Death Knell

09 Sep 2011

Jeff Jarvis wonders how there can be professional standards in an industry as utterly divided as jouranlism:

The question of what is and isn’t journalism is one that journalists ask. It has nothing to do with the questions the public asks. And the journalist’s job, supposedly, is to answer the public’s questions. Disconnect, eh?

This apparent disconnect is important and it occurs in many disciplines, but that doesn’t mean everyone wants to read about it. Consider politics, which is rooted in political theory, which asks “what is political?”. That question can lead to others “what is government?” and “how do you define a human being?”.

Already I’ve lost half of my audience. Not because they aren’t intellectuals or because they are incapable of answering those questions, but because they do not care.

And why should they?

Those are questions that political scientists ask each other for fun and we are interested in the ideas within the questions because how we answer them defines our self-perceptions. This is likewise true of members of the press when they ask themselves “what is journalism?” or choose to attack others for their “unprofessional” behavior.

It doesn’t matter if the public treats the question (or the answers, for that matter) with indifference. The purpose of the question is self-definition, not social enlightenment. Over the last few years, we have seen this debate play itself out in various arenas, but the core issue that it all ends up being about is the same: new-media and traditional-media are (at least) two completely distinct entities that fundamentally disagree with each other on the nature of journalism.

It may not be a discussion that the public wants to hear–and, thanks to the magic of closing the tab, they don’t have to–but it is a discussion that the industry itself needs to have. The New York Times needs to fight with TechCrunch, because that debate is going to lead to self-definition. It may not be the case that we will ever see an NYT editor like Mike Arrington. That is a perfectly acceptable situation, as long as the Times understands their reasons for avoiding it (for the record, “what we do would be impossible without a strong editorial hand,” is an acceptable response and an enlightening one).

There were a lot of conversations this week about new-media and ethical reporting. Some of it was true, some of it was inflammatory, and some of it was completely unnecessary. But I think that Jeff Jarvis is an incredibly bright mind leading the discussion away from the trivial and towards the significant. If you’ve any interest in the role of journalism in a web-based world, you should check out the discussions on his blog and on G+.