The Elements of Journalism

If there is one thing that you learn from Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s book The Elements of Journalism, it is that the challenges journalism faces today in the digital information age are, in many ways, the same ones that it has faced over the past two centuries. As the so-called Fourth Estate, it is unsurprising that the powers that be would attempt to wrest this institution into subservience. And as the political landscape has evolved, and new technology has emerged, the means of assault have changed, but the aims of this long-running struggle have remained the same.

The Elements of Journalism Cover Image
Cover Image

The authors begin with an explanation of what journalism is, by clarifying what it is not. The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing. This distinguishes it from entertainment, or entertainment-posing-as-journalism. Its first obligation is to the truth and its first loyalty is to citizens. Ah, the truth! That’s where things start getting complicated. While some might throw up their hands and claim that the truth is subjective and ultimately unknowable, journalistic truth is far more pragmatic but still effective – it is the outcome of a discipline of verification. To put this differently, a true journalist is committed to understanding and sharing the truth, and they trust in the journalistic process of verification to ensure that they are not blinded by their own biases. Objectivity, in this sense, is not about eliminating personal biases, but relying on the integrity of the process to elevate the truth above all else.

The use of the term citizens is intentional, contrasted against the idea of consumers. Citizens have a responsibility towards free society, whereas consumers look out for their own interests. Citizens are active, whereas consumers are passive. Journalism is the process of community-building with the participation of vigilant and engaged citizens. Journalism is a conversation with citizens that helps them understand matters that are important for them to know. A free press is a barometer for the democratic values of society.

The authors dispel some common myths about journalism. The goal of a good journalist is not to simply state facts, but to interpret and synthesize facts into a true understanding of the world. A good journalist builds trust with readers by explaining how they reached their conclusions, and what relevant ideas they discarded along the way. The discipline of verification thus extends to readers and good citizens, and the journalist’s job is to provide transparency into their methods to help readers question and validate their conclusions. Good journalism need not be ‘balanced’ when the truth is not – attempting to be ‘balanced’ when the facts paint a clear picture otherwise is a form of dishonesty. Good journalism does not need to shy away from opinion, but it must be clear about the line between substantiated fact and unsubstantiated opinion.

The Elements of Journalism is thought-provoking, in that it raises deep questions about the future of society. For democracy to thrive in a seemingly post-truth age, the discipline of verification must ultimately be adapted to work with the rapid production and dissemination of information that modern technology makes possible. While we may not be able to prevent misinformation from being distributed through social networks, what we may be able to do instead is dampen its adverse consequences, by offering people transparency into the methods of production and helping them verify for themselves the trustworthiness of sources.

For the interested reader, the American Press Institute website has more principles drawn from this book, and explored in depth.

2 thoughts on “The Elements of Journalism”

  1. A good journalist must be honest and report the facts that he has discovered and as you say, they must be verifiable facts that will stand up to investigation. Further, if he feels compelled to express an opinion, it should be confined to the editorial column or he should declare it to be his own thoughts on the matter. In fact he should not express any opinion and leave it to the reader to draw his own conclusions based on what the facts are. There is no reason why any journalistic media should shape public opinion or feeling. This is what is expected of an honest media – don’t express and don’t suppress. Only report. And follow up and follow through.

    1. There are problems with the position of “reporting just the facts”.

      First, there is a difference between ‘facts’ and ‘truth’. The idea of truth is subjective and relies on an interpretation of facts and broader context. Reporting may be untruthful while still being factually accurate, by the omission of facts or their distortion to suit a particular narrative. Another related problem is that of ‘synthetic facts’ – where individuals who understand the system are able to manipulate facts on the ground to cater to a narrative of choice. A good journalist must go beyond the supposed facts, to discover what the real story is.

      Second, facts don’t always speak for themselves. Investigative journalists may need to spend months to connect the dots and draw conclusions from them. Without this notion of “sense-making” [1], reporting may end up being merely a deluge of not-very-useful information. Of course, this depends on the kind of news reporting we’re talking about, but I think it applies to all the kinds of reporting that actually matter to society (perhaps not so much to the ‘X said / did Y’ kind of 24/7 reporting).

      Since there is always some interpretation of facts, it is hopeless to make a claim of “reporting just the facts”. What journalists can do is be transparent about what is fact and what is opinion.

      There is no reason why any journalistic media should shape public opinion or feeling.

      A different way to look at this is that shaping public opinion by shining light in dark places, driving the public to see social problems from a different perspective, and packaging this understanding in a way that engages the public – this is the primary function of the journalist. Driving positive social change can (and should) be a strong motivation, and this can help keep a check on those in power.

      [1] Related ideas by Tom Rosenstiel.

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