Every year, I have my students in the introductory seminar read a marvelous little book called "The Elements of Journalism."
Most of them find it both educational and inspirational. That was true again in the semester just ending.
So it finally has occurred to me that you, diligent consumers of news that you are, might also benefit from knowing the standards against which we measure our work.
I understand that some of you may be surprised to learn that we have standards, or principles. Others may want to use these standards to beat us over the head when we fall short, as we inevitably will from time to time.
Fair enough. The subtitle of the book is “What newspeople should know and the public should expect.” That’s an invitation to be critical.
Before I lay out the elements, a few words of background: The authors are Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel.
They are the founding leaders of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, an informal organization dedicated to examining and improving our craft. The committee is affiliated with the School of Journalism’s program in Washington.
"The Elements" emerged from a series of conversations over two years in which journalists and news consumers identified widely shared but seldom-articulated principles that guide the work of serious journalists and so shape the news we report. Here are those principles:
- "Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
- "Its first loyalty is to citizens.
- "Its essence is a discipline of verification.
- "Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
- "It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
- "It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
- "It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
- "It must keep the news comprehensive and in proportion.
- "Its practitioners have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience.
- "Citizens too have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news."
Underlying those 10 elements is what you might call the theory of journalism in a democracy. As the authors express that theory, "the purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing." James Madison said much the same thing 200 years ago.
You have the right, then, to expect us to uphold our own standards. You should expect that our reports are accurate, that our sources are identified and that our loyalty is clearly to you.
You should expect that we take seriously the monitoring of power and the maintenance of our independence. You should expect that we own up to our mistakes and that we never, ever make stuff up.
In return, the authors say, "The citizen has an obligation to approach the news with an open mind and not just a desire that the news reinforce existing opinion."
That's easier said than done, I realize, in a culture so polarized that Republicans and Democrats don’t even like the same entertainment programs on television.
Those 40 percent of Iowa Republicans who say they get their news mainly from Fox aren’t likely to seek out Rachel Maddow. If they did, the cognitive dissonance would be painful.
It’s a complicated relationship between journalists and the consumers of news. My students, being both, take their responsibility seriously. They understand both their rights and their duties.
As their final exercise, I had each write a personal code of ethics. Their codes showed that they’ve absorbed the core principles of their craft.
My favorite line, from one of the six Chinese students in the class, was this:
"Want to do good reporting? Be a good person first."
Sound advice, I thought, for writers and readers alike.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.