New Rules for the Modern Journalist

Few would argue that institutional journalism has lost its way. But journalists are not institutions; they have minds, ideas, passion, prejudice and purpose. They have the tools necessary to bring journalism back from the abyss – but not the will.

That’s too bad, because for journalism to regain its conscience and credibility – to save itself – it can’t look to the institutions. Only journalists can save journalism, and so far they have failed.

There are some exceptions of course; there always are. Nevertheless, it’s the rule I’m concerned about, as are many ordinary citizens who eat from the trough of homogenized news, forced either to swallow the muck whole or seek alternative forms of information nutrition – some healthy, some not.

And despite the rise of the Internet and blogs, most Americans still get their news the old-fashioned way – via the mainstream mass media. And the news we get is less representative of what Americans want to know about, and more representative of what those in power want Americans to know about.

Yet I am a believer. I believe there is still time to reshape mass media for the modern age and make real journalism matter again.

The Rules
The best journalism schools teach the Chicago Manual of Style, reporting techniques and how to write a tight headline. These are all important – but the rest of what they teach, by and large, is crap.

Why? Because no matter how good the teacher or the program, the rest can’t be taught. This is the difference between vocation and profession – between good stenography and good journalism. The former requires training; the latter requires talent, drive and conscience.

The latter is what matters. And for journalism to matter, modern journalists need to live by the following rules:

  • Be accurate, not objective.
  • Be honest and open – when you are right and especially when you are wrong.
  • Be responsible for your sources, your stories and your actions – editors won’t protect you, nor should they.
  • Listen to your audiences and learn from them – as Dan Gillmor says, they know more than you do.
  • Stop reporting the news – start sharing it.
  • Name names.
  • Don’t be led – lead instead.
  • Ask questions – then question the answers.
  • Celebrate change; abhor conformity.
  • Reach people where they are, not where you want them to be.
  • Be a citizen first, journalist second.
  • Follow your heart, not just the story.
  • Be right, not first.
  • Be there for the First Amendment, or it may no longer be there for you.

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