Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Religion of Journalism

Jay Rosen is a professor with the journalism school at NYU and a longtime blogger on the meta-issues of journalism itself. I've always enjoyed his ability to see the big picture beyond just the industry of journalism and to pick apart the various threads of his profession.

In this column, he looks at the received story of Watergate and how it has been mythologised into the template of thinking about journalism. He's deeply skeptical of the myth and the uses its put to by the College of Cardinals in the Church of Journalism.
Trying to understand this took me right into the religion of journalism-- a belief system and meaning-making kit that is shared across editorial cultures in mainstream newsrooms. Young people are introduced to the religion in J-school, where it also lives, but even if they skip the academies they learn it within a few years on the job.

In the daily religion of the news tribe, ordinary believers do not call themselves believers. (In fact, "true believer" is a casting out term in journlism, an insult.) The Skeptics. That's who journalists say they are. Of course, they know they believe things in common with their fellow skeptics on the press bus. It's important to keep this complication in mind: Not that journalists are so skeptical as a rule, but that they will try to stand in relation to you as The Skeptic does.

As everyone knows, there is a priesthood in journalism. Whether it has authority is another matter. The team of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and Woodward himself as author and investigator, are comparable to cardinals in the church. (Although Bernstein is seen as an under-achiever after Watergate.) A chain of belief connects them and their deeds to the rookie reporter, to the J-schooler sweating a Masters degree, even to the kid taking liberal arts who joins the college newspaper. (Me, class of '79.)

A young journalist, Greg Lindsay, in his very interesting open letter to the class of 2005 (May 11 at Media Bistro) gets a lot of it right. He noticed in his training an undercurrent of religious instruction. But not very good instruction. "They're desperate to make believers out of you," he writes.
That's only a part of it, and the voluminous comments add to and expand on -- even criticise -- the central thesis.

Jay also provides a link to the origin of the journalism bromide "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Turns out it's not a guiding bit of wisdom for young journalists to take to heart, but a warning about overweening self-importance.

No comments: