The “Elements of Journalism”

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Journalism is a practice largely influenced by those who learn the craft on the job. Despite its well-established impact on communities, there’s a very old debate about whether or how much formal training should be required.

In 1988, ABC anchor Ted Koppel said that “”journalism schools are an absolute and total waste of time.”

Into that fray, the Elements of Journalism has served a breezy foundation for modern journalism. The book, written by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, was first published in 2000, then revisited in 2007 and most recently in a third edition from 2014. I read it once many years ago. I returned to it again, after a conversation I had with Rosenstiel, and found it a helpful resource.

Below I share my own notes, though I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in journalism best practices. I bought copies for the editors at my own organization. It’s an easy and effective read.

Below my notes.

Their journalism principles:

  1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth,
  2. Its first loyalty is to the citizens.
  3. Its essence is a discipline a verification.
  4. Its practitioners must maintain independence from those they cover.
  5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
  6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
  7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
  8. It must keep the news comprehensive and in proportion.
  9. Its practitioners have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience.
  10. Citizens too have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.
  • “The concept of objectivity has been so mangled it now is usually used to describe the very problem it was conceived to correct.”
  • In protest of an oppressive government during the Cold War, the citizens of Swidnik, Poland all walked their dogs during the state news cast.
  • In 1720 Cato authors argued that the idea of truth should be a defense against libel, which at that time was counter to English common law. This argument from Cato was influential in the 1735 court case for printer John Peter Zenger
  • The gatekeeper role is gone; instead it’s forum moderator instead of lecturer
  • In his 1920 bestseller Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann wrote that citizens are like theatergoers who “arrive in the middle of the third act and leave before the last curtain, staying just long enough to decide who is the hero and who is the villain.”
  • Public intellectual John Dewey argued that democracy itself was the end, to maximize human freedom, not the means for a more efficient government. Public would only ever be the umpire of last resort of government. Democracy was the best place to maximize human freedom and free information would help it; it was never a strategy for more effective or efficient governance.
  • Theory of Interlocking Public: everyone is expert, mildly interested and mostly uninterested in various subjects.
  • James T. Callender was an early gossip columnist, to whom Thomas Jefferson’s camp leaked information of John Adams before he later led the promotion of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings.
  • Middle age monks made a distinction between Allegorical and Metaphorical Truth from literal fact-based truth
  • Early 20th century, newspapers published frequent accounts of shipwrecked cats to imply the feeling of truth, rather than literal truth, as it had become a trope.
  • Journalism has always been more vocational than intellectual, which means big questions like the real definition of truthfulness or not often explored.
  • Carl Bernstein said that reporters should strive to provide “the best of attainable version of the truth”
  • Abner Louima and Mike Macalry started a chain of events that included several outlets and many reports that included mistakes; journalism is process.
  • In 1896, Adolph Ochs bought the struggling New York Times and published on his first day as owner under the headline business announcement the words that would become his legacy, it was his “Earnest aim to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party sector interests involved”
  • Will Irwin wrote in 1911 in Colliers that the public service rule for journalism is to be “an electric light in a dark alley.”
  • In the 1960s, the decline of intra-city competition resulted in newspapers toning down their aggressiveness, but television news kept its consumer tone as it fought to attract viewers and competitive landscape
  • By 1987 with the rise of newspaper chains that use small markets as farm systems for larger ones, two-thirds of newspaper journalists did not grow up in the community they were serving. They felt less involved in their communities and people who live there at markedly from only eight years earlier.
  • In 1968 the average soundbite of a candidate was 43 seconds on tv news; By 1988 that had become nine seconds; meanwhile studies and audits show that newspaper stories focus less on what candidate said and more on the tactical moves out of the politics
  • The rise of cynicism and the press was a frequent point of contention in the 1990s. In 1997, University of Pennsylvania professors write Spiral of Cynicism to argue that political journalism was focused more on the “why” of public life in the world, focusing not in the outcomes of policy but on the politics and interiority of how that policy happened.
  • Management by Objective (MBOs) from the 1950s are commonplace in newspaper and tv executive contracts. (Interestingly today’s MBO-descendant OKRs are recommended to not be tied to compensation)
  • HR Luce of Time may have created the church-state metaphor ; Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick created two separate banks of elevators
  • But the idea of the editorial wall simply created isolation for newsrooms and did not protect them, notably exemplified by the scandal involving the Los Angeles times and Staples Center revenue sharing
  • Knight Ridder corporate spokesman Polk Lafoon IV said “I wish there was an identifiable and strong correlation between quality journalism… and newspaper sales, it isn’t… That simple”
  • Living our Values Audit by the Guardian: should we do something similar?
  • The authors point to the account of the Peloponnesian war by Thucydides in the fifth century BC, which included an exclamation of his methodology, including “I’ve made it a principal not to write down the first word that came my way… I’ve checked with as much throne as possible”
  • The 1999 movie The Insider represents a distinction between two understandings of truth: director Michael Mann believed the movie conveyed the central basic truth, while legendary 60 Minutes correspondent Michael Wallace was frustrated by its lack of literal accurate details
  • A 2005 essay by Dan Gillmor on ending objectivity was a major conflation of the term. In the 1920s objectivity was used to describe and introduced the important need to have a process by which journalist could verify information, this was in contrast with the late 1800s when journalist talk about realism. This sense of realism came together to similar time is the inverted pyramid, and journalist begin to order fax most important to least important, which was different than really chronological descriptions
  • Lippman wanted more rigorous journalism, which was otherwise being practiced by “untrained accidental witnesses” He argued for objectivity as a method, not an individual goal
  • “ A journalist who selects sources to express what is really their own point of view and then use the neutral voice to make it seem objective, is engaged in deception.”
  • Many of the complaints with objectivity or actually complains about a neutral voice
  • What is a news organization’s process of verification?

A few points on verification process:

  1. Never add anything that was not there
  2. Never deceive the audience
  3. Be as transparent as possible about your methods and motives
  4. Rely on your own original reporting (do your own work; confirm the scoop, not “hitchhike” with others)
  5. Exercise humility
  • Authors argue news orgs ought not describe why an anonymous source wants to be kept anonymous, that’s usually self evident. Instead a news org should explain why it decided to grant anonymity, which removes the transparency of motive.
  • Reporters should tip readers off to what we don’t know; (side note: it seems heavy use of linking like we do does constitute our method of verification; but John McPhee said that if we didn’t get our own info then we would “hitchhike on the credibility of those who do”
  • Washington Post reporter Jay Matthews shows versions of his stories to sources for fact checks. A different example here
  • Have an accuracy checklist
  • On Anonymous sources:
    • Must they be anonymous?
    • How essential is the source?
    • How much direct knowledge does the source have?
    • What motivation may the source have to miss lead us or audience?
    • Never use anonymous source to offer an opinion of another person
    • Never use an anonymous source as the first quote in the story
    • Is the information fact or context, or a judgment (do not allow anonymous judgement)
    • Can you corroborate the additional perspective that this anonymous source is giving
    • Anonymous source attribution should clarify why this person has direct or insightful information, and any background that would force them to have a special interest like an affiliation with a relevant organization
  • Being impartial or neutral were never part of journalists roots; it wasn’t what Lippman meant by objectivity in the 1920s. Neutrality was a corporate preference to sell papers. Get to truth and help your community. It’s about independence from those you cover
  • But beware of your biases, even if those biases are to be anti corporate
  • Linda Greenhouse in 1989 was part of a wave of reporters getting disciplined for taking political stands. The book has many other examples, like in 2004 when the San Francisco Chronicle pulled reporters who got gay married
  • Before and after lede method from Paul Taylor’s of WaPo and Inquirer: write a lede and hed when you start a story and then do the reporting. If lede hasn’t changed much then you are likely rewriting your preconceived notions and should revisit
  • In 1964 the original Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting went to the Philadelphia Bulletin for a series on police running an illegal lotto game (investigative reporting replaced a category that Pulitzer committee determined didn’t need it’s own category anymore which was local reporting)
  • In 1643, The Parliament Scout pledged “something new in journalism – necessity of making an effort to search out and discover the news.” Rather then it being inbound
  • In 1644 The Spie promised readers that they planned on “discovering the usuall cheats in the great game of the kingdome”
  • Nuance in three types of investigative journalism: original, interpretive and reporting on internal investigations. Watergate was on original primary sources; Donald Bartlett and James Steele Inquirer series What Went Wrong was interpretive. They are different and come with different challenges
  • Investigative reporter Susan Kelleher explains to all her sources the rules of engagement at the beginning of interviews including on the record and off the record
  • Journalists must remain committed to the idea that democracy happens in compromise and support those efforts
  • “The communications revolution is more often about delivering news rather than gathering it”
  • “Journalism is storytelling with a purpose”
  • “The first challenge is finding the information that people need to live their lives. The second is to make it meaningful, relevant and engaging”
  • “Make the significant interesting and the interesting significant
  • Most reporters are self taught and not trading lessons on better storytelling, doing it by trial and error.
  • Common problems with news articles: there’s no character; no effort to globalize the local or localize the global
  • Journalists should start all stories with “who is the audience for this and what specifically do they need to know?”
  • As community news we can and should be better than anyone at focusing on the people of our community. Who are they as people!? We must have people details. Where they live specifically, what they like or anything that comes in the close or start small talk of interviewing
  • Journalism is modern cartography
  • Quality of the storytelling is more important than topic (according to reader research), but that’s lost on journalists
  • The myth of the golden gut: journalist should have more than enough skills to listen to their readers to inform the reporting issue that would solve the biggest problems for their lives but they resist this work
  • Carol Marin: “ I think a journalist is someone who believes in something that they would be willing to quit over”
  • Self government and access to free, diverse and credible information is a necessary link