Editors Make the Case for Smart Journalism Policies

The editors of the Columbia Journalism Review published an important editorial this week outlining why they feel public policy must be a central part of the discussion about the future of news in America.

They wrote: “The idea that a purely commercial media alone can continue to deliver the journalism we need is becoming difficult to swallow. If we don’t get beyond the rational but outdated fear of government help for accountability journalism—if we just let the market sort it out—this vital public good will continue to decline.”

And last month, CJR hosted a heated debate about the role of public policy in the future of journalism. The debate was sparked by The Reconstruction of American Journalism, a report by Len Downie and Michael Schudson that calls for a range of creative government initiatives to help support accountability journalism. The report is the third this year to make this case.

And yet, each time the idea of public policy and journalism is broached, there is a flurry of protest from the crowded field of journalism commentators. To be clear, there are important issues and concerns raised by some of these writers, but too much of the criticism leveled against the prospect of government action is knee-jerk and overwrought. Over and over again, I see people who are all too eager to attack, and unwilling to engage and consider new ideas.

The CJR editorial is a welcome validation that we need a critical national discussion about the role of government in journalism. Government has always had a hand in shaping our media, and there are debates underway right now in the House, Senate, FCC and FTC about the future of journalism. It’s important that journalists and the public get involved in these debates so that they don’t happen behind closed doors on Capitol Hill.

The editors at CJR don’t offer or endorse any specific recommendations. But if we look back at the various reports written this year, we see some key points of agreement:

  • No one is advocating for a bailout for the newspaper business;
  • No one supports subsidies that will reward the self-inflicted wounds of media conglomerates, or prop up failing business models;
  • No one thinks government subsidies are simple and unproblematic;
  • Each of the reports argues for strong firewalls between news and opinion and their sources of funding. Each calls for clear protections for free speech and a free press;
  • In general, all the policies are designed to support accountability journalism, which includes vital investigative reporting, local beat reporting and watchdog journalism; and,
  • Most of all – each of the reports calls for an open process of national debate that involves all stakeholders to help shape enlightened public policies to support the news as a public good.

Here at Free Press and SaveTheNews.org, we have outlined our own litmus test for public policies relating to the future of journalism, because we understand that we need clear guidelines as we consider government action. Any policy should:

  • Protect the First Amendment. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are essential to a free society and a functioning democracy.
  • Produce Quality News Coverage. To self-govern in a democratic society, the public needs in-depth reporting on local issues as well as national and international affairs that is accurate, credible and verifiable. Journalism should be animated by a multitude of voices and viewpoints.
  • Provide Adversarial Perspectives. Reporting should hold the powerful accountable by scrutinizing the actions of government and corporations. Journalism should foster genuine debate about important issues.
  • Promote Public Accountability. Newsrooms should serve the public interest, not private or government aims, and should be treated as a public service, not a commodity. Journalism should be responsive to communities’ changing needs.
  • Prioritize Innovation. Journalists should utilize new tools and technology to report and deliver the news. The public needs journalism that crosses traditional boundaries and is accessible to the broadest range of people across platforms.

We are working to promote a much needed dialogue locally and nationally and would love to hear your thoughts. Add your voice in the comments section below and let us know what you think about these issues, these guidelines and the role of public policy in the future of the news.

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