Does Journalism Matter?13 May 2020
Columbia Journalism School professor and author Michael Schudson explains why journalism at its best is "a wonder of the world," in this interview with STI.
STI: In 2018 you published a book of some previously published essays and some new essays, Why Journalism Still Matters (Polity Press). In April, 2020 you published an entirely new work, Journalism: Why It Matters (Polity Press). Why two books with such similar titles?
MS: Like so many things, it’s an accident. The first title came in the midst of Americans having elected the most irresponsible President in the country's history, and I use “irresponsible” in every sense of the word – someone who accepts no responsibility for his own actions and who acts without taking responsibility for thinking through what he does. And the introduction recounts half a dozen cases where professional journalists did the original reporting that brought an end to the careers of Trump- administration Cabinet officers, highly placed White House advisers, and – of more note today than it was in 2018 – the director of the Centers for Disease Control (who bought tobacco company stocks while serving in that position).
The second title was part of a Polity series aimed at college students thinking about different concentrations in college – what should I study? What field should I pursue? Earlier titles included “Geography: Why It Matters” and “History: Why It Matters” and “Anthropology: Why It Matters” and so on. Polity’s wonderful and wonderfully persuasive director, John Thompson, prevailed upon me to try the “journalism” entry for the series with its precise requirement – a coherent 25,000 word essay (and not a single word more!) on why this field of study and occupational field mattered.
STI: And why does it matter?
MS: The implicit answer of the 2018 book was: “Journalism speaks truth to power.” It holds powerful people and institutions accountable. That’s a part of the answer in the second book, but only a part. People attend to the news media for multiple reasons. Both British and American surveys find that the most frequently read or watched part of the news is – yes, you guessed it! – the weather report. It is the part of the news that most influences how people organize their lives in the short run. I cite a line from the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who wrote that, without journalists, we would not be able to get our bearings in this fast-changing world, and we would “literally not know where we are.” It’s pretty hard to specify how you would measure this influence! But it is also clear on the face of it just how true and how important this is.
STI: But there are so many journalisms and more today than ever! What “journalism” do you have in mind?
MS: As I say in the 2020 book, it’s important to distinguish where people go to get their news from where that news originates. For a large majority of people at least in North America and Europe, from the 1960s or 1970s to the present, more people turn to television for news than anywhere else – ahead of online news and way ahead of newspapers. But at the same time, it is newspaper organizations (publishing both in print and online) that produce an overwhelming percentage of the news that people ultimately consume on TV or radio or online, somewhere around 80%. And that’s the journalism I focus on – professional journalism dedicated to evidence-based, verified and fact-checked work usually relayed in the form of “stories” focused on contemporary affairs and seeking to be compelling to readers.
There are other journalisms that also “matter.” They include explicitly opinionated journalism designed to advanced a specific partisan or sectarian viewpoint. Such journalism can also be honest, insightful, and compelling. But it does not normally produce the new, original reporting that shifts the public agenda – it responds to the public agenda.
STI: Is there going to be professional journalism 25 years from now or will the economic basis for journalism, so much under threat today, have crumbled?
MS: I can’t tell you the future. But I can say this much: astute observers of American journalism – and equally historians of European journalism – judge the news media today to be substantially better than it was a generation ago. Reporting is deeper, standards are higher, analysis (largely non-partisan) has replaced stenography as the most valued element in what journalism provides. Journalism has become more self-conscious, less provincial. It has also become – this is a point that is obvious but usually missed – easier! The reporter’s desktop, laptop, or smartphone provide more resources for reporting – by far! – than any individual reporter or even a group of individual reporters ever had in the pre-digital, pre-search-engine era.
So – journalists may not like to hear this, but I think it’s true – you can produce great journalism in less time with fewer people than ever before.
That’s not to say great journalism is easy – just easier. It’s still hard. It still requires incredibly hard work and sometimes incredibly courageous work and a combination of imagination, experience, instinct, persistence, and a combination of skepticism and faith that makes today’s journalism at its best a wonder of the world.
Without it, we would literally not know where we are.