Special Issue 2001

Is Journalism Losing Its Place in the Boisterous Public Forum?

An editor finds an appetite for serious conversation. Media ought to respond.

By Christine Chinlund
In some ways, journalism has come full circle. It began as a spoken medium, the stories exchanged in the Greek marketplace and, later, in colonial American taverns, over a pint of ale. Then, for a time, the printed word ruled the day and set the cadence for public discourse; the “forum” had moved to newspapers’ opinion pages.

But now the voices are back, blasting from the airwaves in an explosion of radio call-in shows and television talk shows, a loud and clamorous accompaniment to the printed word. In this incarnation, the volume on the “forum” has been cranked up to a new, sometimes deafening, decibel level. On any given day, television offers more than 175 hours of news and public affairs programming of which, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel inform us, 40 percent comes in the form of talk shows. Add to that the online chatter of the Internet (granted, a different sort of volume, but news/noise nonetheless), and we have a din that needs some taming.

That’s where today’s mission for journalists comes in. With the expanded audience and jacked-up volume comes an added responsibility to keep the conversation focused on the fact track, to nurture the best of what this new superforum can offer and prevent the worst from infecting it.

Never before, suggest Kovach and Rosenstiel, has it been more crucial that journalists play the role of honest broker and referee in the free-for-all exchange of ideas. Never before has it been so important that the long-held principles of journalism, starting with truthfulness, prevail every day.

True, technology gives us the potential for a more open debate than ever before, and that should excite the little “d” democrat in all of us. But the new communication format, the authors warn us, already has demonstrated that the “urge to comment replaces the urge to verify.” It is often more about delivering news (and concurrent comment) than gathering it. As a result, it devalues expertise—thus, the rise of inexperienced young pseudo-expert commentators (sometimes misconstrued by viewers as being journalists) who are the rage today.

One might think we are losing depth, but at least we are gaining scope as technological wizardry provides a breathtaking reach and allows coverage of more stories from more places and with more voices. But we shouldn’t be willing to make that trade-off so fast. For the new media culture does not, in the end, truly expand coverage. In fact, as reporting infrastructure recedes, chat room venues define the conversation relying on the most common denominator. A handful of simplistic blockbuster stories use up a lot of the journalistic oxygen. Soap operas dramas, known by familiar names (Monica; Lady Di; J.F.K., Jr.; Elián), dominate.

“The paradox,” the authors write, “is that news organizations use expanding technology to chase not more stories, but fewer.”

As if all of this were not enough to discourage public participation in the forum, one final thing might: Call it the “food fight” factor. Too many of today’s talk shows proceed on the theory that everyone likes a good fight. Polarization, not conversation, become the defining principle. We forget that the job of journalism is not just to foster an exchange of ideas, but to make that exchange a civil one in which truth is a requirement. But will that really sell in this market-driven age of communication?

My experience suggests it will. During the past six years, I’ve been able to take the temperature of the Boston community in an unusual way—through absorbing the content of the often overwhelming number of manuscripts and queries submitted to The Boston Globe’s (Sunday) Focus section. The writers differ in background—from academia to the union rank and file, from retirees to high-school students—but the majority of their offerings have a common thread: They are about matters of consequence, be it public policy, social culture, politics, or sometimes history. And, by and large, all presume that facts must define the debate, albeit facts sometimes selectively offered.

This tells us something about the public’s appetite for serious conversation and the need for a forum to present it. The media—out of enlightened self-interest, if nothing more noble—ought to respond. Return for a moment to “will it sell?” Kovach and Rosenstiel acknowledge that argument journalism builds a passionate following. But it is a limited one that constricts over time as shouting matches alienate the broader public, shutting it out of the conversation by failing to give it voice or reflect its nuanced views.

Therein lies the real message: The price for letting journalism get sidetracked by the boisterous, facts-are-optional, anything-goes approach is not just the sacrifice of truth and civility, important as they are. It’s the loss of our audience and, with it, a piece of democracy.

It’s a price we cannot afford.

Christine Chinlund, a 1998 Nieman Fellow, is editor of the Sunday Focus section of The Boston Globe.

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