First published December 1, 2021, as the final course assignment for JRN200 at the University of Arizona Global Campus.
Loosely defined, journalism is a genre of writing that reports on events relevant to the public. “The press” is a catch-all term for journalism in its many formats – newspapers, television broadcasts, radio broadcasts, and online media. The value of factual events-based literature is so salient to the functioning of societies that it is protected at the constitutional level by nearly all democratic nations and preserved as a basic human right by the United Nations 1. The press is even considered a key legitimizing force of governance, the Fourth Estate providing accountability among the first three pillars of civilization (Estates), Clergy, Aristocracy, and the Public 2 . Yet with the advent of the internet, everyone has the power to publish their own perspective, so how does journalism separate itself from the voices of the opinionated masses? There is thus now significant debate about what journalism should be, how it should be used, and what purpose it ultimately serves under rapidly decentralizing media structures. This essay will explore this topic in the context of journalism as a form, function, and sometimes foil of democracy.
Form: What Counts As News?
The primary differentiation between journalism and other forms of nonfiction writing centers on the nature of five main interest elements and how they’re presented 3 . Fame appeals to readers when someone well-known commits a gaffe or accomplishment, or else when someone ordinary is thrown into the spotlight for something remarkable. People like to read about oddities, things that are rare and out of the ordinary. Reading about conflicts appeals to a primal instinct of in- versus out-group security. People are compelled by a sense of immediacy in their news stories – “news,” as in “what is new.” Lastly, and most importantly, readers need to know what events are impactful in their lives.
These five fundamentals of journalistic interest have not changed significantly in over 100 years 4 . However, each is interpreted in the context of social relevance. What counts as a legitimate definition of, say, “fame” or “oddity” is determined by epistemes, Michel Foucault’s term for the collective schemata of an historical period that define dominant worldviews and social priorities 5 . Journalism tends strongly towards telling subjective stories – describing events in terms of individuals or the impact on discrete groups – but the level of interest in any given subject is determined by an era’s episteme, the unconscious rules of what the general public finds important or compelling. The episteme influences who the journalist identifies as the victim or the villain, whether the loss of a life or the loss of a building is more important, and how small or grand an event needs to be to warrant being reported. The journalist presents their work in three forms, the first two acting as the voice and the mirror of the current episteme, bringing novel subjects of interest to the forefront of public awareness and reflecting the public’s dominant preferences. The third form, however, involves the conscious investigation and accounting of observed events. This deliberate determination of values and priorities is a reflection of a paradigm – Kuhn’s conscious awareness of the social mores of an era 6 as the subjective balance to Foucault’s objectivity – and this is where journalism is meant to act as the Fourth Estate.
Function: Journalism’s Role in Democracy
In its purest form, journalism should facilitate intersubjective communication, the exchange of perspectives and ideas between all strata of society across a vast array of subjects. This is what John Dewey considered the democratic criterion, the mandatory element of a social system that allows democracy to function 7 . Noam Chomsky said, “The duty of journalists is to tell the truth. Journalism means you go back to the actual facts, you look at the documents, you discover what the record is, and you report it that way” (Wang, 2004). Philip L. Graham famously quipped, “Journalism is the first rough draft of history” 8 . But Jackson Katz countered that, “If journalism is the first draft of history, then talk radio provides an early glimpse into how the meaning of political events will be spun for ideological and partisan purposes.” The statements by Chomsky, Graham, and Katz demonstrate the massive range of interpretation that can be applied to Dewey’s observation, but they also each illustrate the ways in which the current episteme is being both defined and challenged.
To cast these statements in more context, democracy is defined as any social format where the majority view of the people is considered the moral imperative 9 . The press’ function is to identify, inform, and support whatever those moral imperatives might be, creating a bridge between the other three Estates. Though the original French revolutionary model of Estates might not seem as relevant today, they are still readily applicable. Despite a lack of a monolithic Clergy (the First Estate), the force of religious ideologies still exert enormous influence on governing policies as demonstrated by the American evangelicals’ power to stymie legislation aimed at combating climate change 10 . The Second Estate, Aristocracy, is easily understood to be the established government, elected or otherwise. The Third Estate, the Public (“Commoners,” in the original language), relies on the press to provide (ostensibly) impartial, timely, and germane information about the first two.
Chomsky’s quote points to the social reflection nature of the press, and Graham’s words suggest the press as the voice of history, the informer. Katz’ cynicism as evidenced in his perspective demonstrates the weakness in the system regarding the third responsibility of journalism: the attempt at accountability, especially under systems that lack consequential oversight, can be usurped by minorities with louder voices in the forum of public exchange. News media cannot decry disparaging opinions about its industry too loudly given the long history of a distinct lack of impartiality and positive public interest: “Remember the Maine” is a newsroom motto reminding reporters that irresponsible conjecture literally started the Spanish-American War in 1898 11 . Yellow journalism had soiled the “good name” of the press long before that, and continued to do so even after Adolph Ochs, the owner of the New York Times, decided in 1896 that his paper would eschew sensationalism for truly responsible reporting 12 . However, Ochs’ actions in demanding a more impartial quality from his reporters led to the drafting of standards established and maintained by the Society of Professional Journalists, providing structural guidelines for what qualifies as responsible journalism today 13 .
Foil: An Examination of Journalism Across Three Stories
Thousands of news stories are published to official media channels every day 14, so it follows that they will generally be of vastly varying quality. On the average, local news stories will generate shorter and more concise pieces while national and international stories warrant more coverage in terms of length, analysis, and number of organizations providing content. Each piece will appeal to at least one of the five elements of a news story – fame, oddity, conflict, immediacy, and impact.
Following the arrests of four students during a planned protest against district handling of sexual harassment allegations, the Little Elm ISD in North Texas is holding a listening session to field questions and concerns from parents and students. Multiple local stations are reporting on this event, appealing to the components of conflict, immediacy, and impact. The Dallas Morning News first covered this story on November 19, 2021, the day the students were arrested and the protesters were allegedly subjected to brandished tasers and use of pepper spray and unnecessary force 15 . A number of students walked out of school on Monday, November 29, in protest of the treatment of the students during the first protest. WFAA reported from a press conference the morning of November 30 that the district’s superintendent was hoping to curtail further incidents by listening to the students directly and launching new investigations into the original sexual misconduct and harassment allegations 16 . On the topic of quality of coverage, the Dallas Morning News article gathered quotes from both students and officials, the WFAA article cited the salient talking points to be addressed at the meeting, but a local CBS story devoted just three paragraphs to reiterating other versions of the event and only contained a link to a previously unedited report 17 .
Given that other leading stories of the day at the CBS channel included a fatal mass shooting in Michigan, a murder conviction for the deaths of two Kansas carnival workers, and an exploding Porta Potty, perhaps the editors did not feel that a student protest about sexual misconduct against minors was sufficiently in the public interest. This would indicate that their editorial priorities lean more towards oddity and conflict than on impact.
“Don’t be evil” may be a vague philosophical statement, but its prominent position in employment and corporate documentation at Google makes it a contractual obligation, according to the lawsuit filed by discharged employees. This story contains elements of fame, conflict, and oddity, the last point derived from the unusual corporate edict in question. NPR reported that the workers were officially fired in 2019 for violating security policies, but the lawsuit claims that the terminations were actually in retaliation for attempting to call out Google’s business contracts as counter to their stated “non-evil” intentions 18 . The specific contract in question involved working on projects for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection department during the Trump administration which was known to have actively committed multiple human rights violations 19, 20 .
Unlike the local event, additional iterations of analysis of this lawsuit against Google have been published by several other media channels with only minor variation around the salient facts. Gizmodo added additional references to unethical (“evil”) business practices previously committed by Google 21 , and Ars Technica went into more detail about specific circumstances of the alleged “security leak” and subsequent terminations 22 . Each of the articles relied on roughly the same material – the public record of the lawsuit filed in California and the petition speaking out against the CBP project – and have presented essentially the same position.
Prince Charles attended the transition ceremony of Barbados as it replaced Queen Elizabeth II with newly elected Dame Sandra Mason as its head of state; the prince publicly criticized Great Britain’s history of slavery and apologized for the atrocities of the past. This story manages to call on all five news elements. It is rooted first with the fame of the British royal family. The oddity derives from notoriously brutal colonizers admitting to their wrong-
doings and acknowledging the conflict that still exists as a result of those wrong-doings 23 . The immediacy is captured in the observance of a specific moment of transition, a once-only event, being witnessed. The impact of the British Royal Family finally owning (at least in part) the crimes of the past has the potential of setting a tone of reconciliation and the stage for reparations far beyond the island nation of Barbados.
This was an enormous gesture on the part of the royal family of Great Britain to permit Prince Charles to publicly recognize the damage of colonialism, as the effects of colonial policies are not considered proper for the queen herself to address. Many news channels including the Guardian, Newsweek, and the U.S. Sun considered Prince Charles’ speech to be a powerful opener to his impending ascension to the throne 24 and a more public conversation about addressing the negative impacts of colonialism and slavery 25, 26 . The Daily Mail, however, could not resist focusing on the least important details of the event so as to get a dig in at the prince: he was seen nodding off briefly 27 , which is considered unsurprising for a 73-year-old man attending a midnight ceremony.
Each of these news-worthy events garnered a range of different reactions from various media channels, and this is where the press can act as a foil of democracy. When special interests stem from political, financial, or personal gain, the concept of serving as the Fourth Estate and providing effective and informed accountability becomes muddied. In a democratic society, the press is notably not owned (or at least not controlled) by the government and whatever oversight it might be subjected to is purely to prevent blatant danger to the public, such as laws related to false advertising. In a capitalist or free market society, this means that the press must find its financial support from the public through retail sales, advertising revenue, and/or direct donation. This fiscally unstable position most quickly rewards those media channels that are willing to appeal to the most reactionary emotions, playing to the principles of cognitive attraction even to the point of unabashed misinformation in order to maintain social visibility 28 . Money becomes the primary determinant of what is and isn’t newsworthy, feeding the episteme of self-service and cognitive fragility.
The remedy to this is for members of the press (individuals and organizations) to become conscious of and responsible for their own paradigm, to deliberately and regularly examine their worldviews, biases, and motivations. They must take the chance that reporting on the events of the world from a higher standard will provide sufficient reward. There is precedent for the truth being the dominant desire of the public: when Ochs first declared that the New York Times would reject sensationalism in 1896, he reduced the price of his paper from 3 cents to only 1. Not only sales but circulation of the New York Times improved over his more “yellow” competitors, demonstrating the material value of honoring the intelligence of his readership. The phenomenon of public news and radio networks in the United States supported exclusively by donations – National Public Radio, the Public Broadcasting Service, and the Public News Service – are another testament to the growing appetite for conscientious programming. Every journalist has a choice to make about how they will service democracy, whether they realize it or not. The industry already has its share of foils, so the greatest names will focus instead on form and function.
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