The watch dogs need closer watching

It's a strange thing about journalism: Many, probably most non-journalists say they distrust the news media. Yet most of what those same non-journalists believe about their county, state, nation, and other nations comes from - you guessed it - the news media.

Put another way, people who are part of an event often complain that the journalists got the coverage wrong. Yet, when they read about distant events, those same people often accept the accounts unquestioningly, sharing their mediated knowledge at the water cooler or the dinner table as gospel truth.

Such a complicated love-hate, trust-distrust relationship involving journalists and their audiences could have hopelessly complicated a book trying to appeal to both camps. Yet Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel have managed to write a brief book with valuable, fresh lessons for news disseminators and news consumers.

Kovach is known inside journalism for his career at The New York Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, followed by his directorship of the mid-career educational program for journalists run by Harvard University. Rosenstiel is known inside journalism for the media criticism he published while employed by the Los Angeles Times. Today, they plant the seeds for improved reporting and editing, Kovach as chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, Rosenstiel as director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Kovach and Rosenstiel began gathering the seeds during June 1997, when they brought together 25 journalists at Harvard. All those journalists understood that huge percentages of their intended audiences thought reporters and editors cared little about the rights of individuals in the news, had lost their rightful place as societal watchdogs, and perhaps were out to undermine democracy.

Surprisingly, the journalists found themselves agreeing with the critics. As Kovach and Rosenstiel put it: "They were there because they thought something was seriously wrong with their profession. They barely recognized what they considered journalism in much of the work of their colleagues. Instead of serving a larger public interest, they worried their profession was damaging it."

Kovach and Rosenstiel decided to work with other journalists to clean up the mess. They believed the stakes to be huge: "Journalism provides something unique to a culture - independent, reliable, accurate and comprehensive information that citizens require to be free. A journalism that is asked to provide something other than that subverts democratic culture."

Kovach and Rosenstiel organized 21 public forums, attended by more than 3,000 people. They formed a partnership with university researchers who conducted hours of interviews with journalists about their values. They helped produce content studies of how journalists covered specific individuals, institutions, and issues. They studied how journalists in the past had done things differently.

For this book, Kovach and Rosenstiel distilled nine principles that journalists ought to follow and that audiences should push them to follow. The book devotes a chapter to each principle:

1. Journalism's first obligation is to the truth.

2. Its first loyalty is to citizens.

3. Its essence is a discipline of verification.

4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.

6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.

7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.

8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.

9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

Those probably sound abstract, dry as dust. But the wonder of this book is how Kovach and Rosenstiel use those abstractions as jumping-off points for fascinating chapters, each filled with compelling examples of exemplary and less-than-exemplary journalistic practice.

Steve Weinberg is a freelance journalist in Columbia, Mo., and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.

The Elements of Journalism

By Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel Crown 192 pp., $20

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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