HO / MCT

Edward Wasserman: Is U.S. journalism losing its nerve?

Published: Monday, May. 19, 2014 - 2:53 pm

Much of normal news, the routine patter that fills our screens and spills from the airwaves, is a chummy co-production of authorized sources and compliant scribes. The rituals of normal news ensure that the public agenda is dominated by the concerns and perspectives of the powerful, whose priorities typically lead the newscasts.

Fortunately, that’s not all our news media do. We also have parallel traditions, among them a journalism of defiance. That’s when reporters ferret out and make public newsworthy realities that people in power would rather be ignored and sometimes even make it illegal to expose.

We’re in an era of spectacularly audacious disclosures of official secrets – commensurate with the most audacious expansion of official secrecy in the history of this or any country. Since WikiLeaks, the online anti-secrecy network, posted in 2010 the classified gunsite footage of Iraqi civilians being slaughtered by a U.S. helicopter, news media worldwide have showcased stunning disclosures of U.S. secrets and the shadowy infrastructure through which the unprecedented post-9/11 regime of surveillance and data collection has been sustained.

The response has been ferocious: The soldier who was WikiLeaks’ source, Chelsea Manning, is doing 35 years in federal prison, and the mastermind who brokered the release to the news media, Julian Assange, is under de facto house arrest in London.

Meantime, top media continue to feast on secrets served up by WikiLeaks’ successor, ex-U.S. intelligence analyst Edward Snowden. They include astonishing revelations about government data sweeps, penetration of the tech industry and the overreach of National Security Agency electronic snooping.

Amazing stuff. Political leaders continue to denounce Snowden as a spy, but the public isn’t convinced. One of the few surveys of broad opinion on the matter, a Quinnipiac University poll last year, found that by a huge 55-34 percent margin voters regard Snowden as a whistleblower, not a traitor, and that by 45-40 percent people believe official anti-terrorism efforts go too far in restricting civil liberties.

So you might think that U.S. journalists would feel emboldened: After all, here’s news of vast import, purloined in the name of civic purpose with evidence of public support.

Seems like a sturdy basis on which to challenge the tired rituals of normal news, to re-energize that parallel tradition of defiance and independent truth-seeking.

A surprising new survey suggests this isn’t how today’s journalists see things. It’s the latest in a series of polls conducted every 10 years since 1971 by Indiana University researchers. What it found was a demoralized profession, one that has lost its nerve.

Respondents are convinced the news industry is generally heading in the wrong direction and that its biggest problem is “declining profits.”

Most remarkable are signs of a dramatically growing rejection of the very reporting techniques that have nourished the journalism of defiance in recent years. Consider this question: Might, “on occasion,” a reporter be justified in using “confidential business or government documents without authorization?” That means newsworthy information you’re not supposed to have.

Fewer than 58 percent of the 1,080 respondents in the 2013 poll approved, a major decline from nearly 82 percent in 1992.

What about approval for the use of “personal documents without permission?” That fell to less than 25 percent in 2013 from 48 percent in 1992. Ditto the use of “hidden cameras or microphones,” approved by 47 percent last year, down from 60 percent 20 years before, and “getting employed to gain inside information,” supported by nearly two-thirds in 1992 and barely one-quarter of journalists in 2013.

Remember, nobody was asked if these practices should be used routinely. The question was whether using them on occasion might be justified – meaning, say, in light of the gravity of the wrongdoing the unauthorized leak might expose, or the harm that disclosure might prevent.

The researchers, professors Lars Willnat and David H. Weaver, commented: “Overall, this trend toward a more ‘gentle' journalism in the United states might be a reflection of the growing commercial pressures the U.S. media have faced during the past two decades.”

To be sure, ignoring secrecy rules, taking a job in order to expose employer misconduct, violating an individual’s privacy, these are things that no journalist should undertake casually. Laws often rest on powerful logic, and organizations – like individuals – are entitled to some freedom from public intrusion.

But there are limits. The perplexing challenge journalists face is to confront those limits, and when appropriate, to override them – not to blithely conclude they must be heeded.

The current climate isn’t an easy one for journalism. But retreating into the comfortable routines of normal news means ducking the fractious demands of a profession that must be practiced amid contention, discord and official disapproval, if it’s to be done right.


Edward Wasserman is dean of the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism. His website is www.edwardwasserman.com.

Read more articles by Edward Wasserman



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