Journalism with an edge
Journalism with an edge

Journalism with an edge

Go ahead, bring your worldview . . . you'll need it.

March 1 st 2008
Appears in Spring 2008

For most of my life, journalists have been my people. I enjoy their curious nature, and I still believe that this craft holds the potential for great achievement and great contributions to society. When I am critical of journalism—and I am, at times—it is because I know it has so much to offer, and when it fails to achieve its potential it fails to be the strong pillar that a healthy democracy needs it to be.

The journalist's vocation, after all, is the search for truth—a search that in an era of postmodern relativism and emotivism becomes all the more complicated. If journalists are to seek and successfully find The Truth, then they must believe there is such a thing.

This is exactly why journalists with a well-developed worldview have an edge. Only through the development of such an understanding of oneself can accurate, fair, thorough and thoughtful journalism be achieved.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post's famous reporting tandem credited with exposing the Watergate scandal that in turn forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon, inspired me and my entire generation of journalists—the last to have entered their craft via the old apprenticeship route as opposed to the modern paper chase through journalism schools. Some of my peers over the years, however, didn't understand what Woodward and Bernstein really meant to journalism. Some of my peers tended to see journalism as a vehicle for the advancement of many social and economic causes. Some believed— and many still do—so strongly in these social and economic causes that they were certain that "if only people knew the truth" those causes would triumph.

On balance, their causes turned out most frequently to be liberal causes—not due to any conspiracy, but because most journalists tend to be liberal arts grads less inclined to sympathize with the right-hand side of the political spectrum. Recent developments, however, such as the rise to prominence of Fox News, show that agenda journalism can exist on both sides of the spectrum. Also, young journalists tend to be more idealistic than their elders. Idealism is not a bad thing—quite the contrary—but it needs to be balanced with wisdom and experience. As compensation levels for journalists have stagnated, it has become more common for people, as they acquire spouses and children and mortgages, to abandon journalism for other, related fields of work. This economic trend has the potential to tip the balance between youth and experience, idealism and wisdom in newsrooms, leaving newspapers more prone to the influences of ideology.

There are thousands of fewer jobs available for the present generation of journalists than for mine. So, as society grows and democracy demands information and debate, there are fewer people assigned to provide the former and inspire the latter.

Worldviews in macro fashion

The decline in voices is hideous, but there isn't necessarily anything unethical or insidious about "agenda" journalism. Indeed, it is a part of the history of journalism. When newspapers—the foundational form of journalism in the post-towncrier era—were largely constructed on proprietorship or individual ownership models as opposed to today's largely corporate structures, they very much tended to reflect the worldviews of their founders or owners. Most large markets, nationally, regionally or locally, tended to have a variety of newspapers, or at least more than one. In Britain, for instance, The Guardian was and still is largely renowned as the Labour paper. The Daily Telegraph was and still is largely known as the Tory, or Conservative paper. France has socialist papers and papers to the right. The same models exist—or perhaps it is better to say existed—in most North American cities.

This doesn't mean that journalists at these publications were or are failing to commit journalism. The worldviews of their publications were not generally expressed through daily manipulation of the news in a fashion that would distort or hide the truth. To do so would diminish the trust of their readers and undermine the credibility of their publications, eventually leading to economic failure. Worldviews are not micromanaged, but are expressed in macro fashion.

Organizational worldviews are generally created through the choices made by publishers and editors in terms of:

  • How and where they choose to deploy their staff;

  • The amount of space they choose to designate for certain areas of interest;

  • Which stories they choose to highlight and which stories they choose to leave on their back or inside pages;

  • The assumptions made by their assignment editors; and

  • The balance and perspective of their commentators and which ones they choose to highlight.

Into this falls the theory, promoted by many journalism instructors and misunderstood by some journalists, of what I call radical objectivism. That is, they promote the view that journalists must not only produce fair and balanced work but must also view the world with complete objectivity. That is, in order to produce objective work, they must themselves be devoid of any personal worldviews, and make themselves capable of approaching their assignments as a tabula rasa, or "blank slate," to which all points of view have equal merit and are therefore reported in that context. While the ideal of the creation of objective material designed to give readers as much truth as is possible on any given day is certainly laudable, the concept of the tabula rasa journalist is clearly absurd.

The concept of the tabula rasa journalist:

  • is impossible. We are all informed by our cultures, our experiences, and our predispositions. It is part of what makes us human beings. To pretend otherwise is a lie;

  • doesn't create journalists. It creates stenographers who could easily be replaced by software programs for information input and regurgitation;

  • destroys empathy, a key ingredient in our humanity and vital component of journalism; and

  • eliminates moral and cultural value perspectives. In other words, the ravings of a racist or anti-Semite must under this doctrine be treated with credibility equal to any other opinion. Idealized tabula rasa journalism is not permitted, by its own definition, to grant greater value to that which is honest over that which is dishonest. The tabula rasa journalist cannot distinguish what is true from what is untrue.

Journalism starts with self-awarenes

While tabula rasa journalism insists on the utter absence of a worldview, I contend that the best journalism is achieved by those with the most rigorously developed worldviews. By this I mean something more than just an opinion. Opinions are like belly buttons—everybody has one. I mean a rigorously developed, studious worldview.

If you are called to be a journalist, you need to know not only what you believe, you need to know why you believe what you do. You need to challenge yourself, argue against yourself and test the strength of your beliefs so that they are more than just feelings. And you need to be intimately familiar with and empathetic to the arguments of others who do not share your views.

You must be more than just an emotivist. You have to have the ability to go beyond such trite phrases as "I think" that are just based on emotion and not on reason. Within a religious context, I think we all accept that at some point a leap of faith is required. That, at a certain point, is part of its beauty. But that leap, particularly for journalists, should be taken from a strong foundation. Once you have built that foundation and you have a robust worldview, you will have achieved a level of intellectual strength that in turn represents self-awareness.

In other words, once you really know and understand what your own worldview is, you will be fully aware of your biases and in what areas you are prone to prejudgment. You will then be properly equipped to strive to achieve fairness—work that represents a fair compilation and assessment of the facts.

Further, because of your work developing an intellectually valid worldview, you should be more fully capable of understanding the perspectives and worldviews of others. You should know the difference between democracy and theocracy. You should know the difference between determinism and deism. You should know the difference between relativism and absolutism. You should have some understanding of the difference between progressive and libertarian economic theory and capable to absorb the texture and subtle nuances of ideas that bridge these gaps.

You will understand which of your sources speak with some form of ideological and philosophical consistency and which are less reliable in their consistency.

This ability to intellectually empathize—as opposed to sympathize—with the people you interview will make you a journalist far superior to those who have not undertaken the training required to obtain a sophisticated worldview. Your edge is that you should now be able to place their views in context, so that they are more than just words. You can report their words with a greater understanding of their actual meaning.

To put it simply, sympathy is the ability to share someone's point of view. Too many journalists, when seeking input in to their stories, make the mistake of using only contacts with whom they intuitively sympathize, and insert—without ever realizing they are doing so—their own worldview into their stories.

Empathy is the ability to understand someone else's point of view, feelings, and experiences without necessarily sharing them. The empathetic journalist should be better equipped to draw a broader spectrum of views into his or her stories and therefore give the reader a more thorough understanding of the issues at stake.

"The Lost W"

Journalism is generally built on five 'W's'—Who, What, When, Where and Why. You might even throw an 'H' in there—How.

Today's media environment is fragmented. It is in hundreds, if not thousands of pieces. The days of dominance by network television news and major broadsheets are gone. To give you some idea, a hit program on television not so long ago drew market shares of as high as 40%. Today, 14% is a major hit. Major newspapers used to be consumed on a "read yesterday" basis by 70% of people over 18 in their markets. Today, that number is more like 30%.

No longer must people wait for the 6 o'clock news or for the morning or afternoon paper to find out what the major issues of the day are. All news TV and radio, online news services and ebulletins give us all access to the latest, breaking news around the clock, seven days a week.

Competition between information vehicles is fierce, demanding more and more speed on the part of the journalists who work for them. As a result, journalists have less time to develop all five W's. And, in most cases, it is the 'Why' that gets lost.

What makes the situation more problematic is that the shelf life of stories has also shortened. In a world of news on demand, there is less and less room within these vehicles for 'Why.' Many journalists, having filed the first four W's at breakneck speed, might just be getting around to filing a more robust rendition of that story filling in the missing 'Why' when they are assigned to yet another breaking news story which in turn gives us only the first four W's. And so it goes.

Journalists are trying to serve an audience of viewers and readers that are the best educated in the history of human development. This level of education creates a market that needs to be served. That means that when the dust settles from the current media imbroglio, it will be those that distinguish themselves through thoughtful disciplined analysis that will prevail in the marketplace.

It will be people who not only have the ability to write with texture and sophistication but who also have the ability to think with nuance and depth that will succeed. In my view, only the demands of theological and philosophical training are capable of providing the basis for analysis at the level that will be required to meet the demands of a marketplace trying to understand the 'Whys' of their world.

Ideological training, popular within exclusively secular workplaces, does have value. But ideology, particularly in contrast with Christianity, offers a relatively narrow set of ideas within which the world can be explained and understood. Christians who understand the breadth and depth of their faith and who have explored the nature of Truth will bring a level of sophistication and intellectual empathy to journalism that in the end will be of great value to an industry that too often struggles to understand itself, let alone the world around it.

To put it simply: the edge a Christian journalist possesses when searching for the truth behind a story is that he or she knows there really is such a thing as truth.

Peter Menzies
Peter Menzies

Peter Menzies writes on culture, media and communications. While he now works in the cultural industry and advises tech companies, he has in the past served as vice chairman of telecommunications for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). He was publisher and editor-in-chief of one of Canada's major daily newspapers, the Calgary Herald.


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