15.11.01

There's a crisis in journalism. It may not seem like it -- after all, the media play a larger and larger role in our public and private lives every day (even as media outlets, which grew like topsy during the last few years, are shedding staff every day). But simply having more 24-hour news channels, Web sites, wireless tidbits appearing on your PDA, doesn't ensure we are any more informed than before. In fact, it may be the reason we the people are less informed and we the journalists are being driven farther and farther away from the principles that, sometimes, makes our work great.

Coming across this article in The Washington Monthly at once fired me up and filled me with guilt. The Monthly is an unabashedly neo-liberal magazine, published on the proverbial shoestring budget, primarily through the tenacity of its editor, Charles Peters. But even if you don't share the Monthly's policy views, which can range from cranky to "commie," this reiteration of the basic tenets of journalism -- "authority is not reality," "vet that study" and more -- is a dash of cold water. Perhaps even more chilling is that these precepts, which we should all be following, has to be cast as "How To Get Washington Reporters to Cover Things That Count."

And don't get smug, tech journalists. New economy, new media? If anything, we're too guilty of forgetting these rules. Too frequently what passes as a story is a regurgitated press release about a new product: P.R. co-opting. Or, a story is framed as positing something could happen and if it did, well, here are two analysts to provide quotes. (Let's ignore, for the moment, that most analysts are employed by companies that make money by getting people to invest; not to mention that I've had to educate many of these analysts just to eke out something coherent.)

Yes, we should cover events. And sometimes the event is the news. But when was the last time you saw a story that met all of the Monthly's criteria?

It's work to do so. And looking up background takes time -- time that the instant publishing revolution, as great and empowering it can be, doesn't allow. The same for vetting studies. Can any of us read through a Cato Institute report on welfare cheats by deadline time, let alone check sources? Perhaps the best we can do is know who funded the study but honestly, most of us are overworked and running if fifteen different directions.

Is there a solution? If there were an easy one, I'm sure it wouldn't show up first in some dullard's blog. Training (of which I have none) would help; so would resources or perhaps treating a more formal version of the Monthly's suggestions as a minor version of a doctor's oath. After all, the press is the only profession mentioned by name in the U.S. Constitution. Perhaps we need a greater sense of self and what we do. And remember that with great power comes great responsibility.