August 14, 2006

A Syllabus for a Moral Journalism

By Douglas McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- Since I began in journalism in 1977 the profession has sharply dropped in public standing, inexorably squandering the cultural authority it earned during the Civil Rights, Vietnam War, and Watergate eras.

Slowly journalism has transformed from the mighty "press" into a meek appendage of the "mass media," often using what power it has retained merely to reinforce political paralysis, poisoned public discourse, and America's weakened image abroad. And it has been a cheerleader of the obsessive consumerism that causes so many personal and public health crises, economic imbalances, and global environmental threats.

Angry at how professional journalism handed itself over to government and corporate power, citizens are taking matters into their own hands.

This summer a bumper crop of new "citizen journalism" ventures are sprouting, sometimes with the help of professional journalists who are sympathetic to the mission and eager to lend their skills.

Here in Minnesota The Twin Cities Daily Planet, launched in May, combines professional editors with citizen reporters covering neighborhood, community, and ethnic issues in Minnesota. The Center for Independent Media, a new not-for-profit out of Washington, is also now recruiting citizen bloggers to build a statewide network to cover daily Minnesota news in a wire-service fashion.

On a national scale, the proliferation of citizen journalism web sites has been underway for several years. These are mostly efforts to create traditional newsroom-style journalism that is powered by citizen journalists working in the new medium of blogs. This summer, a new interest in harnessing the power of distributed networks to journalism is taking hold as theorist-practitioners like Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen move their new projects into the action phase.

Yet I see places where, unless some corrections are made early, journalism's new edifice will soon crack along familiar stress lines.

What journalists need to think about seriously right now is language itself -- its essential nature, its cultural meanings, and most importantly, its social uses and modes of action. 

Language after all is the very medium of journalism, the substance that journalists sculpt and shape into journalism's many forms. That many if not most working journalists never spend a single hour seriously studying the manipulation of language by power -- for example in its forms as rhetoric and propaganda or public relations -- is a stunning, troubling fact.

A profound knowledge of tools and materials is necessary at the highest level of every profession, sometimes as a matter of life and death. Sunday drivers don't need to know a carburetor from a crankshaft; but a NASCAR driver's life could hang on such knowledge.

Journalism, some days, drives society. It is a straightforward matter of public safety that journalists thoroughly master a knowledge of the social and political uses and abuses of language, before they take the wheel.

Most journalists have above-average facility in vernacular English. The problem is that they mistake this single skill -- often with prickly arrogance and defensiveness -- for true expertise in the use of language to move masses of people to think and act in certain ways. They are usually completely ignorant of this field of study, despite the fact that it defines precisely what they do.

When journalists don't fully understand how power shapes language to serve its own ends, they inevitably become pawns to those who do. Power then takes the wheel of society, and drives it where it will.

A closer metaphor than race-car driving to journalism is agriculture. Journalists produce the words and images we massively consume. The mass media is a greater producer of this diet than journalism, but journalism is that slice of the mass media that claims to produce the critical narrative and informational calories that citizens must absorb to keep democracy in robust health.

Our soul food as citizens is language itself. But how many journalists learn a thing about the cultural seeds of language, how language grows or is thwarted in different political and cultural climates, or indeed how language can be altered by propaganda or admixed with sweet-tasting poisons?

Is it not possible that mass media-produced language, including the language used by the "news media," has itself become just another of the mild poisons massively consumed by global society?

What is journalism's moral responsibility in such a situation?

As we reach an exciting new threshold in journalism's development, these basic questions are not yet being asked. Blueprints for new language-processing factories are being sketched that dwarf all that have come before.

The tiny fraction of these new processing facilities that succeed will dwarf in global reach the largest of the dead-tree journalistic enterprises.

These new networked news enterprises involving both citizens and professional journalists will become the e-Bays, Amazons, and Googles of journalism. (Google itself may become the new Google of journalism.)

Any rocket scientist will tell you that tiny alterations in original conditions strongly influence outcome. Making such adjustments in today's new journalism ventures could mean that down the line they'd have a better chance at fulfilling their progressive aims, instead of morphing into the paralyzed, caustic, harmful and meaningless journalism they hoped to replace.

A syllabus for a new journalism -- a journalism more conscious of its broad impacts on individual and social health -- would cover four main topics:

1. The study of journalism as rhetoric. It would surprise most journalists to know that even as they impart to readers the informational content of their articles they are also, usually unconsciously, trying to persuade their readers of several key points. These include persuading readers of their own credibility as journalists, and of the authority of the people they quote; and to persuade readers also of the essential correctness of their moral premises, world view, and authorial points-of-view. These specific points are important to grasp, but equally important in studying journalism as rhetoric is simply to demonstrate to journalists the multi-layered intentions embedded in all speech.

2. Examining "free speech" versus "right speech." This step in the syllabus sensitizes journalists to the wide range of public speech which, although allowed by law, is inadvisable from the standpoint of individual or societal good. Since it has historically been threatened by government censorship, journalism has tended to refrain from lengthy consideration of instances where free speech is best curtailed for the overall good. Yet absolutely unchecked public speech engenders its own set of public health threats, and is now doing just that across the globe. It thus behooves journalism to ask whether the media's abuse of free-speech protections is one reason why journalism itself, instead of helping solve society's problems, so often simply fuels them.

3. The perfect correlation of local and global causes and effects. This is a universal fact, ignorance of which is the root of much human suffering. Ironically, the opportunity to embrace this truth arises precisely at dire historical moments such as the present one, when the effects of ignorance of the perfect local-global correlation becomes apparent as local and global disease. The illumination of these stress points in the natural environment, the economy, local cultures, and in the human person is journalism's paramount responsibility at such an epochal moment.

4. The problems of the individual and of society, which are journalism's natural subjects, connect in the experience of human suffering. As a result, human suffering, individual and social, is journalism's essential subject. Journalism is much like medicine, the law, or the helping professions in this respect. Yet what do journalists really know about human suffering? How much have they studied it, and equally important, how thoroughly have they considered the role of journalistic practice in the overall scheme of human suffering -- its possible role in causing and continuing human suffering, and as well in contributing to individual and social healing? What guidelines has journalism established for ethical practice in this particular regard? Journalists see and deal with human suffering all day long; they actively seek it out; they absorb it and re-present it to vast audiences repackaged as straight news, analysis, feature stories, long and short narratives, and many other forms. Yet what is really happening in this transaction? What moral calculus is involved, what trade-off of rights and obligations occurs -- or should occur -- between journalists and the suffering people from whose pain the journalist fashions stories? At what point does the re-presentation of suffering become entertainment? Such questions only begin to open this subject, which leads to the deepest question that journalism can ask of itself: What is journalism's purpose? Is it merely to inform? Or is it in some way, also, to heal? Many journalists would say: "My purpose as an individual journalist is merely to inform. I hope that society uses the information to heal itself, but whether it does so is out of my hands." When did journalists become so timid? When did they accept so passive a role for themselves and their profession? Do they apply that same standard of passivity when they themselves as individuals fall sick? Do they merely read up on their illness and dismiss their own recovery as a matter "out of their hands?" If journalists forthrightly engage in healing themselves when facing illness, why would they not do the same for their families, friends, neighborhoods, cities, nations, and global society?

The syllabus for a new journalism can be summarized in four statements.

First, the study of journalism as rhetoric awakens journalists' consciousness to the wider historical, linguistic, and social depths of their daily practice;

Second, weighing free speech against right speech reveals the continuum -- the unitary and undivided nature -- of the personal and the political, of the self and society;

Third, local-global thinking reveals the unbroken continuum of "here" and "there" in a similar manner;

Fourth, keeping human suffering foremost unites the heart and the mind and clarifies the need to form an explicit and positive moral intention behind every communicative act.

Plainly stated, journalists and citizen journalists shouldn't fix their progressive dreams to the latest miracle of communications technology. They should consult their heart, before they activate the machine.

The key is intention. Returning to the agriculture metaphor, the key for journalists is to learn how to cultivate a positive intention behind their communication, from which seeds of intention will grow language that does not injure, aggravate or destroy, but rather that sustains, helps and heals.

Journalism's professional ethical code of "objectivity" contradicts itself, because it asks journalists to create positive moral outcomes while acting in a morally neutral manner.

Yet only positive moral intentions, followed by positive and skilled moral actions, can create positive moral outcomes.

Journalism as a healing art is an explicitly moral journalism.

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Copyright @ 2006 The McGill Report