Evolving Definitions of News
‘Journalists may have thought it was necessary to set the old school aside to accommodate the new realities, but with the new realities there is no new ethic.’
The Internet explosion has left us with no shortage of data, but the Web as a source of "news" comes with a credibility problem. The Internet turns out to be a magnificent source of gossip, rumor, conspiracy theories, and fascinating urban myths. Using it, one can find pictures of Hurricane Katrina that haven't been seen anywhere else. The reason: They weren't taken during Hurricane Katrina. Such discoveries leave viewers wondering whether any picture found online has been doctored by Photoshop.
In my world of television, people ask why a network anchor should be paid so much money just "to read the news." There is a good reason, other than the perceived power of celebrity, and that is credibility. Credibility is so valuable today because it is so scarce.
When al-Qaeda attacked on 9/11, the spectrum of possible information sources was huge. In fact, a large majority of Americans picked one of just three sources: Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Dan Rather. Each had been broadcasting five nights a week for more than 20 years. Before that each had spent decades reporting throughout the world. That's how journalists earn credibility.
In the summer months leading up to 9/11 the two biggest stories on cable "news" had been shark attacks and the Gary Condit scandal. Those three anchors gave those stories little airtime and were criticized for failing to recognize what people really cared about. Rather had been particularly ridiculed for refusing to spend a single minute on the Condit scandal, saying that in his judgment it wasn't of enduring significance. That's how one earns credibility.
Americans need to know where to turn to on the Web when they are asking, "Who can I trust?" Already they are searching for places in the new media that they can count on for accuracy, for reporting without agendas—in short, for real news.
What Is News?
In thinking about what constitutes "real news," I wrote the following words in 2000—and the questions and issues they raise remain relevant today.
When I first heard the question "What is news?" in journalism school, I was a bit shocked by the arrogance of the answer. "News is what I say it is." That's the way it was in the old school. The old pros who said it, meant it. News is what we say it is. They spoke as members of the journalism profession, which was to them almost the priesthood. They spoke as people who took pride in their training and experience, their discipline and professional ethics. They talked about journalism as public service. They even used the phrase "a sacred trust."
That was the way it was in the old school before things started to change.
Former Vice President Spiro Agnew's attack on the "eastern elitist nattering nabobs of negativism" was at least correct on the "eastern" part. It was about this same time that television began having enormous impact, and we began to cope with the notion of journalists as celebrities. Walter Cronkite had problems reporting on campaigns and candidates because he drew more attention than those who were running for President. People started calling anchormen "400-pound gorillas." The question became "Who elected them?" or Richard Nixon's well-remembered words, "Mr. Rather, are you running for something?"
That criticism made us uncomfortable. Accepting accountability for providing news to our democracy was a heavy burden. We knew we weren't omniscient, and we asked ourselves, "Who are we to think we should set an agenda for the nation? What made us any smarter than the next guy?"
A sociologist once asked me how we decide what news is. He was appalled at my response: Those of us in the newsroom decide what news is. His question was, "How can you call yourselves responsible when you don't base your judgments on any scientific research?" His research tools were polls and focus groups.
It wasn't long before every network had a "research" department. Some journalists resisted, but management said that was "old school." We wouldn't be slaves to research, they assured us; it would only be used for "guidance." Focus groups were asked what they wanted to see on daily newscasts. In all too many places that move took much of the decision-making off the shoulders of the news staff. News consultants collated the responses of the focus groups and established guidelines for the newsroom. Soon every local station had health news, consumer news, happy news, pet stories. News is what people say they want to know about.
Then came the day when the networks were bought up by larger corporations whose primary orientation was not television. The Loews Corporation bought up CBS, and CEO Larry Tisch complained, "CBS News spends hundreds of millions of dollars. I can't believe the people who run broadcasts and bureaus aren't businessmen." The journalists there tried to strike a more reasonable attitude toward the unwelcome marriage of news and business. News, which had never been expected to make money, was now to become a profit center. The new owners insisted that journalists were obsessed with a level of quality that meant nothing to the viewers. We could produce popular broadcasts without all those foreign bureaus, without all those people. Cheaper operations would yield greater profits. News is what makes money.
Then there was an even brighter idea. News would be a lot better (not to mention cheaper) if you simply removed the middleman, the journalistic filter. It started off benevolently with C-SPAN bringing debates from the floor of Congress or other previously unseen events, and it let viewers watch them in their entirety. Then the Republican convention broadcast GOPTV events brought directly to us by the party without meddling journalists. News is anything you can get a camera to do.
This served the purposes of the 24-hour cable service magnificently. Its constant challenge is how to feed a gigantic maw, and nothing chews up time like live coverage. It might be repetitious; there might not be much information to impart. Not to worry. There were new realities. If you can cover it, you must. Be first, and don't worry what it is you are first with. News is anything you can cover live.
But here comes the Internet and the ability to send video to your laptop. (Today, it can come into our phones.) It's a pipeline that dwarfs the 24-hour cable channels. A desperate call has gone out for "content providers." It's where the money is, and journalists once again are scrambling to respond to new realities. Those realities are all about big money. The words "public service" do not even get lip service, much less "sacred trust." What content? Any content—anything that will keep the pipeline from running dry. Is it accurate? Maybe. Who's to say? News is what fills the pipeline.
Is it small wonder that the American people have become cynical about the news media? The only people more cynical are the journalists. Last year journalists were polled by the Pew organization. Asked if bottom-line pressures were hurting television news, 53 percent said yes. Asked if news organizations are moving too far into entertainment, 74 percent said yes.
The Committee of Concerned Journalists gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a "statement of concern" that is quite stunning. It reads, in part: "There is a growing debate within news organizations about our responsibilities as businesses and our responsibilities as journalists. Many journalists feel a sense of lost purpose. There is even doubt about the meaning of news, doubt evident when serious journalistic organizations drift toward opinion, infotainment and sensation out of balance with the news."
Listen to Andy Rooney: "Corporate America was late discovering there was a profit to be made with news, and it's trying to make up for its slow start."
Listen to Keith Olbermann, who described his old nightly MSNBC broadcast on the Monica scandal "The White House Isn't in Crisis, but We'll Keep Calling It That Because There Is a Graphic." At a graduation speech, he said, "I'm having the dry heaves in the bathroom because my moral sensor is going off, but I can't even hear it, I'm so seduced by these ratings."
You are hearing stirrings of conscience.
The old-timers were on to something. "News is what I say it is." They were putting their reputations on the line. They were taking responsibility, expecting to be held accountable. Journalists may have thought it was necessary to set the old school aside to accommodate the new realities, but with the new realities there is no new ethic. We were, in fact, abdicating our responsibility, letting ourselves off the hook.
Journalists are not omniscient. Journalists are better off if they can avoid being celebrities. Journalists are not necessarily good business people. What journalists are is a vital element in the operation of democracy. The First Amendment was not written to protect focus groups. The journalists who signed the "statement of concern" have it right when they speak of "a sense of lost purpose."
It has been said that "democracy is the worst form of government except for everything else." The old-school approach could be arrogant. It could be elitist. And it is dangerous to suggest that journalists should look inside themselves for the answer to the question, "What's news?" It's the most dangerous approach except for everything else.
Tom Bettag is executive producer of The Koppel Group at Discovery Channel. He was the executive producer of ABC News's "Nightline." Some words from this article were published originally in The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, Summer 2000.