American journalism has done a lot of evolving in the past century or so. Think about the different philosophies and approaches to journalism that have changed the way we do our work: The partisan press gave way to muckraking in the early 20th century. That, in turn, gave way to the Walter Lippmann-led push for a more professional approach to the news.
Lippmann’s idea of the well-trained, objective journalist has been the dominant model in journalism for much of this century. But about 15 years ago, a new approach to journalism began to emerge. Civic journalism – also called public journalism or community journalism – grew out of the idea that journalists had become too disconnected from the communities they covered. The journalists who support this new approach argue that being objective isn’t enough. Journalists, they say, are not outsiders looking in on their communities; they are a part of those communities, and they should play a more active role in helping solve community problems and promoting community discussion.
As with most new ideas, civic journalism met with resistance. But as the controversy surrounding it has died down, the impact of the movement can be seen in newsrooms. Beyond the buzzwords, beyond the hype, beyond the controversy, the underlying philosophies of civic journalism have seeped into everyday practice at many journalism organizations. On Page 20, our cover story looks at how this movement has changed the way many journalists have come to view their work.
Advances in technology also have driven the evolution of our craft. The introduction of the telephone changed the way journalists do their reporting. Television – and, eventually, the Internet – created entirely new ways of telling stories. On Page 10, we look at another technological push that is dramatically changing the way many journalists do their work: computer-assisted reporting. This goes well beyond using e-mail and surfing Web pages while working on a story; it involves using computers to crunch large amounts of data and reveal trends that otherwise would go unnoticed. This information can be invaluable for story ideas or as support material for ongoing coverage.
Computer-assisted reporting – or CAR, as it’s commonly called – is not a new movement, either. It goes back to the late ’70s, when computer technology first emerged that was capable of sorting large amounts of data. But CAR advocates complain that newsrooms have been slow to adopt this new reporting tool; even though technology is easily available, advocates argue that not enough reporters are being trained to take advantage of these resources. Our story examines how far CAR has come in the past three decades and why many news managers haven’t fully embraced CAR training.
What strikes me about both of these stories is the strong divide between advocates of these new ideas and those who are reluctant to adopt them. The debate over civic journalism has been a bitter one, and journalists have been largely polarized on one side or the other. The push for CAR has been less confrontational, but there certainly is a vast difference in priorities between its supporters and newsroom managers who consider other training more important.
I believe the best newsrooms represent a mix of these philosophies. There is room to consider the needs and interests of a community while maintaining a degree of professional detachment. It is possible to incorporate CAR reporting into newsrooms without giving up on more traditional reporting methods. No single philosophy or reporting tool is absolute, and the strongest newsroom is one that strives for a balance of these competing elements.
As news organizations and communities change, the balance in how we do our work will also change. Evolution is usually a response to changing needs, and the changes journalism has seen in the past century are no different.
Jeff Mohl is the editor of Quill.