SDX 2001 Awards Gallery
Questioning our world
By James Aucoin
Good researchers operate much like good journalists. They choose important topics, study what others have already revealed, and systematically collect data. Then they carefully analyze their findings, draw supportable conclusions, and write their reports with clarity. In addition, the better research tests or extends theory. As Zora Neale Hurston, a novelist and anthropologist, wrote, “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” And couldn’t the same be said about journalism?
Academics talk of “creating knowledge,” discovering information that extends what we know about the world. In the world of journalism, that means better understanding how journalists work, the role of journalism, and how audiences perceive the stories journalists tell. When evaluating research about journalism, judges consider the quality and scope of the work, the importance of the topic, and how well the researcher communicates his or her findings. Good research isn’t dull, narrow and obtuse. It’s engaging, relevant, expansive and perhaps provocative.
Good research speaks to journalists, giving them useful insights into their work and their audiences, giving them ideas about how to do their work better. It informs the profession about how well it is doing its job, the pressures it faces, its limitations and its successes. It also gives the general public an enhanced understanding of the practice.
Ultimately, quality research, like art, challenges with new perspectives on the world, questioning decades-long assumptions, answering lifelong questions. It should provide rock-solid, empirical evidence and reasonable theoretical conclusions.
A current debate about journalism, for example, has generated bestsellers and a whirlwind of talk show diatribe. Two books, former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg’s “Bias” and Michael Moore’s “Stupid White Men,” offer competing views about the political slant of the nation’s news media. Both fail the public by shoveling up buckets of new anecdotes as evidence for old, flawed theories. They are fun reading, but add nothing that can help either journalists or the public to better understand the biases of the news media.
That comes, instead, from high quality research, such as that done two years ago by University of Pennsylvania scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson in “Everything You Think You Know about Politics and Why You’re Wrong.” Granted, no single research project has all the answers. But the best project constructs solid understanding that can inform the public and push practitioners forward, toward better reporting, better production and better service.
James Aucoin is on the faculty of the University of Southern Alabama.
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Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, Project for Excellence in Journalism, The Elements of Journalism
Sometime between Watergate and Whitewater, the reputation of the news media has gone into a downward spiral. In a world ruled by the almighty entertainment and advertisement dollar, the public has come to question the media’s integrity.
Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, authors of “The Elements of Journalism,” write, “The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” With that principle in mind, the men sought the answers to why people have come to distrust and reject the media.
Kovach, Rosenstiel and 22 other prominent journalists created the Committee of Concerned Journalists and spent three years researching the declining esteem of the news.
“The Elements of Journalism” includes information drawn from 21 forums, 100 in-depth interviews of journalists and editors, content research, analysis of journalism history and journalism scholarship, and survey work from readers, viewers, listeners, journalists and editors.
The news media help us define our communities, and help us create a common language and common knowledge rooted in reality. Journalism also helps identify a community’s goals, heroes, and villains. “I’ve felt strongly for a long time that we proceed best as a society if we have a common base of information,” NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw told our academic research partners.
The compiled research allowed Kovach and Rosenstiel to do justice to the often misunderstood world of journalism while paying special attention to the currently unfulfilled needs and wants of the public.
“[The book] is an attempt to outline and explain the theory of journalism by which most news people operate,” Kovach and Rosenstiel said. “This theory is for most journalists only semiconscious. Most newsrooms never discuss it, yet we expect our audiences to understand it even when we do not fully (understand it) ourselves. And this failing – a kind of anti-intellectualism – inhibits journalism growing and changing in a direction that sustains its principles.”
In “The Elements of Journalism,” Kovach and Rosenstiel present challenges of the past and relate them to the present with the media and public’s reactions and concerns.
The authors begin each chapter with a narrative tone, telling personal stories gathered from numerous interviews. Each chapter then comes in to focus on the various principles of journalism.
A brief look at some of the book’s ten chapters:
Truth: The First and Most Confusing Principle. Kovach and Rosenstiel said that “getting the facts straight” was concern of 100 percent of interviewed journalists.
This desire that information be truthful is elemental. Since news is that material that people use to learn and think about the world beyond themselves, the most important quality is that it be usable and reliable. Will it rain tomorrow? Is there a traffic jam ahead? Did my team win? What did the president say? Truthfulness creates, in effect, the sense of security that grows from awareness and is at the essence of news.
Whom Journalists Work For. While reading, viewing or listening, members of the public forget about the number of constituents that a media source must answer to. Community leaders, corporations, advertisers and shareholders watch the media’s every step. With this in the back of their mind, reporters walk an extremely thin line. Kovach and Rosenstiel argue that the second element of journalism – that “journalism’s first loyalty is to its citizens” – must always outweigh other influences.
Journalism of Verification. To separate itself from entertainment, propaganda, fiction and art, the media must “sift through the rumor, the gossip, the failed memory, the manipulative agendas, and try to capture something as accurately as possible, subject to revision in light of new information and perspective.”
The chapter goes into further detail between the world of entertainment and media, interviewing “60 Minutes” correspondent Mike Wallace about his experience being fictionalized in the movie “The Insider.” This chapter also addresses the lost art of objectivity.
Monitor Power and Offer Voice to the Voiceless. Kovach and Rosenstiel state the fundamental principle: “Journalists must serve as an independent monitor of power.”
This chapter plays on the important new role that corporate mergers are playing in the media. The new and possibly overpowering clashing of business and journalistic interests may be what will “destroy the independence required of the press to perform their monitoring role.”
Make the News Comprehensive and Proportional. The authors list the eighth principle of journalism: “Journalists should keep the news in proportion and make it comprehensive.” The principle is followed with a question – “But how?” Kovach and Rosenstiel go on to discuss the fallacy of targeted demographics, the limits of metaphor and the pressure to hype.
If you want to attract an audience, you could go down to a street corner, do a striptease, and get naked. You would probably attract a crowd in a hurry. The problem is, how do you keep people?
Journalists Have a Responsibility to Conscience. Each person has his or her own morals and ethics; a journalist must combine these personal standards with the world of journalism. Kovach and Rosenstiel say that journalists must speak out against any happenings or assignments in the newsroom that compromise the “accurate, fair, balanced, citizen focused, independent-minded, and courageous” atmosphere of journalism.
Across the country, grammar schools, high schools and universities have adapted “The Elements of Journalism” into their curriculum.
“The response to the book in the first six months has exceeded our hopes,” Kovach and Rosenstiel said. “Many people have told us they find the book ‘spiritual.’ Many more have said they expect the book to remain in print and in classes for years to come.”