When my news organization applied for nonprofit status three years ago, we hewed closely to the suggested legalistic description of our purpose: “To promote the instruction of the public on subjects useful to the individual and beneficial to the community.” While newsrooms might sound silly bending their mission statements to conform to IRS rules, the agency would be wise to include “journalism” as a synonym for “education,” which qualifies for tax exemption. New nonprofit organizations doing investigative and accountability reporting should be encouraged to assume the community’s public-education role, as the shrinking commercial press strays into sensation and entertainment.
Michael Stoll is executive director of the San Francisco Public Press.
There have been times in our history when the purpose of journalism was to inform the citizenry of the urgent need to act before we were no longer a self-governing republic. The first example was in 1798, when President John Adams led Congress to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts. Awakened by the press to this turning of the First Amendment upside down, the new Americans denied Adams his second term as president.
But never before in our history than right now have the media been more needed to keep demonstrating to Americans how close we are to losing our most fundamental individual liberties to the Obama administration, which ceaselessly ignores the quintessential separation of powers. In the July 12 New York Times, Randy Barnett, a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University, underscored Obama’s abuse of “the fundamental constitutional principle that the sovereign people must be the ultimate external judge of their servants’ conduct in office . . .
“Congress and the courts must put a stop to . . . these surveillance programs [and] danger . . . to the rights retained by the people.”
But how can this happen unless journalists persistently stay on this story and reveal the mounting un-American facts that demand that We the People seize accountability and restore the Constitution?
Nat Hentoff is a journalist, novelist, historian, music critic, and civil libertarian. He writes about jazz for The Wall Street Journal.
A journalist is first and foremost a questioner. We ask. That’s the most important thing we do. Before all the highbrow analysis, instant commentary, or in-depth reviews, there are simple, straightforward, spontaneous, sometimes unashamedly naïve, and often-mundane questions.
For a journalist, questions should come before answers, for it is only by asking that we dig deep into the shining surfaces of the well-manicured, ready-to-print statements we are so often presented.
Everyone wonders. Everyone suspects. Everyone believes there is more. But not everyone is in a position to ask. Journalists are. It is our job to give voice to the silent questions that breed in the minds of everyone. Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? These are magical words. They have been a journalist’s best tools for centuries, and they still are in the digital age.
Yasemin Congar was a founding deputy editor in chief of Taraf, a crusading Turkish newspaper. She now lives in Istanbul and writes for T24 and Al-Monitor.
Digital production and networked communication allow anyone to create content and disseminate it widely. In this environment, we should consider journalism as an approach to content creation. Those who employ the journalistic approach strive to produce content that helps users understand and navigate their communities. This approach is characterized by rigorous research and verification, the fair presentation of competing ideas, and a commitment to independent inquiry that follows the facts, challenges the facile, and engages with complexity and ambiguity. The journalistic approach is not limited to those who identify as journalists. It is the act of informing and enlightening that defines content as journalism, not the actor who created it.
Sid Bedingfield is visiting professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
John R. MacArthur
I hesitate to say that journalism is for fun, since hardly anyone doing it is having fun anymore. Nevertheless, I find few things in life more enjoyable than rocking the boat to the water line—when one of my stories or columns provokes outrage in powerful people. Unpaid blogging has taken a lot of the fun out of our trade, so I will add the caveat that journalism should also be remunerative. Only then will there be enough serious journalists—not just journalists who take themselves too seriously—to properly inform a public starved for authentic revelation.
John R. MacArthur is president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine.