Journalistic Authority — Reconsidered

My colleague Jay Rosen tackles a question much on my mind lately: how journalists obtain authority. For me it’s one corner of the larger question of what standards we might use to evaluate journalism now that journalism is, once again, expanding beyond the who, what and when. Successful attempts at interpretive journalism tend to be well reasoned, carefully supported and insightful. And, yes, they are also likely to weild “authority.”

Jay has waged a number of important battles with traditional journalism; yet he locates that authority where traditional American journalists locate just about everything they like: in reporting. Here, for example, is Bill Keller, until recently top editor of the New York Times:  “By quality journalism I mean the kind that involves experienced reporters going places, bearing witness, digging into records, developing sources, checking and double-checking.” Jay makes clear that he also values “digging,” “sources” and “checking,” but his emphasis is on the first item on Keller’s list: “going places.” “The original source…for all forms of authority in journalism,” Jay writes, “is to be found in the phrase: ‘I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.'”

If journalistic authority does indeed stem from being there, then it is not restricted to professional journalists but is available to others — many others — who happen to find themselves or manage to get themselves somewhere the rest of us are not.  This is a virtue for Jay,  a proponent of citizen journalism; it’s a problem for Keller (as can be seen from his use of the word “experienced” in the above quote).  Indeed, it has proven to be a problem for most professional journalists: for the days when they were the only ones “there” with a notepad, a camera and the ability to reach an audience are mostly gone.

Merely being there and telling us about it has, consequently, lost much of its value. And the sources Keller talks about developing are now often on the Web themselves; even the mechanisms for checking have been in some ways democratized — thanks to Google, thanks to various forms of instant feedback. Increasingly, in fact, we don’t need anyone, professional or amateur, to tell us what is happening somewhere: our fingers — on a keyboard, on a touch screen — can take us to a video or webcam and let us do the observing ourselves.

As I have argued and will argue in a forthcoming book, journalists are, therefore, losing the ability to make a living simply by providing copious, careful accounts of what they see and hear. There are exceptions of course: some reporters still manage to come upon or uncover goings on — atrocities, corruption — few others are seeing. In these crucial circumstances, being there — witnessing, investigating — gives these reporters something important and exclusive to tell us.  But such circumstances are rare. Journalists today increasingly have to add value not through their observations and interviews but through their insights: “I’ve thought this through, you probably have not.”

And that opens the door (if it was ever shut) to additional sources of authority. Being there can be valuable for interpretive journalism but so is reading, so is conversation, so is academic study. Yes, we want reporters to be out talking to the unemployed or sifting through papers at AIG, but Paul Krugman does not have to be on Wall Street or at the White House to hold forth, with authority, on the financial crisis; he has credentials in economics. Nate Silver does not have to ride campaign buses to report, with authority, on a political horserace; we turn to him instead because of his facility with, and good sense about, statistics. As journalism becomes less about collecting the who, what and when, and more about explaining why and what’s next, geographical authority is increasingly less important than intellectual authority.

About Mitchell Stephens

Mitchell Stephens, a professor of Journalism in the Carter Institute at New York University, is the author most recently of "Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World" (Palgrave Macmillan), "Beyond News: The Future of Journalism" (Columbia University Press) and "Journalism Unbound: New Approaches to Writing and Reporting" (Oxford University Press). He also wrote "A History of News" (Viking, Penguin, Oxford) and "the rise of the image the fall of the word" (Oxford), along with two widely used journalism textbooks.
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