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Journalism, the Quintessential Knowledge Profession, has an Information Problem
By Vartan Gregorian
American journalists have a major responsibility: working on democracy's free press to inform citizens and officials about local, national and world events as well as to provide a measure of public accountability for all institutions and their members. In June 2002, a number of prominent journalists, publishers, news executives and deans of journalism and communications schools came to a daylong Carnegie Corporation forum to discuss a concern raised by many of us; namely, that the nation's truly admirable journalism profession currently lacks sufficient tools to do its work and, hence, democracy's work in a competitive environment of parsimonious corporate support and expanding global complexity.
Globalization imposes on journalists the increasing burden of making sense of interlocking or interdependent histories, economies, laws, cultures and conflicts in a "news cycle" now spinning at Internet speed. The Information Revolution and journalists are front and center in this revolution makes it enormously easier for journalists to obtain information, but not correspondingly easier for them to separate the chaff from the wheat, subjectivity from objectivity, opinion from fact, private interests from public interests, manipulation from influence and corruption from "spin." The Information Revolution, globalization and media industry trends including corporate consolidations, ever-present commercialism and "infotainment" make it more and more difficult for journalists to cover the news and provide sophisticated analysis, synthesis and context. Even leaving aside the corporate issues, it is clear that the complexities of modern society, global development and the Information Revolution place unprecedented demands on the profession of journalism. But it is not so clear whether our graduate and undergraduate programs in journalism provide adequate intellectual and technical preparation to meet these challenges.
In the past, the prevalent view was that the quickest way to learn about an issue is to cover it never mind that turnover in assignments often means that no sooner has a reporter or editor achieved a level of expertise than he or she hands it over to a relative newcomer to the issue. If, as many agree, that system was wearing thin in the 20th century, it certainly isn't adequate in the 21st.
Journalism, the quintessential knowledge profession, deserves the best educated and trained practitioners, in my view. Or more bluntly, as Loren Ghiglione, dean of the Medill School of Journalism, told the Chicago Tribune: "We need a new paradigm for what a good journalist does. The old paradigm was that any good reporter can do a good job of covering any subject, regardless of how complicated it is. The new paradigm says: 'Wouldn't it be good if people really knew what they were writing about?'"
Journalism, after all, has to help us cope with the info-glut. The total amount of collected information is said to double every two or three years, and yet we are told that we're unable to use 90 to 95 percent of the information on hand. As Richard Saul Wurman writes in his book, Information Anxiety (Doubleday, 1989), "We are like a thirsty person who has been condemned to use a thimble to drink from a fire hydrant."
The info-glut's implications for journalism and thus democracy are Orwellian. In 1984, George Orwell described a world in which information was scarce, knowledge was denied and propaganda was substituted for both. In the 21st century, the risk is the same but the process is different: denying citizens knowledge by inundating them with "megabytes, gigabytes and terabytes" of undigested information.
Thus, the importance of ensuring journalism's success in meeting today's challenges finding knowledge in information cannot be overstated, for failure leaves our democracy open to massive manipulation, distortion and denial of citizens' ability to make real choices as autonomous beings. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816, "A nation that expects to be ignorant and free expects what never was and never will be." Put another way, James Madison said, "I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations."
As a society, however, we do not put a lot of trust in journalism, ranking journalists just below "rich people" and just above "government officials" in a recent public opinion survey by CNN/USA Today/Gallup. Indeed our ambivalence about journalists is comparable to our ambivalence about teachers and librarians. While many people pay lip service to the need for a free press, public education and libraries saying they are essential sources of information and knowledge and, thus, essential to the security and health of our democracy most of us rarely pay any attention to the needs of these idealized professions. We routinely take these practitioners for granted, but are very quick to criticize shallow reporting, ineffective teaching and weak librarianship. A dialogue in Tom Stoppard's 1978 play, Night and Day, captures this ambivalence: "Milne: 'No matter how imperfect things are, if you've got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is conceivable.' Ruth: 'I'm with you on the free press. It's the newspapers I can't stand.'"
These three professions in particular, the education and training for their practitioners are of particular interest to Carnegie Corporation of New York, which was founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1911 "to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding," a mission that Carnegie believed in passionately because of his deeply held conviction that ideas can change the world for the better.
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