Tom Stites, a former newspaper editor and a deep thinker about the journalism craft, gave a speech last summer that won plenty of well-deserved attention. In that talk — which we guest-posted here, entitled “Is media performance democracy’s critical issue?” — he posed a key question about our future.
Now he’s back with an essay about the need for great journalism. It appears here in four parts, which we’ll run today through Thursday. (You can also read the entire essay here; we’ll also post a PDF version soon. (Part 1 is here.)
Here’s the second installment :
Needed: More Excellence in Journalism
Second of four articles
By Tom Stites
I am hardly the final arbiter of what democracy needs from journalism, but I’d like to put forth some ideas.
Most broadly, we need not only all the journalistic excellence we can get but, more fundamentally, a steady stream of high quality, serious journalism that patrols a journalistic landscape broader than news organizations have ever explored. By my definition, serious journalism is based in verified fact passed through mature professional judgment. It has integrity. It engages readers with compelling stories and it appeals to their human capacity for reason. This is the information that people need so they can make good life decisions and good citizenship decisions. Serious journalism is accessible and relevant to its readers – and well told so that it’s easy to read.
Here are three areas of the broadening landscape whose coverage is crucial to democracy but where journalistic excellence is either in retreat or nonexistent:
Global economy – As technology shrinks our planet ever smaller and makes it more and more complicated and intertwined, what happens half way around the globe can have direct impact on the communities where we live. But in the face of this, news organizations have been closing foreign bureaus. Jill Carroll, the Christian Science Monitor foreign correspondent, is taking a break after being held hostage in Iraq to study this troubling trend as a fellow of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. And not only are news organizations bringing foreign correspondents home, metropolitan newspapers across the land that once gave significant space to foreign news are changing their focus to give new emphasis to local news.
But the global village is upon us, and where is the global city editor our citizens need? A global city editor would spot the big stories out there that nobody is covering.
Let’s start with the World Trade Organization. It receives almost no coverage. But in 1994 the Senate ratified a treaty that makes democratically enacted national, state, and local laws subordinate to rulings handed down by unelected WTO panels that meet in private and offer no due process. Corporations as well as nations may initiate WTO proceedings, and there is no appeal.
Particularly at risk are local and state laws protecting the environment and working conditions. The WTO, whose authority comes from treaties ratified by 149 nations, may grease the skids of international trade but it also has the formal power to overrule the authority of We the People in our own communities. It is the antithesis of democracy. Democracy needs the WTO to be covered as the global government it is, tracing its decisions back to their local impacts – and to the corporations whose interests it serves at the expense of communities around the world.
And then let’s consider the transnational corporations, whose lobbyists made sure the Senate enacted the treaty that empowers the WTO. Few people understand the scale of these corporations, and that they’re getting bigger and bigger. The annual sales of Wal-Mart exceed the gross domestic product of Sweden, and by similar measure 52 of the largest 100 economies in the world in 2002 were corporations. (Source here.) Newspapers and broadcast news tend to cover these behemoths as business stories, as if the only people they affect are investors. But they have huge sway in Washington, in state capitals, in political campaigns, in Third World nations whose embryonic governments are defenseless against their power, in local communities in the United States, and in the lives of millions of Americans. Just ask someone whose job has been outsourced to a country with lower wages or whose pension has disappeared. To adequately serve democracy, journalism needs to cover the transnationals in a way that helps regular citizens understand the scope of their power and how it plays out in their lives.
Corruption – There have been other periods of endemic corruption in American history, but the scale — and the consequences — of today’s corruption is unprecedented. Yet as the tide of money rises ever higher in Washington and state capitals, news organizations are cutting back on their commitments to investigative journalism. If journalism were fulfilling its promise to democracy, how could it be that no reporters turned up even one of the epidemics of corruption that Elliot Spitzer found sweeping sector after sector of Wall Street players? There has never been more muck that needed raking, and an embarrassing amount of it, once exposed, turns out to have been lying there in plain sight for anyone to see. Journalism should be ashamed. Democracy can’t count on more prosecutors like Spitzer – so it needs to demand way more investigative reporting, not less. It also needs fresh techniques that present corruption not just story-by-story but also show broad patterns of continuing corruption.
Here’s an example: Democracy needs a continuously updated Web database of corporate malfeasance. What industrial sector leads the others in the number of law violations? What corporations hold the record in each sector for fines and settlements paid, in total dollars and as a percentage of market capitalization? What corporations stand out for a lack of violations? This information would have to be presented in an unassailably comprehensive and authoritative way so there could be no question of bias. If such a database existed, every change of the leaders in various categories would be news. And reporters everywhere could draw on the database for their stories. A reporter writing about a powerfully effective ad campaign, for example, might find it useful to report that the ads are effective at attracting customers to a company with a record of repeated fraud against its customers. A sidebar database would keep a rogue’s gallery of executives whose companies keep running afoul of the law, and track these executives as they change jobs.
TOMORROW: Journalism gap matches income gap. (Or read the whole thing here.)
Tom Stites is publisher of UU World, the magazine of the Unitarian Universalist religion. Contact him here.