On February 1, 2005, former Nieman Foundation Curator Bill Kovach, who founded and directs the Committee of Concerned Journalists, gave a speech at the School of Journalism at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid/El Pais in Madrid, Spain. An edited version of his words follows.
Journalism does more than keep us informed. Journalism enables us, as citizens, to have our voices heard in the chambers of power and allows us to monitor and moderate the sources of power that shape our lives. In the past few decades this responsibility of the journalist in a free society has been made more vital and more difficult by the revolution in communications technology and the economic organization of journalism it has spawned. Technology has filled the world with a flood of undifferentiated information that is changing the audience for news and information from passive receivers to proactive consumers, who decide what they want, when they want it, and how they want it.
I say “undifferentiated” because information is now accessible to a mass audience at each end of the process—the producer and the consumer. As a result the world of cyberspace is filled with many views of reality, designed to distract us or to control and dictate our public behavior rather than to inform our independent public judgment. This new competition requires a new journalism to assure that the view of the world in which the people live is one constructed with the integrity and reliability self-government requires.
There are two aspects of this new age about which journalists must think more deeply and more creatively. The first is the impact on the production end of the information stream; the second involves the impact on the consumer. Those of you who are just beginning your careers in journalism are assuming an obligation as public witnesses who clearly and without distortion describe the actions and behavior of those who shape and direct public life. To become a journalist is an act of character, since the public’s ability to become a force in self-government depends upon the integrity of your work. To enter into the life of a journalist is to accept personal responsibility for the credibility of your work and serve the interests of its consumers. You can do that only if you fully understand how the system works.
Having an unlimited number of information producers presents two challenges for journalism in the public interest—an economic challenge and a content challenge.
The economic challenge affects even the largest and most powerful news organizations. As they compete in a worldwide market, the pressure to maximize profit and minimize costs leads to short-term decisions that threaten to undermine their ability to do quality work. At the same time, new producers—in the form of bloggers—are the pamphleteers of our time, and some have been tempted to use their perceived stature as independent journalists to allow the content of their writing to be influenced by payments from government sources, as we in the United States witnessed in the cases of Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher.
Neither of these erosions—in quality or integrity—is readily recognizable to consumers of news, even though the public’s interest has been ignored in favor of personal bias or corporate profit. In the United States, in addition to the Williams and Gallagher examples, there have been failures at CBS News (Dan Rather), The New York Times (Jayson Blair), and USA Today (Jack Kelley) that have challenged the credibility of the country’s most respected news institutions. Left unaddressed, such challenges destroy the vital link between the people and its press on which democracy depends.
Each of those failures of journalism was the result of a thinning out of the professional staff in the newsrooms and a failure by the top leadership to develop a newsroom culture that encourages openness, rewards critical thinking, and holds journalists responsible for the credibility of their work.
Ways in which information is being controlled by people and institutions of power become more sophisticated by the day. Those who hold power realize that the success of their economic plan or political program depends on their ability to get the majority of people to see the world in their terms. To do this they progressively focus well-financed efforts to develop more subtle and effective ways to manipulate public behavior and understanding of the issues in which they hold a vested interest.
Meanwhile, in newsrooms little if anything has been done to sharpen understanding of how our work can be manipulated by these strategies. One reason many U.S. journalists now support the work of the Committee of Concerned Journalists is the frustration they feel as news organizations continue to invest less money in the ongoing training and education of their workers than almost any industry. As people and institutions we report on work diligently to apply new and better strategies to control or avoid our scrutiny, journalists appear content to plod along in the reporting and editing ruts formed in the 19th century. Too many newsrooms too often operate by rote, ceding to others decision-making about what is important to cover and how. Judgments produced by vested interests are given equal display to that of verified information produced by disinterested reporters or, at worst, their judgment is the only judgment presented.
To meet this challenge journalists must aggressively expose self-serving propaganda. When they don’t, citizens who depend on our credibility become disillusioned. The public—all of us—are ignorant of many things, but we are not stupid. Sooner or later, citizens recognize when journalists fail to ask the right questions at the right time to hold a public official responsible or expose private corruption that threatens their welfare. In this era of unlimited producers, when we fail to do our job, why should the public stick with us? Why shouldn’t people turn to a more exciting source, one that agrees with their prejudices, even if they can’t necessarily trust the integrity of the work?
How do we begin the transition to the new journalism this new age requires?
We begin by realizing that our old notion of journalist as gatekeeper is obsolete. The Internet has torn down the fences. A journalist standing by the gate—opening it to allow this “fact” to pass through but closing it to other information that has not been verified—looks silly when, on either side of the gate, unfiltered, indiscriminate information is flooding through.
Instead of gatekeepers, journalists must become authenticators. With the flood of information and the lack of ways to discern what is true and what is propaganda, journalists need to construct a role similar to that of a referee—letting the public know whether information has been checked and verified, whether it has been found to be untrue, whether it is self-interested propaganda, or whether what is being reported is not yet able to be verified.
Responding in this way to help consumers construct their own news package will require us to be as focused as the challenges we confront. And this will necessitate that we take a more professional approach to our journalism, one that instills in each journalist a rigorous method of testing information so that personal, commercial and political biases do not undermine its accuracy.
As Machiavelli reminded us, to survive in times of change, institutions must return to their roots. That means reaching back to the goal of 18th century thinkers who believed that journalist’s pursuit of truthful information must be guided by a more scientific and transparent methodology of verification, checking every assertion against the record. It asks of every claim, “How do you know that?” and then demonstrates the source of every fact. Such painstaking verification is essential in this time of overflowing information.
Transparency will be essential, too, to retain the public’s trust. The premise is simple: Never deceive your audience. Tell them what you know and what you don’t know. Tell them who your sources are. If you can’t name a source, then tell them how the source is in a position to know and what biases, if any, the source might have. In other words, provide information so people can see how the news item was developed and can make up their minds what to think.
Transparency also lets the public see that we approach each story with an open mind—open not only about what we hear as we report a story, but about our ability to understand. Some call this humility. We call it open-mindedness. Don’t assume. Avoid an arrogance about what you think you know, and be sure you submit your assumptions to the process of verification.
When people decide what news to rely on, they make decisions about the judgment, the character, and the values of the journalists who brought it to them. Those values are revealed every day when we decide what stories to cover (and not to cover) and how to do so. Our unswerving commitment to maintaining the public trust and making sense of the flood of available information is the only way journalism can retain the economic base it needs to assure its survival.
We cannot meet these obligations unless we create a newsroom culture that rewards critical thinking and discourages and exposes dishonest behavior. Such a culture begins with a new focus by editors. In this competitive atmosphere, editors have been drawn more deeply into newsroom management at the expense of their more critical roles of editing and mentoring young journalists. They need to instill mechanisms of quality so that each journalist assumes responsibility for the credibility of what is produced, and this includes after-the-fact quality control, such as analyzing complaints of errors or questions of assertions and analysis, as well as hiring ombudsmen or public editors to engage directly with the public.
Beyond these mechanisms, the newsroom culture must embrace forward-looking quality-assurance practices similar to those practiced by the best teaching hospitals. Each time a negative outcome of a doctor-patient interaction occurs, the doctor appears at a meeting with colleagues at which each step in the procedure is open for examination and criticism. The criticism is not so much aimed at finding fault but in learning from the mistake. Mistakes or omissions in our newsrooms should become learning tools and offer opportunities to remind journalists of their personal responsibility.
To some, these steps might seem too troublesome. But the cost of ignoring them—and risking corruption of the information and knowledge we provide the public—is too great. How journalism advances and how democracy progresses will depend upon how well we discharge this responsibility.
History tells us of the heavy price paid when independence, aggressive vigilance, accuracy and credibility of the press fail. Events in Iraq are a stark reminder to us in the United States that we haven’t yet absorbed history’s lessons. Who can say how the decision by the American government—with the support of a majority of the American public—to invade Iraq might turn out. But we already know that public support for the decision to go to war was built by the government’s creation of an imminent threat that facts have not borne out. Brick-by-brick the construction of that deceptive rationale was aided by an American press that did not rigorously enforce an independent journalism of verification.
If history teaches us anything it is that freedom and democracy do not depend upon the best technology or the most efficient organization. They depend on individuals who refuse to give up their belief that the free flow of timely, truthful information is what has made freedom, self-government, and human dignity possible.