A Matter of Trust

Blur, a new book by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, is about how contemporary journalism can stay trustworthy

Blur: How to Know What’s True In the Age of Information Overload | By Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel | Bloomsbury USA | 240 pages, $26

Blur: How to Know What’s True In the Age of Information Overload is a book of mixed messages and unfulfilled potential. The authors, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, have more than eighty years in journalism between them. Yet their book is as muddled as it is promising—which shows just how difficult it is to get a good handle on our present moment.

The authors seek to answer two questions. First: How can consumers decide which news sources to trust in the current media landscape? And second: What is the role of the traditional press now, and in the future? What they deliver instead is a comprehensive overview of journalism history, with an eye toward technological evolution, along with contemporary guidelines for reporters and editors.

Blur starts out well enough, with a case study of a disaster at a nuclear plant. How does the news break? There are secondhand accounts, amateur videos, revved-up talking heads on cable. The trick, as we soon learn, is that the events took place in 1979, at Three Mile Island (which the authors call “one of the last great domestic emergencies” to predate our current, madly accelerated information cycle).

It is easy to see that the controlled message of thirty years ago would swiftly, um, mushroom today. But after this hypothetical unfolds, the fascinating questions it raises are set aside for a straightforward history lesson. For the most part, this is a didactic book, creating descriptive categories for journalism. The breakdown—“straight news” versus “sense-making news” versus “the journalism of affirmation”—may be useful for journalism students and their professors. Along the way, however, the connection to the average news consumer is lost. Are we likely to hear someone on the bus talking about Glenn Beck’s latest salvo as “the journalism of affirmation”?

Indeed, Kovach and Rosenstiel are most effective when addressing news producers rather than news consumers. Their history emphasizes the noble and progressive aspects of journalism, celebrating the reporters who have doggedly sought the truth. They laud the likes of Homer Bigart, Neil Sheehan, and Seymour Hersh. Yet these reporters stand out, we read, because their work exists in pointed contrast to the omissions and missteps of “the press writ large.”

Understanding how good journalism is done may help readers suss out the good from the bad. But if the press writ large gets it wrong, how is the average reader to get it right? In one striking example, Hersh researches a story about CIA interrogation abuses and can’t get a second source to confirm key facts. He decides he can’t publish the story. “The story of the story that Seymour Hersh didn’t write,” the authors state, is an object lesson in the necessity for verification.

Yet this confusingly conflates the best practices of journalists with the tools available to consumers. A reader can’t evaluate a story that wasn’t published. The only lesson consumers can take from Hersh’s non-published story is the assumption that most published stories have been so scrupulously vetted.

Even when the authors speak specifically to the needs of readers, the results can be spotty. They suggest that trustworthy voices, such as Hersh’s, can be a key consumer tool. Yet their short list of such voices includes one journalist over sixty, another who has retired from reporting, still another who spent two years on a single story before taking a break from journalism—and David Halberstam, who died three years ago.

This points to one of the key gaps in Blur: at some point, the stories of the past fail to adequately inform the challenges of the present, and the future. While journalists who thrived during the “golden era” of three major television networks and financially sound newspapers share core values with the best journalists of today, they have dramatically different practices. Neil Sheehan got his hands on the Pentagon Papers—but can he take digital photos? Record audio? Build a website?

“With the creative destruction brought by the digital age, the values alone are not enough,” the authors recognize in the last chapter, finally turning to the new realities. News organizations must be reinvented. “This reinvention will come from new places, younger people who understand the technology but adhere to the old values if not the old ways,” they continue. “That may be less our prediction than a profound hope.” It’s a plaintive cry, which makes you wonder whether the cherished conception of journalism outlined in Blur may be facing its final chapters.

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Carolyn Kellogg is a contributor to CJR.