Journalism’s state of confusion…

Michael Kelly concludes his two-part series on bias in the news media. I remain unimpressed with his observations regarding bias, but I think this observations about professionalism and education in journalism is important:

But we don’t have any professional training or discipline. Journalism is not a profession in the sense of medicine or law or science. Journalists do not go through years of brutal academic apprenticeship designed to inculcate adherence to an agreed-upon code of ethics (such as the Hippocratic oath) or an agreed-upon method of truth-determining (such as the method of scientific inquiry). We are not required to meet any standards of knowledge. We are not certified. We operate under no mandated professional set of rules. We need not even be decently educated, as consumers of news frequently notice.

It seems to me that it is exactly this set of concerns that Lee C. Bollinger (background here, here, here, and here.) is trying to address with his task force at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. While I think journalists universally recoil at the idea of licensing (ditto), I believe better education and more professional training is possible and desirable.

Perhaps better education would correct the mistaken notion that journalistic objectivity is about a “godlike ability to perceive and present the ‘objective’ truth on all matters that come before us,” as Kelly states it. This is not what journalistic objectivity meant; it is, however, what it has come (mistakenly) to mean. Objectivity in journalism once denoted a method of reporting and writing that seeks the truth as it is able to be understood by real people.1 The ethic and method of verification is part of this objectivity, for example. The reason objectivity is mistaken today: The profession of journalism is losing its methods.

The Kerry hair scandal is an excellent example of this loss of method. The inaccurate story was first “broken” by Matt Drudge. That’s red flag number one. But, without verification, legitimate news organizations picked up the story as inaccurately presented by Drudge. By attributing the story to Drudge, these journalists apparently thought that they had done their jobs. Not so. The journalists who did their jobs were the ones who checked it out, who did their own reporting and were able to discover the (uninteresting) truth that Kerry pays $75 for a haircut.

Kelly’s two columns are instructive. They represent for me much of what is good in journalism–the constant search for truth, clarity, and professionalism. But these columns also point up for me all that is confused about the profession–even by some of its top practitioners. (via MediaMinded)

1 See an excellent discussion of “truth” in Journalism Ethics: Philosophical Foundations for News Media, by John C. Merrill (Bedford/St. Martin’s).