Engaged Journalism’s Identity – Bridge builders:

The authors of Good Work describe identity as “a holistic sense of a person’s background, traits, and values… a person’s deeply felt convictions about who she is, and what matters most to her existence as a worker, citizen, and human being.”

“A central element of identity is moral – people must determine for themselves what lines they will not cross and why they will not cross them. But a sense of identity also includes personality traits, motivations, intellectual strengths and weaknesses, and personal likes and dislikes… Each person’s identity is shaped by an amalgam of forces, including family history, religious and ideological beliefs, community membership, and idiosyncratic individual experiences.”

Walter Williams saw the importance of identity when he founded the first school of journalism in 1908. He urged his students to think hard about the standards and behaviors of their profession and required them to write a personal statement to which they would hold themselves accountable. In 1914 he wrote his own statement of personal affirmation, entitled The Journalist’s Creed. It begins:

“I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is a betrayal of this trust…. The supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service.”

More than a century has passed since Williams wrote the Creed in 1914. Some of its language is antiquated, but the primacy of public service has remained at the heart of journalism. The Creed’s core principles have endured: clarity, accuracy, fairness, truth, and independence. For many decades it guided generations of journalists, publishers, and others associated with journalism. It also served as a statement that the public could use to understand the role of the press and to evaluate its performance.

Its words guided me for more than 40 years, from the time I first read them in a high school newspaper class until retirement from The Seattle Times, where I spent 20 years as executive editor. I quoted the Creed many times in newspaper columns and speeches, but I came to understand it differently after I retired and read it anew as a fellow in the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

My fellowship asked the question, “What is the Journalist’s Creed for the 21st Century?” In exploring that question, I came to appreciate that the creed was as much about identity as it was about craft standards. Most of the traits identified concerned standards of character through the use of words like helpful, tolerant, constructive, self-controlled, patient, respectful, unafraid and humanity.

The Journalist’s Creed was less about the “how” of journalism and more about the “who.” It was about identity.

The authors of Good Work say that good work happens when excellence and ethics meet, asserting that it can happen even in difficult times. They explain that it is “not difficult, necessarily, in terms of daily creature comfort but difficult in terms of people’s ability to know the right thing to do and remain in their profession.”

Clearly, these are difficult times for veteran journalists and prospective journalists alike. The profession is at risk and under attack as never before. And yet, when I talk with journalism students and those in the field, I hear a new sense of determination. The crisis is increasingly perceived as a new reality with emerging possibilities. There is new urgency about the need to diversify the voices within journalism so that the profession reflects all the people.

As with the first professional journalists more than a century ago, the journalists of today and tomorrow have the opportunity to create a new kind of journalism. To be successful, these journalists will need a clear sense of identity and an understanding of what calls them to do this work. More specifically, what calls someone to Engaged Journalism?

I think I heard part of the answer at a recent Agora Center convening on the ethics of engagement. Participants articulated traits of successful engagement, many of which fit squarely in the category of identity. Under the trait of "Be Human," they included things like authenticity, sharing, self-awareness, respect, recognize mutual humanity, interconnection, reciprocity and vulnerability.

Perhaps the sentiment that best captured the identity of Engaged Journalism was, "We are bridge builders."