In their 2001 book, The Elements of Journalism Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach list ten fundamental principles (“elements”) that make up journalism, and number four was, “Its essence is a discipline of verification.”
Their latest offering, Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload goes beyond what journalists need to know and practice by outlining the skills that a new breed of empowered, critical media consumers need to make sense of the torrent of information that flows from a fractured and ever-expanding media universe. The v-word once again figures prominently. It seems the essential discipline for journalists has also become a core skills for us all.
I spoke with Rosenstiel by phone last month in a wide-ranging discussion that touched upon the new world of news and why the discipline of verification is something we all need to adhere to. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
One of the things that struck me about Blur is your previous book was very much oriented towards journalists. This one, while there are things for journalists in it, seems to take this to a wider audience and to help spread the skills that we all need now.
You’ve put your finger on it. We now live in a user controlled media world. People are their own editors, and the ability of the press to function as a gatekeeper over what the public sees, or to force-feed the public what it should know, is over. Our public discourse is now going to be a collaboration between citizens and consumers of information, and the sources from which they get that information. The real gap in the twenty-first century is not between those who have access to the Internet and those who don’t; it’s between those who have skills to navigate the information, and those who are overwhelmed by it and escape that sense of overwhelming by just going to the sources that make them feel comfortable, or to points of view that are comforting and familiar.
It’s interesting because I had noted a passage from the book where you are talking about access. There is a fundamental issue of access in that if you don’t have access to information then, as you write in the book, there is “the gap between reason and superstition.” If you are in a country where you don’t have access to the Internet or even the printed word, then that is going to lead you to superstition.
Absolutely. There is an issue of access, although the spread of mobile and the prospect that we really have small computers in our pockets have made the worry about who’s wired and who is not somewhat less urgent. We know that in some of these countries, where media are quite undeveloped, cell phone coverage has actually leaped a generation, has leapt over wires and into mobile
To some extent it’s a rhetorical point. Certainly you want to be wired, or you want to have access, but even if you have access you need skills. And if you have neither, then you’re really in this realm of superstition and belief.
In the book you talk about the example of Homer Bigart in challenging the authoritative version of events from the authorities in Vietnam. With that example comes a fundamental question: How do you determine authority? Or what are the new means of determining authority now, for both journalists and for the average person?
The conventional press has historically always been too reliant on authority, on taking peoples’ word for things just because they were officials, and being a conduit for those powerful voices. As the press evolved in the latter part of the twentieth century, becoming more investigative and more interpretative, it pushed against that somewhat. Technology undermined or inhibited that move by the 1980s, when cable began; that was a medium that ceded more power back to authorities because if you’re moving very quickly and you’re passing things along as quickly as can, you have less time to probe and investigate. Well, that’s accelerated now through digital technology. Everyone is now in the breaking news business and they have to actively push against that.
The ability to question, to be skeptical, now logically includes using the audience as a skeptical sounding board for the press. But it also means the audience themselves need to keep an open mind and not say, ‘Well I like this guy, I like President Obama, and therefore I believe him’
It’s incumbent on all of us to say, ‘Okay I like you—now show me the evidence behind what you are saying.”