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Watching the Watchdog: Have We Forgotten the Media's Raison D'Être?

Posted: 04/ 5/2012 4:43 pm

Veteran broadcast and print newsman Tim Knight writes a regular media column for HuffPost.

Traditional professional journalism is taking a beating these days.

When challenged, both left and right sneer at is as "mainstream journalism," implying that its somehow tainted because it's general interest, rather than some rabidly one-sided screed which supports their every prejudice and excludes all else.

So allow me to answer back.

Ethical professional journalism is the essential, irreplaceable cornerstone and guardian of a free society.

It is a public trust.

It is the watchdog of the public interest.

It is a jewel in the crown of democracy.

Without ethical, free, professional journalism, no other freedoms can be guaranteed or protected.

The hallmarks of ethical professional journalism are accuracy, fairness, responsibility and accountability. Which separates us for the fervid "citizen journalists," tweets, Facebook posts, and blogs of this anarchistic new Internet world where such qualities are not necessarily high on the list of priorities.

Having said that, we professional journalists have to do a lot better in the area that matters most of all -- being, and being seen to be, in public service -- than we've done in recent years.

So let's start by agreeing that it's at the peril of our immortal souls that we do anything but serve the people as ethically, honourably, honestly and fairly as is humanly possible.

To that end:

  • It is the responsibility of the ethical journalist in a free society to be uncomfortable -- to question the status quo, the way things are, and to challenge accepted verities and beliefs.
  • It is the place of the ethical journalist to be outside looking in -- constantly questioning the health, actions and values of society.
  • It is the right of the ethical journalist to be skeptical -- but not cynical.
  • It is the duty of the ethical journalist to be disinterested -- but not uninterested.
  • It is the privilege of the ethical journalist to be the servant and surrogate of the people -- all the people.
  • It is the prerogative of the ethical journalist to cherish and feed the fragile flower of democracy -- and defend it against those who would harm it.
  • It is the obligation of the ethical journalist to be just as skeptical and questioning of the causes and people we respect and agree with as the causes and people we don't respect and agree with.


Ethical professional journalists put the peoples' interests before either our own or those of the powerful.

Our first loyalty is not to our employer. Nor to our union. Or cause. Or nation.

Our first loyalty is and must be to the people -- and to the people's democratic right to know.
Journalistic freedom is not important in that it keeps journalists free. Instead, it's vital in that it keeps the people free. Because journalists represent -- and must ultimately answer to -- the people. And only the people.

Within the limits of the law, journalism is either free or not free. It can't be three-quarters free. Or two-thirds free. But there are legions of vested interests out there ready, willing and eager to lessen journalistic freedom. Just a little bit, of course. And only for the greater good of all, of course.

The test of free journalism is not whether journalists can write and broadcast things people -- especially the powerful -- agree with.

The test of free journalism is whether journalists are free to write and broadcast things people -- especially the powerful -- disagree with.

The people have to know where they've been before they can understand where they are. That's what history's for.

And they have to know where they are before they can see where they might be going. That's what journalism's for.

The free, honest, open, fair dissemination of information through ethical professional journalism is the only trustworthy guide society has ever developed to daily explain -- as a first, rough draft of history -- the world we live in.

Free, honest, open, fair dissemination of information is both the business of professional journalism and the true currency of democracy.

It's called "The Free Marketplace of Ideas."

(More on "The Free Marketplace of Ideas" in my next column.)

 

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