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.