Do We Even Want Real Journalism?



Roughly once a month, somebody asks, “Do you know a good investigative reporter?” Then they launch into a story of such rank injustice or exploitation or abuse of power that my fingers twitch toward a notepad. What they need, though, is a reporter whose questions will make the right people nervous, and whose audience is big enough to matter.

I suggest various options, but the list is shorter every time. Most of the experiences, tenacious investigative reporters I used to know there have either quit or been laid off. And the profession itself is fast losing ground.

A recent study from the Media Insight Project (a collaboration between the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research) slumped my hopes completely. Generalizing from survey results, the majority of U.S. citizens are uneasy with the values that form journalism’s core. And no, this is not the alt-right booing section—the responses cut across all ideological leanings.

Survey-takers chose from various moral principles, among them five core values that have long anchored journalism—and that, in my obvious naïvete, I never could have imagined anyone in this country casting aside.

Only one of the five—the premise that facts help us get closer to the truth—was supported by a majority.

And the majority was only sixty-seven percent.

I wonder what the other twenty-three percent would have journalists use to get closer to the truth. Or is the goal itself the problem—do they not believe in truth at all anymore? Maybe they think truth exists in some esoteric realm with no public access. Or there are only individual truths, duking it out without recourse to facts. Or that they know the truth but journalists keep missing it.

Depressed, I let my eyes drop to the principle with the lowest support of all. Only twenty-nine percent of respondents agreed that spotlighting society’s problems is a good way to make that society better. My cheeks flame, and I take a deep breath, fast losing objectivity. Is it not a step forward that the Boston Globe uncovered priests who had sexually abused children? Would you have preferred them to continue that sort of pastoral care?

Fewer than half of the survey respondents were committed to giving a voice to those less powerful. Even fewer found oversight and transparency important.

The Media Insight Project’s answer to this survey feels like a bucket, handed over with instructions to bail. Rewrite, they urge. Try to appeal to those who are most concerned with authority, order, and loyalty as well as those who value care and fairness. Report the same facts, but include other values and moral angles.

My first response, if I am honest, is that this sounds familiar and useless. I remember the soft fuzzy days of community journalism; also the jettisoning of professionalism that came with crowdsourcing; also the soul-killing word-game of writing clickbait headlines about ungrammatical kittens. Now the old values of care and fairness are not enough and must be expanded to include values that shore up the status quo. Granted, it is shaky these days, and maybe we could benefit from a little more attention to consensus and cooperation. But reporters will go a little crazy writing to please readers instead of reporting what they need to know. As George Orwell pointed out years ago, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.”

Satisfying as it feels, my first response may be wrong. Including values of authority and loyalty did lessen many readers’ skepticism. A story about people in a low-income neighborhood hurt when a parks director misused city funds was turned into “Parks boss deceived Mayor, misused taxpayer money,” and the lead stated that “The city’s Parks Director intentionally defied the orders of the Mayor and diverted city money from a key recreation project.” Now, instead of being outraged for the people who were once more the casualty of corruption, readers could watch little power rebel against big power and then get smashed. Maybe that felt clearer, more focused, more comfortable—and therefore more trustworthy. It was certainly fresher than yet another story of the same people suffering because of some bureaucrat’s idiocy.

But was the parks director’s motivation really to defy the mayor’s orders, or was that just framing? Because with all the new emphasis on deception and defiance, I would have assumed some intriguing backstory here, an old vendetta perhaps. Yet all that was supported by the facts (those pesky, gratuitous things) was a parks director pursuing his own projects.

Maybe I am just stuck in my own Woodward and Bernstein universe, arrogant in my insistence that everyone value the exposé, the underdog, the gotcha that traps power behaving badly. Follows Ted Cruz to a resort, say, and finds out he left his dog at home without any heat. For a feature about loyalty, I once asked all sorts of people to what they felt some sense of obligation, connection, concern. I soon realized I could diagram their answers in concentric circles. Some went around the globe; others stopped with their own country or went no farther than family and friends. Very few people felt any sense of obligation to Earth itself (which might be why the planet is tanking).

Loyalty can hold us together, but it can also divide; everything depends on how big your circle is. We can write authority and loyalty into the headlines, but if the news feels too remote, part of another nation’s authority system and outside our circle of concern, how many people will even read the story? That may be journalism’s larger problem—too much information, and too little that feels relevant, manageable, and as interesting as our other diversions.

Local news should be the stronghold, close enough to home that everyone pays attention. But local news is dying.

And reporters are desperate.

Margaret Sullivan, media reporter for The Washington Post, was at first appalled by the Media Insight survey results, then wrote, “Given that trust in the news media has fallen from about 70 percent in the early 1970s to about 40 percent now, according to Gallup — it seems worth viewing this report with an open mind.”

Still, it makes me nervous. First, nobody wanted to bother with print, so print got gimmicky, then gutted itself, laying off its best reporters, and wound up so slight, even the remaining readers stopped wanting to bother with print. Then the news business went mega-corporate, and outlets trooped online, and because advertisers did not immediately follow, publishers did something they are now frantically trying to undo: They gave away their content for free. Do we always have to sacrifice our integrity and downplay our own worth? Now here we are, flooded with injustice and corruption, and there is not an investigative reporter in sight who can stick an inky thumb in the dike.

One word sums up those five core values: watchdog. You alert to any abuse or distortion of power. You do not roll over in automatic respect for authority; you do not climb into anyone’s lap for a snuggle. Rather than showing deference, you question authority in order to keep it honest, accurate, transparent, fair, and inclusive.

Only eleven percent of the survey’s respondents supported all five of those principles.

We have never needed watchdog journalism more—yet we prefer a cockapoo.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.