Former Seattle Times Executive Editor Michael R. Fancher considered the question of whether “The Journalist’s Creed,” written in 1914 by Walter Williams, founder of the Missouri School of Journalism, remains viable in the digital age.
“The whole world is watching.” Demonstrators chanted those words in the streets of Chicago in 1968, and many people throughout the world did watch as the story was told through the voices of professional print and broadcast journalists.
That summer I had graduated from the University of Oregon and would spend those next 40 years in journalism, working for just two newspapers. I left The Kansas City Star as city editor in 1978 and spent the next 30 years at The Seattle Times, 20 of them as executive editor. I worked with amazingly talented journalists and for principled owners dedicated to public service journalism. When I retired in 2008, I could not have asked for a more fulfilling career.
Today, the words “the world is watching”—uttered from the streets of Iran and by President Obama—convey a wholly different sense of the instantaneous global reach of news reports and the multitude of ways that information is collected and delivered. Consider how the world watched Neda Agha Soltan, a 26-year-old music student, die in Tehran this summer. Independent news organizations were prohibited from being in the streets, but two amateur videos—one 37 seconds long and the other 15 seconds—put a tragically beautiful face on the story of post-election protests that the Iranian government sought to suppress. Try as it might, the government couldn’t block transmission of images from mobile phone cameras, e-mails, and social networking sites.
In this digital age, the world is watching all of the time, everywhere. People have nearly limitless access to information, allowing them to exercise their own news judgment. They are increasingly serving as reporters and editors for themselves and others. Indeed, the case has been thoughtfully articulated that, “We’re all journalists now.”1 And, the question has been provocatively asked, “When everyone can be a publisher, what distinguishes the journalist?”2
In considering that question, it is important to recognize that professional journalism is relatively young and has no claim to permanence. At the turn of the last century, “yellow journalism” and sensationalism prompted calls for reform. In 1908, Walter Williams founded the nation’s first journalism school at the University of Missouri, believing that journalists would earn the public’s trust only if they were trained as professionals and held themselves accountable to the highest professional and personal standards.
In 1914 Williams wrote “The Journalist’s Creed,” which begins:
I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust.
I first read “The Journalist’s Creed” as a sophomore working for my high school newspaper, and it inspired me throughout my career. Its core principles of clarity, accuracy, fairness, truth, independence and, above all, public service, remain the heart of journalism today.
But Williams’s “Creed” was written at a time when information was scarce and access to it was limited. Journalism was mostly a one-way relationship with journalists deciding what best served the public. Today, anyone can perform the traditional functions of journalism, and thus arises a serious question about whether the kind of public service journalism Williams advocated can remain viable in the digital age.
After I retired from The Seattle Times, I was offered a fellowship in the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism for the 2008-2009 academic year. Through public forums, research and study during my fellowship, I’ve come to believe that the imperatives facing journalism are far more fundamental than I had appreciated. They go beyond the collapse of the business model that supported journalism in the past century.
Restoring Public Trust
One particularly compelling explanation for what is happening comes out of Forrester Research and is captured in the book “Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies,” published by Harvard Business School Press in 2008. The authors, Forrester analysts Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, define this “groundswell” as “a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations.” They assert in “Groundswell” that this is “an important, irreversible, completely different way for people to relate to companies and to each other.”
Li and Bernoff offer this advice: This groundswell won’t be stopped, but it can and should be understood. We ought not only to live with it, but thrive in it. Doing so requires new thinking—skill, knowledge, experience and, eventually, enlightenment.
I think everyone associated with journalism and journalism education appreciates the need for acquiring new skills, knowledge and experience. New business models will and are emerging. Of necessity, journalists are rethinking what they do and how they do it.
As for enlightenment, my belief is that journalism must also develop a new ethic of public trust through public engagement. This will require that journalists let go of the sense that we have control and recognize how much better public service journalism can be when we accept the public as true partners. Instead of fearing and resisting this shift, journalists must embrace and lead the way. This fundamental change in perspective isn’t just necessary for journalism to survive; it is the right thing for journalists to do.
In the foreword to Charlie Beckett’s book “SuperMedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save the World,” Jeff Jarvis calls this “the natural state of media: two-way and collaborative.” As he observes, “The one-way nature of news media until now was merely a result of the limitations of production and distribution. Properly done, news should be a conversation among those who know and those who want to know, with journalists—in their new roles as curators, enablers, organizers, educators—helping where they can.”
As the economics, architecture, tools and technology of journalism change, Jarvis writes that he hopes what changes most is the culture: “I hope journalism becomes more open, transparent, inclusive and flexible.”
For this to happen, journalists must put public trust through public engagement at the heart of everything they do. This starts with re-examining the values of journalism—what they should be and how we can live up to them. Research conducted as part of my fellowship project suggests that the public views the core values of journalism differently than journalists do.
Journalists can’t regain public trust without better understanding and respecting those differences. A new ethic of public trust through public engagement would:
See public trust not as an abstraction, but with an abiding desire to connect on a human level.
See the public not as an audience but as a community, of which journalism is a vital part.
See the Internet not just as a new medium for communication, but as a new way of networking among people, with journalism at the hub.
Be independent without being indifferent or hostile.
Feel a responsibility to help the public be smart consumers of news.
Recognize that journalism isn’t just on behalf of the people, but in concert with them.
Most importantly, this new ethic of public engagement can be the sustaining embodiment of Williams’s belief that the supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service.
Michael R. Fancher was until 2008 the longtime executive editor of The Seattle Times. For the past year, he has been a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.