels for north, east, south and west. The labels say:

Independent

Socially Responsible

Tell the truth

Do no harm

You are a journalist. Where is true north on your compass?

You are a citizen who wants journalism you can trust. Where should true north be?

Creed Conversations available online

Videos and photo galleries of recent forums on “The Journalist’s Creed” are available online. Check them out.

Meet me in St. Louis

A city is experiencing an upswing in crimes committed by young male African Americans. Should a journalist be worried that telling these crime stories day after day may lead citizens to falsely stereotype all young African Americans as criminals?

Right before an election, one candidate accuses the other of having an illegitimate child. Should a journalist report the allegation if there isn’t time to evaluate whether it’s true before people vote?

A journalist discovers that the CIA has committed illegal activities. Should the story be reported if it might reveal how the CIA is operating to lower the risk of terrorist attacks in the U.S.?

Journalists wrestle with judgments like these hypothetical situations all of the time, but they too seldom engage anyone outside the newsroom in their deliberations. They almost never do so before a decision is made, and rarely after the fact, unless the decision causes so much anger in the community that some explanation is unavoidable.

A free public forum at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 11, at the Missouri History Museum in St Louis will give citizens and journalists a chance to talk to each other about ethical questions like these. I hope the discussion will illuminate a dynamic tension among the ethical values at the heart of professional journalism. I also hope it will explore how citizens would have journalists wrestle with that tension.

A video of the event will be posted as soon as possible at the website of the Reynods Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Thoughts on renewing the Journalist’s Creed for the 21st Century

The following are some comments I made to the University of Missouri Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

The journalists of the future must have a new skill set that enables them to tell compelling stories in many ways, but they also must have a new mindset.
You must be both pragmatic and idealistic.
You must be skeptical and optimistic.
You can’t just be passionate about telling a story, you must care deeply that the story connects with people and matters to them.
You must be more entrepreneurial in terms of creating value in the information marketplace, without compromising clarity, accuracy, fairness, truth and independence.
You must hone your curiosity and critical thinking in ways that stir those qualities in the public, while also being ever attentive to the public’s questions and criticisms.
Loyalty to the public shouldn’t be an abstraction, but should be an abiding desire to connect on a human level.
You must be independent of those you cover without being indifferent or hostile. Independence achieves its greatest impact when tempered with a sense of goodwill.
You must gain comfort with technology as an enabler of great journalism, rather than a threat to it.
You must strive for perfection, while being open to admitting and learning from mistakes.
Relevance, optimism, inter-personal connection, healthy self-promotion, organizational savvy, curiosity, creativity, problem solving and leadership are all traits that must be nurtured.
My abiding faith in the future of professional journalism is because of young people like you who want to carry on this great traditional of public service.
You know that “the supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service.”
I listen to you and I find it easy to say:
I still believe in the profession of journalism.

Journalists are from Saturn, Readers are from Neptune

Is there hope for new relationships between journalists and readers? Deborah Howell argues there is, in her most recent ombudsman column in the Washington Post.

Howell writes, “One of the most demanding aspects of this job is explaining readers to journalists and journalists to readers…Many stories valued by journalists — the ones that are difficult, sometimes nerve-racking or dangerous to get — are not always valued by readers. Each reader comes with special needs and interests.”

As someone who wrote more than 600 “Inside The Times” columns over nearly 16 years at The Seattle Times, I couldn’t agree more. At times the different perspectives of citizens and journalists can be dramatic and divisive.

I believe Journalists and citizens hold the same fundamental expectations of true journalism — independence, truth telling, social responsibility and minimizing harm — but they may not prioritize them the same. (See my previous post about these being like points on a compass.)

True north for journalists is probably telling the truth, with independence an essential means to that end. Citizens also value truth telling, but they temper it more with minimizing hard and being socially responsible. Journalistic independence may appear to them as elitism or callousness.

That’s my hypothesis, anyway. Some really smart people at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism are helping me test it.

Understanding how journalists and citizens define and value the terms could be a step toward the relationships Howell envisions when she writes:

In a perfect world, readers would appreciate the work that journalists do, and journalists would think of readers first: How can we bring readers into the journalistic process? How can we rethink how we cover news? How best can we communicate the facts and make all opinions known? How can we be sure that this story is free of bias and taint? How can display and timing enhance or harm the credibility of the story? Can we be less defensive about criticism?

If I’m a reader, can I approach this story with an open mind about what I might learn and not think The Post is in anyone’s back pocket? If there’s a mistake, can I believe it’s human error and not a conspiracy? If I know facts that aren’t in the story, can I send them to a reporter or editor? Can I write a note of praise as well as civil notes of criticism?

In that world, journalists would bring readers into their reporting, and readers would appreciate that an unfettered press is an essential part of democracy.