A journalistic ethic for the 21st century

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to preserve the best features of traditional journalism as media continues to be transformed in the online era.  At its best, journalism is defined by the ethic of its practitioners, though defining that ethic can be difficult.  Some might say it’s about objectivity – or even impartiality.  It’s skeptical; it’s independent; it’s “just the facts”.

Whatever it is, there’s a good argument to be made that it’s badly in disrepair, or perhaps even fundamentally ill-suited to the web.  NYU Professor Jay Rosen, for one, has mounted a sophisticated critique against what he dubs “the quest for innocence”, described as “the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus ‘prove’ in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade.”

Yet even if the journalistic ethic is flawed, that doesn’t mean there aren’t aspects worth preserving.  But what are they?  And how might they differ from the basic requirements of what we might call “intellectual integrity” that one would expect from good non-journalistic writing like that of an academic blogger?

I’d puzzled over this question for a while and, despite lots of tentative thoughts, hadn’t really come up with a good model or set of guidelines.  And then Dave Weigel got fired from the Washington Post, setting off debate over the role of the blogger/reporter.  Via Harvard’s Nieman Lab I came across this post by Jim Henley outlining the blog-reporter ethos:

* original reporting on first-hand sources
* a frankly stated point-of-view
* tempered by a scrupulous concern for fact
* an effort to include a fair account of differing perspectives
* ending in a willingness to plainly state conclusions about the subject

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s basically magazine-reporter ethos, says Henley.

I submit that this is just magazine-journalism ethos with the addition of cat pictures. If you think about what good long and short-form journalism looks like at a decent magazine, it looks like the bullet-points above…

…What blogging does is enable the magazine-journalism ethos to meet a frequent publication schedule – even more frequent than the newspaper’s traditional daily schedule.

I’m not a journalist, but this strikes me as exactly right.  Good magazine journalism contains a healthy dose of journalistic ethic without the worst excesses of the quest for innocence.

I have seldom read Weigel, but my preferred example of this blog-reporter ethos is Andy Revkin, author of the blog Dot Earth and former New York Times science reporter.  Here’s how Revkin describes his blogging:

I’ve spent a quarter century doing “conventional” journalism, and sought to create Dot Earth as an unconventional blog. It is not a spigot for my opinion. It is instead a journey that you’re invited to take with me. It is certainly not conventional journalism. To my mind, for most of the issues that will shape this century most profoundly, the old model of journalism is no longer a good fit.


Lately, I’ve been describing the kind of inquiry I do on Dot Earth as providing a service akin to that of a mountain guide after an avalanche. Follow me and I can guarantee an honest search for a safe path. This is a big contrast from the dominant journalism paradigm of the last century, crystallized in Walter Cronkite’s “ That’s the way it is” signoff.

As a regular Dot Earth reader, I’d argue that Revkin’s blogging is consistent with Henley’s vision.  This vision of journalism outlined by Henley and – I believe – practiced by Revkin strikes me as the best of both worlds.

While Revkin states above that the blog is “not a spigot for my opinion” it is not voiceless and if it is opinionated, it isn’t in the same manner as an op-ed column.  Freed from some of journalism’s more damaging constraints, it brings to bear a perspective; but one tempered by a journalistic ethic fit for the 21st century.

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