Engaged Journalism’s Mission – Open and Inclusive

Public service historically has been professional journalism’s guiding imperative. According to the American Press Institute, journalism’s mission has been essentially two-fold:

  1. to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing;
  2. to provide people with the verified information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.

That purpose remains vitally necessary today, but it is no longer sufficient in the digital age; it is no longer adequate for journalists or the people. The insufficiency resides in the words “to provide,” which derives from the technological limitation of the past. If journalism didn’t exist today, we wouldn't create it hampered by those limitations.

Modern journalism began as a profession in the Progressive Era in the early 1900s, when information was scarce and access to it was limited. Journalism schools were founded in the belief that the profession would not be respected or trusted unless it was taught and practiced to meet certain standards of craft and conduct. Professional societies were born, and codes of ethics were developed to guide their work. Journalists were trained to be the trustees who decided what best served the public good. They were the gatekeepers in a mostly one-way communication relationship.

The Internet has flung the gates open, fundamentally changing the relationship between journalists and the public. There is an increasing shift of control from those who report, edit, and present the news to those who read, watch, or listen. Information is widely available, allowing people to exercise their own news judgment. They are increasingly serving as reporters and editors for themselves and others, telling their own stories in their own voices.

The loss of public confidence in journalism is connected to what journalists do and how they do it. Journalism and democracy are intertwined, and the sweeping loss of confidence in the institutions of our democratic society should be of vital concern to anyone who cares about journalism. Can journalism be said to be living up to its traditional mission if people are increasingly polarized and losing confidence in virtually every institution of democracy?

The fundamental question for journalism and democracy is whether the common pursuit of truth and collective deliberation will be valued elements of our democracy, or whether hyper-partisanship and polarization will erode common ground.

These political dynamics and the imperative for journalism to change are not unique to the United States. In his book Disrupting Journalism Ethics, Stephen J. A. Ward says, that “egalitarian democracy, a democracy that seeks equality as much as freedom, defends the rule of law, protects minority rights from intolerant majorities, and encourages respectful debate, is in peril. The ideal is challenged around the world.”

Ward says we need “democratically engaged journalism.” He explains, “We need a special form of engaged journalism which clearly understands the conditions for egalitarian democracy to flourish and is prepared to use the best methods of journalism to promote this political goal.”

The mission of journalism needs to be re-articulated to reflect the interactivity of the digital age. This new mission should be principled and consistent with the historic public service mission of journalism. It should also be practical, acknowledging the shifting relationship between journalists and the public.

Those who would write such a mission might ask:

  • Why should society value and support this mission?
  • How can journalism be an inclusive network that both represents and engages the public, enabling journalists to be true partners with the public?
  • What would be different if journalists saw building public trust as central to their mission? And what if the public trust were seen not just in terms of trust in journalism, but trust in democratic practices and principles, as well as people trusting each other when they have different beliefs?
  • How might journalism help people trust each other, even when they have different beliefs?

I would offer the following as a possible mission for Engaged Journalism:

Engaged Journalism's mission is to make journalism more open, accessible, collaborative, and participatory while maintaining the highest standards of accuracy, fairness, clarity, and impartiality. Engaged Journalism is consistent with and supports the historical mission of professional journalism – public good, self-governance, and a better life for all.