Special Issue 2001

Creating a Road Map for Journalism’s Mission

Journalists reflect on nine core principles.

By Bob Giles
Journalism students learn in a different environment today. The influence of the new media and the potential it offers for diverse career paths disrupt the old patterns of learning about reporting news. Convergence of various media and the technologies that support it also influence changes in curriculum. But in too many places where journalism is taught, such core values as the role of the press in a self-governing society and the responsibility that First Amendment protections require can start to seem disconnected from future endeavors.

Such disconnection is worrisome, since the burden and privilege of preserving the special role of the press in our democracy and of restoring the trust of citizens who depend on it will reside with those now preparing to become journalists.

There is, of course, much students learn from journalists who have preceded them. Such an exploration ought to involve the discovery of how the day-to-day work of journalism has been altered by the speed and capabilities of new technologies. But it also should leave an indelible awareness about what in journalism has not changed—and should not change—including some core principles that are an essential road map for journalism’s mission.

It is with this journey into journalism’s past and present in mind that Nieman Reports has published this special issue. In it, we examine nine principles of journalism as set forth by Bill Kovach, former Curator of the Nieman Foundation, and Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, in their new book “The Elements of Journalism.”

These principles were distilled from a series of discussions among journalists and with the public, and from surveys and content studies. Taken together and applied to the job that journalists do, these principles comprise a theory of a free press.

“Society expects journalists to apply this theory, and citizens to understand it, though it is seldom studied or clearly articulated,” Kovach and Rosenstiel explain in the book’s introduction. “This lack of clarity, for both citizens and news people, has weakened journalism and is now weakening democracy. Unless we can grasp and reclaim the theory of a free press, journalists risk allowing their profession to disappear.”

Such a stark warning strongly suggests that a renewed dedication to teaching about the standards, values and theories of journalism should have a central place in the education of students preparing for careers in the news media. How might the principles and commentaries set forth in this little volume help accomplish that?

To begin, Kovach and Rosenstiel remind us that the important standards in journalism tomorrow will be the same core values of today and yesterday. No matter what the technology, journalism will involve monitoring those in power; researching a topic so as to ask probing questions; gathering information and identifying to consumers, as much as possible, where it came from; examining critical documents, and verifying what sources reveal.

In response to these nine principles, journalists from throughout the world contributed reflections, grounded in their personal experience, to exemplify how these standards operate in the daily routine of collecting and distributing news. Their experiences offer students vivid and compelling evidence of why understanding and applying these principles to one’s work is so important.

The Nieman Foundation is pleased to offer this special issue in the belief that the principles and discussion of them will be a valuable text for students in basic writing and editing courses as well as in seminars that explore theories of journalism and the role of the press in society.

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