Where do journalistic ethics come from?

Today’s Salon has an important article on the role of journalists. Patrick L. Smith, an experienced big league newspaper reporter, starts with a critique of former NY Times exec Jill Abramson’s recent talk at a conference. What caught my eye was the back half of the article, which goes into conflicting visions of the press expressed by Walter Lippmann and James Dewey in the 1920’s. Lippmann became one of the best known columnists of the mid-20th century and Dewey was the famous pragmatist philosopher and educator who influenced many things in American life. Smith, as a reporter, is finely tuned to the distinctions they make. His view is that Lippmann viewed the journalist as part of an inner circle, while Dewey emphasized the journalist as the conveyor of inside info to the outsiders, i.e., the ordinary reader.

Here’s his money quote from Dewey:

“It is not necessary that the many should have the knowledge and skill to carry on the needed investigations,” Dewey wrote. “What is required is that they have the ability to judge of the bearing of the knowledge supplied by others upon common concerns.” 

It was during this period and in this spirit, that a variety of journalists and academics crafted the notion of modern journalism. Notions of multiple sourcing, balance, and documenting claims were systematized into the method we call journalism. Sometimes its easy to confuse the skills of a Lippmann — hobnobbing with the insiders, speaking their language and understanding their worldview — with the mission of a Dewey. Both kinds of activities may be needed, but only one ultimately drives our work.

Far from the lofty concerns of both gentleman, who were concerned about the future of democracy and the nation, we still face these dilemmas. Is our job to be cozy with the movers and shakers (typically, the vendors who advertise in our pubs) in our industry and carry their various concerns back and forth among them? Or is it to help our rank and file audiences to navigate their often confusing relationships with those very movers and shakers? I guess I’m a Dewey man and I think that any pub that doesn’t understand that is risking its existence as readers will come to discount it, and ultimately, to ignore it, no matter how much advertisers like it. Whichever side of that debate you’re on, I think Smith’s column is thought-provoking readers for us everyday journalists.

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