Winter 2004

Experiencing the Meaning of Journalism

By Maria Henson
Want a newspaper reprint with your barbecue sandwich? How’s that for a message near the capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky, at Scotty’s Pink Pig restaurant?

I know the grim news about what we do, but I’m going to throw my lot with the optimists in large part because of my experience in Kentucky and a woman named Clayton Bradley. She read a series of investigative editorials I wrote for the Lexington Herald-Leader about how certain judges, prosecutors and police officers had failed to protect battered women and their children. Turns out that one of the women I featured—by name and ghastly emergency-room photo—was the daughter of Clayton’s friends from church. Until she saw the editorials, Clayton thought this young woman had been in an accident. When she learned that a boyfriend pummeled the young woman and that the law didn’t offer the same relief to girlfriends as it did married women, Clayton got angry, and she got active.

She asked for a stack of series’ reprints, put them on the front counter at her restaurant, and distributed them with barbecue. She posted a sign instructing diners to tell legislators to support domestic violence legislation; she even included the number for the Capitol switchboard. Across partisan lines, she and others around the state were relentless in
their advocacy. As a result, the legislature—among the last in the country to define marital rape as a crime and with a member who publicly worried about such legislation causing “vengeful women” to come out of the woodwork—experienced a curious conversion and passed every domestic violence reform proposed with hardly a whisper of dissent.

Witness the privilege of practicing journalism and the power of citizens to push for change.

Can journalism survive in this age of punditry and attitude? Of course it can. Here I’m speaking of journalism: Its business model is another matter entirely and, at the moment, lends little cause for optimism. Our roots lie in unruly partisan newspapering, from the nasty jousting of the Republican vs. Federalist press in our country’s earliest days. Surely, the anarchic, chaotic fireworks of talk show shouting, Internet blogging, and 24/7 “news you can choose,” as a National Journal writer put it, are our modern-day version of rowdy pamphleteering.

What concerns me more is the state of the citizenry. Before I left the Austin American-Statesman last summer, I was editing an ongoing project called “The Great Divide,” in which reporter Bill Bishop and statistician Robert Cushing analyzed voting and demographic patterns since World War II. They found that during the past 30 years, we have sorted ourselves into politically homogenized, no-compromise clusters, where we talk to like-minded people and limit our intake of dissenting views. By 2000 about half of the nation’s voters lived in counties where one party won the presidential election by 20 percentage points or more.

This worries me. If citizens are looking only for news that affirms their point of view and don’t live in places where there is an exchange of ideas, democracy is weakened and people get angrier about politics and institutions. Compromise becomes a sign of defeat. The individual is extreme and supreme, and the common good seems passé. Our work as journalists is based on a particular view of citizens: that they care about their rights, the conduct of their government, their role in governing—that they care about the country as a whole. No matter the period in history, journalism in a democratic society has a continuous duty to offer information that is accurate, rich in context and history, balanced and able to withstand peer review.

The question for us is whether citizens will want it.

There will always be a need for “real news,” which Bill Moyers observed has been defined by Richard Reeves as “the news you and I need to keep our freedoms.” I’m counting on people like Clayton to have an appetite for that kind of news and the ability to distinguish between punditry and journalism and on a country where the common good again counts for something. The top-down method of deciding and delivering news is distasteful to many today, but it’s also true that in a world where information bombards us a journalist can be a useful guide in making sense of this world, exposing abuses and injustices that might rile a citizen to act. I’m counting as well on individual journalists to see journalism as a calling that requires one to report with depth and rigor, not just to rant.

Maria Henson, a 1994 Nieman Fellow, is deputy editorial page editor of The Sacramento Bee.

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