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Editor column: Debate on journalism's future is worth having

Published November 2, 2013 8:24 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Journalists are in an identity crisis, what with the Fourth Estate under siege on many fronts — our shaken business models as digital rises and print falls; the fracturing of media markets into tiny slivers of audience; aggregation and opinion as poor substitutes for original investigative and enterprise reporting.

It is a topic in our newsroom, in all newsrooms, and on the street. Where is journalism headed, and what does the journalist of the future look like?

Tribune Managing Editor Lisa Carricaburu explored one aspect of the question last week in a new blog, Notes from the Newroom, at sltrib.com. As Congress considers a federal shield law for reporters, what defines a journalist? Someone who makes a living reporting the news, who has training in the practices and ethics of the profession? Or should the focus be on "acts of journalism" and not on the individuals who "commit" them, be it a newspaper reporter, independent blogger or private citizen?

The week's most high-profile debate on the future of journalism came courtesy of former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, who invited Glenn Greenwald to engage in a back-and-forth. Greenwald is the recently departed columnist from The Guardian who broke the Edward Snowden story on the National Security Agency's surveillance machine and potential for unprecedented invasions of privacy.

Keller, now a Times columnist, is old school — in a good way. Journalists should "keep their opinions to themselves," unless they write for editorial pages. They should pursue the facts of a story and present them with balance and perspective.

Greenwald says that reporters "concealing" — his word — their opinions is disingenuous and leads to dishonest reporting. Being upfront about bias, writing from a strong point of view, produces the best journalism these days and that is where the craft should go in the future.

Keller and Greenwald make compelling arguments. The foundation of checks and balances in a traditional newsroom, with reporters checking themselves, and editors challenging reporters, has well served institutions like Keller's Times. On the other hand, marshaling facts in pursuit of balance can turn into mind-numbing he-said, she-said, they-said reporting that adds little to the knowledge pool. Greenwald goes further, asserting that, in seeking fairness, reporters can disguise their biases and allegiances to certain sources, specifically government ones.

I side with Keller in this debate. I've spent a career in a traditional newsroom, and most of a life admiring The New York Times. Keller's mantra is that impartiality is the tool that gets you to the truth, or closer to it. In these times of over-the-top, agenda-based reporting — Fox News on one side, MSNBC on the other — that is a foundation I can believe in.

But the value of Greenwald's advocacy — he's a lawyer by training — can't be denied. After all, he broke what likely will be the biggest investigative story of 2013.

There's room for many stripes of journalism in today's media marketplace, and that's a good thing. As Carricaburu points out in her blog post, it is up to the consumer to understand the difference between advocacy and impartiality, and give each the weight it deserves.

The important thing is this: People are debating the future of journalism, where it should go, the role it should play. And they are debating it passionately. It's a testament to the role of the reporter in society, as the watchdog, the check and balance. As the Fourth Estate.

Terry Orme is editor and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune. Reach him at orme@sltrib.com.