Banner Image for 2009 Winning student essay
2019 I.F. Stone Medal recipients Monika Bauerlein, left, and Clara Jeffery, right, with Florence Graves Lisa Abitbol

I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence

2009 Winning student essay

Russ Chroma

Journalistic independence is the ability to resist the temptation to pander. Journalists have an unprecedented ability to access and share information, documents and data with virtually the entire world, at little to no cost. But there is also the strong impulse to skip the hard truth for the sake of the provocative truth, to sacrifice the hard work for the fast work—to churn it out now, to spin it forward or side to side. Readers, advertisers and news outlets themselves are placing less of a premium on solid, methodical work that is based on inscrutable documentation and evidence. That doesn’t get a link by Matt Drudge. That doesn’t get six million unique page views.

Today, journalists have an independence that I.F. Stone would envy. Anyone with a WordPress account and a sheaf of documents can tell a truth that reaches the world. But that doesn’t happen. The same technology that gave every person with a keyboard and Internet access great power has also empowered consumers to receive the news they want to hear at any given moment. Nobody has to listen to anything he doesn’t want to hear, and as the legacy news outlets hemorrhage readers, news publishers are so skittish and so reluctant to make any major commitment of resources to anything that isn’t guaranteed to draw eyeballs. Even as they abandon newspapers, advertisers hold unprecedented sway over desperate publishers. The opportunities to do truly independent work are fleeting.

To some degree, the failure of publishers to invest in hard-hitting newsgathering—regardless of the time and resources needed—doesn’t matter, because the Internet has given everyone the ability to sift great volumes of information and documents, in the best tradition of I.F. Stone. But the mantra at both old and new media has become “update now, follow later.” Good stories fall off the front page and are forgotten. The average beat reporter or blogger in America doesn’t have time to dig in on a story, to develop the sources who know. She is too busy shoveling another story into the great, Web-powered news engine.

There are promising developments in the theories of crowdsourced journalism, or the ability to allow consumers to make micropayments for news they want, but these ideas are mostly an evolution of the traditional models that have always bound journalists and restricted true journalistic independence. A journalist supported by a crowd of publishers from within the community wielding micropayments is just as chained to the public whim as a newspaper publisher who is afraid to anger advertisers who don’t want to be associated with unpopular stories.

Philip Meyer, the noted computer-assisted reporter and professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote in his 2004 book The Vanishing Newspaper, “The only way to save journalism is to develop a new model that finds profit in truth, vigilance, and social responsibility.”

The Internet puts the tools necessary to preserve journalistic independence in the hands of everyone, but it doesn’t naturally provide an incentive for journalists to practice truth, vigilance and social responsibility. There is plenty of room for the thorough precision journalism practiced by Stone and Meyer, but few people actually pursuing it. Why should they? Those who profit are the fast and the flashy.

There are exceptions to the rule that telling the truth doesn’t generate profits, but pursuing the idea that truth should profit is leading the news community further from true independence. The rise of the non-profit model for journalism, however, is an appealing route to preserving independence in journalism.

As legacy media began laying off staff and cutting resources that couldn’t be justified in the quest for profits, it was natural that a spray of non-profit journalism centers would begin springing up to fill the vacuum. Clearly, trying to squeeze profit from the truth left something to be desired in the coverage, otherwise wouldn’t have found traction among readers and donors. Not all non-profit journalism organizations are created equal—there are varying levels of professionalism and commitment to ethics. Most importantly there needs to be more thought given to how the underlying funding is procured.

National Public Radio has created an impressive model to be emulated. The organization is not fully independent, but thanks to a $200 million bequest by Joan Kroc, NPR has a considerable financial cushion to make decisions about investing in lengthy or unpopular projects. Although $200 million is not enough to immunize the entire network of public radio stations from popular will or financial pressures, it is a hopeful sign.

Publishing articles under a Creative Commons license and the “steal our stories” movement among the non-profit journalism movement is another hopeful sign that trying to squeeze profit from the truth isn’t the only way. New forays into the genre of academic-affiliated non-profit journalism—the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, for example—are also intriguing. Colleges and universities, particularly those with well-developed endowments, are considered impartial and objective for the sake of the most important scientific and social research—an umbrella of credibility analogous to the pure intentions associated with independent journalism.

The number of non-profit, non-partisan journalism centers that primarily distribute their work via the Internet is increasing. These centers provide a perch for good journalists to take the time to step past the tempting, fast and easy stories that the ever-evolving news cycle clamors for, and hunt the hard and unpopular truths—the ones that won’t make it on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, and the ones that won’t be at the top of trending Twitter topics.

Efforts to band these centers together—for instance, the recent creation of the Investigative News Network—may one day create a sophisticated, chattering web of content producers that can keep up with the ravenous public appetite for more and constant news. If these centers can establish enough financial backing to become self-sustaining—even when a story is slow to develop—there is a glitter of hope for the dream of independence in journalism.

The challenge will be harnessing the tools that make it possible, without succumbing to the urges that threaten to distract and cheapen.