Has U.S. journalism lost its nerve?

Much of normal news, the routine patter that fills our screens and spills from the airwaves, is a chummy co-production of authorized sources and compliant scribes. The rituals of normal news ensure that the public agenda is dominated by the concerns and perspectives of the powerful, whose priorities typically lead the newscasts.

Fortunately, that’s not all our news media do. We also have parallel traditions, among them a journalism of defiance. That’s when reporters ferret out and make public newsworthy realities that people in power would rather be ignored and sometimes even make it illegal to expose.

We’re in an era of spectacularly audacious disclosures of official secrets—commensurate with the most audacious expansion of official secrecy in the history of this or any country. Since Wikileaks, the online anti-secrecy network, posted in 2010 the classified gunsite footage of Iraqi civilians being slaughtered by a U.S. helicopter, news media worldwide have showcased stunning disclosures of U.S. secrets and the shadowy infrastructure through which the unprecedented post-9/11 regime of surveillance and data collection has been sustained.

The counterattack has been ferocious: The soldier who was Wikileaks’ source, Chelsea Manning, is doing 35 years in federal prison, and the mastermind who brokered the release to the news media, Julian Assange, is under de facto house arrest in London.

Meantime, top media continue to feast on secrets served up by Wikileaks’ successor, ex-U.S. intelligence analyst Edward Snowden. They include astonishing revelations about government data sweeps, penetration of the tech industry and the overreach of National Security Agency electronic snooping.

Amazing stuff. Political leaders continue to denounce Snowden as a spy, but the public isn’t convinced. One of the few surveys of broad opinion on the matter, a Quinnipiac University poll last year, found that by a huge 55-34 percent margin voters regard Snowden as a whistleblower, not a traitor, and that by 45-40 percent people believe official anti-terrorism efforts go too far in restricting civil liberties.

So you might think that U.S. journalists would feel emboldened: After all, here’s news of vast import, purloined in the name of civic purpose with evidence of public support. Seems like a sturdy basis on which to challenge the tired rituals of normal news, to re-energize that parallel tradition of defiance and independent truth-seeking.

A surprising new survey suggests this isn’t how today’s journalists see things. It’s the latest in a series of polls conducted every 10 years since 1971 by Indiana University researchers. What it found was a demoralized profession, one that has lost its nerve. Respondents are convinced the news industry is generally heading in the wrong direction and that its biggest problem is “declining profits.”

Most remarkable are signs of a dramatically growing rejection of the very reporting techniques that have nourished the journalism of defiance in recent years.

Consider this question: Might, “on occasion,” a reporter be justified in using “confidential business or government documents without authorization?” That means newsworthy information you’re not supposed to have.

Fewer than 58 percent of the 1,080 respondents in the 2013 poll approved, a major decline from nearly 82 percent in 1992.

What about approval for the use of “personal documents without permission?” That fell to less than 25 percent in 2013 from 48 percent in 1992. Ditto the use of “hidden cameras or microphones,” approved by 47 percent last year, down from 60 percent 20 years before, and “getting employed to gain inside information,” supported by nearly two-thirds in 1992 and barely one-quarter of journalists in 2013.

Remember, nobody was asked if these practices should be used routinely. The question was whether using them on occasion might be justified—meaning, say, in light of the gravity of the wrongdoing the unauthorized leak might expose, or the harm that disclosure might prevent.

The researchers, professors Lars Willnat and David H. Weaver, commented: “Overall, this trend toward a more ‘gentle’ journalism in the United states might be a reflection of the growing commercial pressures the U.S. media have faced during the past two decades.”

To be sure, ignoring secrecy rules, taking a job in order to expose employer misconduct, violating an individual’s privacy, these are things that no journalist should undertake casually. Laws often rest on powerful logic, and organizations—like individuals–are entitled to some freedom from public intrusion.

But there are limits. The perplexing challenge journalists face is to confront those limits, and when appropriate, to override them—not to blithely conclude they must be heeded.

The current climate isn’t an easy one for journalism. But retreating into the timid routines of normal news means ducking the fractious demands of a profession that must be practiced amid contention, discord and official disapproval, if it’s to be done right.

 

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6 thoughts on “Has U.S. journalism lost its nerve?

  1. Buddy Davis was my first and most impressive journalism professor. I am a graduate of the University of Florida, 1964. He had won numerous awards for his writing when he was a reporter for the New York Post. He then choose to teach young aspiring reporters which side of the paper you were supposed to write on.
    He simply said, your job is not to report what you think is the truth but rather tell what the truth is. Tell the truth and let the reader decide. The end does not always justify the means. We are the moral guardian’s of our society. The consumer when arroused is the most powerful source of change in the Universe. Once you lose their respect you will be orphaned lke a wailing child laying on the back seat of a hot car.
    Journalism schools today are turning out too many ideological players specifically bent on a common social agenda. They appear to be dedicated to change society in the direction of their perception of society. Everyday you read Section A stories written with accepted personal biases rather than hard facts. The medium becomes the message. Facts comes from busting your ass and boring hard work without agenda’s. I wonder how popular a “maverick” would fit in today’s homogeneous news room?
    I agree with your column. It is refreshing to read someone with your background question a journalist’s nerve.
    Truth has and will always keep us free. Without it we are nothing more than cattle heading toward a corral with a simplified but crappy view of life as a tail swats us in the face.

  2. Russ Brown, while I agree that the reader should decide what their media should contain, I am aware that media funding comes primarily from advertising. In other words, the readers give up their power when they let others pay the costs of media. Also, readers may choose sources that support their own biases, just like the homogeneous, ideological players whom you described.

    Also, while I agree that journalists are responsible for reporting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, it seems that something else must be reported to court the advertisers, please the members of the boards of directors, and satisfy the shareholders.

    I wonder where Real News can come from. Just like journalists who frequently have to make judgment calls regarding privacy and permission, readers must make judgment calls regarding such issues when choosing reading material.

    1. I disagree that readers give up their power when they let others pay the costs of media. I also disagree that readers necessarily choose sources that support their own biases. If media devolves to advertorials, it will lose all of its viewers and readers. Journalists have a very important role to play in our democracy and social structure — they are the fourth estate. Professionals will distinguish themselves and their media brand just like any other business. Perhaps people who care about journalism will donate to foundations that will be transparent in their funding of news organizations.

  3. While I agree that reader should decide the truth, it is not always possible to be truthful for readers to decide which one is the truth. In the part of World am from, Nigeria, it is always full of biases, prejudice and governmental control. Every newspaper in Nigeria is politicised, regionalised, ethnically laden and full of religious sentiments.

  4. “The perplexing challenge journalists face is to confront those limits, and when appropriate, to override them—not to blithely conclude they must be heeded.”

    I disagree. To say this sublimates the very notion of a ‘limit’ to nothing more than a picket fence to be high-jumped at will. That is not a limit. Nor is it journalism in any professional definition I can think of. Nor is it, at all, ethical. To even consider such an action is bias in its basest form. You don’t move, or catapult over a limit as you have defined them. Oh, shucks! You mean I’ll have to work, actually work to achieve my goal? Sorry, copyboy. Them’s th’ breaks!

    I won’t even begin to discuss ethics in this context. They wouldn’t exist. Journalists should not (and most assuredly should not allow another person to do so) lower themfelves to the lowest common denominator, no matter how fantastic the reward might seem. Believe it or not, many of those ‘limits’ were put into place by journalists themselves to avoid just such pitfalls–with the agreement and gratitude of their readers.

    There is nothing blithe about my view. For me, anyway, it is the view of a 45+ year ethically devoted journalist. If I can’t present objective truth for its own sake–while playing by the rules, it is not a story I should be writing. I do remember the days editors, chiefs and publishers felt the same way. I got tired of hunting for them, so I became one.

    Yes, times and technology change. The morality and ethics of journalism does not, must not change. It was too good a long time ago. It’s just caught up with itself, nothing more. That can be a real challenge today.

    Yeah, so?

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