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.
Journalism now is for what good journalism has always been for: telling people things they didn’t know about the world, answering questions, and telling your readers everything you know and everything you can find out. Online media took a bit of a detour during the “search era” into tricking machines, but now we’re back to informing and delighting humans. And the transparency of the social Web means we can see what questions our readers are asking, and they can tell us what they think of our answers.
Ben Smith is editor in chief of BuzzFeed.
A journalist is someone who is willing to disappoint himself with the truth.