Your plane crashes. You tweet a picture of survivors stumbling away. You’ve just become a reporter. You’ve told us what happened. Anyone can be a reporter today. Technology has dissolved the line between newsgatherers and news subjects. All the world’s been deputized.
But journalism belongs several echelons above reporting. It often requires withholding information in the service of understanding it better. Journalists resist the demands imposed on reporters by the marketplace and the audience. They are detectives. They gather reporting. They build cases. When they publish or broadcast, they force us to consider what’s going on and not merely to notice or accept it. Journalism holds powerful interests accountable because its output interrupts lazy, instinctive, and tribalist thinking. The best thing a journalist can hear is, ‘Wait, what?’
The world is a blur. Journalism is a superconductor.
Marc Ambinder is a contributing editor to The Atlantic, The Week, and GQ, and senior contributor to Defense One.
People say that journalism has radically changed in the last 10 or 20 years; that it has been transformed by the Internet, social media, cellphones, and digital cameras. We have access to more data than ever before—not only existing data but the additional data that we all are constantly producing; there really is data being shared everywhere. But let’s not get confused. There’s a difference between the availability and sharing of data, and journalism.
Abu Ghraib is a perfect example. Technology made the exposure of the Abu Ghraib scandal possible. By 2003-04, small, lightweight, digital cameras had become ubiquitous. It was possible to store hundreds of digital images on CDs and use the Internet to transmit them around the globe. The generals and colonels realized what was happening. They tried to collect the images of abuse and burn them. Burn the CDs; burn the cameras. It was almost comical. They just didn’t understand that things had changed.
But the traditional function of journalism—assessing what is true and what is false—has not changed at all. Just because we live in a sea of information doesn’t mean we no longer need to figure out what the information means. And for that reason, journalism has become more important than ever.
Errol Morris is a filmmaker whose movie, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2004.
Beyond being a beautiful job, journalism is a state of mind. It is a school of modesty that requires a good general knowledge, openness to others, strong analytical skills, and a real ability to question its own certainties and what may appear to the general public or mandarins as evidence. It is not easy to meet all requirements, especially when there is no way to stand back as a historian and no time for the necessary reflection.
As a result, journalism cannot accommodate just anyone, although it must avoid, for its own survival, becoming a caste. The immediacy and the speed specific to new media will not change those basic requirements. Rigor and accuracy will equally apply to tweets, as well as to stories published by, let’s say, the Senegalese official daily Le Soleil.
Francis Kpatindé is a French-Beninese freelance journalist based in Paris. From 1997 to 2005, he was the Africa Editor for Jeune Afrique, a newsweekly in Paris, and from 2005 to 2011 he served as the West Africa spokesman for the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.
In discerning what journalism is for, it is useful to remember that it is an “ism,” a belief system, and not an “ology” that we can study empirically. It is a philosophy that holds that creating an accurate record of events benefits communities and society as a whole by laying the groundwork for informed public discourse.
As with all evolving belief systems, however, there is no settled doctrine or orthodoxy on what journalism is for, and there is evidence of this muddle across all media platforms today. Still, these five journalistic purposes hold true for me:
• Journalism is for the community, serving its needs and interests above all others.
• Journalism is for those navigating change—sometimes devastating change—who are in need of a rudder.
• Journalism is for those who don’t understand the question or the answer.
• Journalism is for the satisfaction of the curious and the vexation of the complacent.
• Journalism is for telling the truth of ourselves, to ourselves.
Curtiss Clark is editor of the Newtown Bee, in Connecticut.