Journalism’s Moral Responsibility: Three Questions

September 1, 2002
Category: Archive

By Cole C. Campbell


Who’s at fault for America’s lack of preparedness that allowed terrorists to attack our people and our prosperity?


The first to feel the heat on Sept. 11, as broadcast anchors ruminated between horrible images of destruction, were the minimum-wage workers who run airport metal detectors and scanners. We can be certain these workers, as a class, will lose their jobs. Then fingers pointed to intelligence agencies. Outsiders accused intelligence operatives of ineptitude. Operatives accused outsiders of starving them of resources needed to do the job. We can be certain some heads will roll, payrolls will swell, and regulations barring double agents with dirty hands will be dropped.


Now a dust of blame, like debris from the collapsing towers, has landed on journalism. Will it stick? If so, can we be certain that any consequences will follow? How will those of us in the journalism community think and talk about these matters? Will we reflect in a meaningful way? Will we engage in selective denial or selective self-flagellation? Will we reallocate responsibility onto parties outside the profession?


Reading Jim Romenesko’s MediaNews the outlines of the conversation are already emerging. It’s evident in several recent postings, beginning with Geneva Overholser’s lucid summary of the basic indictment.



Many have asked, “How could our intelligence services have failed us so?” But I would ask: How could our reporting on intelligence have been so poor? ‘ In February, CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Osama bin Laden’s “global network” was the “most immediate and serious” terrorist threat to the United States. A handful of newspapers covered the testimony, and even their stories were brief and buried.


A few weeks before that, a bipartisan commission released a report saying “the relative invulnerability of the U.S. homeland to catastrophic attack” was coming to an end. The commission, headed by former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, said, “A direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter-century.”


The report hardly was noticed. The New York Times didn’t cover it.



Overholser cites a precipitous drop in international coverage, driven by expense, a misreading of public interest in world news, and a fixation on local news. Then she quotes former Times reporter Leslie Gelb, who served on the bipartisan commission: “It is a failure to report on substance. I would say the biggest problem for people in public policy schools or think tanks is to get any coverage of the substantive work being done….Most of the stories have nothing to do with policy. Almost all are about politics: ‘She says; he says.’ It is horrific.”


John Balzar, a columnist at the Los Angeles Times, defends the journalism profession in the person of his colleague, John-Thor Dahlburg, citing Dahlburg’s stories that have run on Page One of the Los Angeles Times over the past several years.


“Dahlburg, of course, wasn’t the only foreign correspondent to see attacks coming. But for my money, no one did a better job of it. Over and over again, for years now, he has been sounding warnings. He explained the motive and the means and predicted the timing,” Balzar writes. “If you could have pleaded this evidence in court, I doubt that any judge in the country would have refused a restraining order against the Taliban. It was that clear and convincing and, we now know, horribly provident.


“If anyone is to blame for an intelligence failure, it is us, the stakeholders in our democracy,” Balzar concludes. “And, of course, those we elect to serve us.”


Of course, the Los Angeles Times is an exceptional newspaper, one of four that employ more than two-thirds of the nation’s newspaper foreign correspondents, as noted by Stephen Ponder, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon. Ponder says the overall lack of context “may have contributed to the shock felt by Americans when they abruptly found themselves on the front lines of international terrorism.”


At the same time, Ponder faults news consumers and worries that they may “once again turn inward, as they did after 1991 [after the Persian Gulf War], and fail to demand that their news media help them to understand the world they ignore at their peril.” Caryl Rivers, a journalism professor at Boston University, hopes that, given the exceptional coverage of terrorism’s aftermath, “Maybe, just maybe, consumers will get used to this kind of quality, and demand more of it.”


Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times offers related testimony from two network executives, who in turn cite surveys of viewer interests:



“Generally what people look for in news are things that are relevant and salient and relate to their personal lives,” said David F. Poltrack, executive vice president for research at CBS. ‘International news generally didn’t fall into that category and therefore was somewhat down the list of the topics they wanted to see covered in the news.


Erik Sorenson, president of MSNBC, blamed a “national fog of materialism and disinterest and avoidance.” Even after staff reductions, he said, TV news could have done more foreign coverage. But, he said: “The public interest and the newsworthiness of international news has been such that the networks didn’t even use the resources they had overseas. It was a content issue. There was a decision made not to air these kinds of stories.” [link to New York Times for story.]


Rutenberg cites an analyst of broadcast performance, Andrew Tyndall, who says foreign coverage dropped when President Clinton scaled back overseas military operations. Overholser quotes Gary Hart as saying of his terrorism report’s low visibility that “the White House shut it down.” “But the press didn’t have to join in,” she adds.


Journalism’s moral authority


Journalists have done much to be proud of in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The staff of The Wall Street Journal covered terrorism at the Journal‘s front door, and reporters and photographers in New York risked their lives on the streets around the World Trade Center. Across the country, newsrooms responded with extra editions, special broadcasts, and continuous Web updates. The coverage has been detailed and sweeping in scope. The nation has needed saturation coverage to comprehend, and bear, the unbearable losses. Journalism has reasserted its genuine value in a time of crisis.


But the conversation about what news organizations could have done that would have lessened the nation’s vulnerability to attack cannot be avoided. Important questions have been raised–and the way we respond will say important things about how we see our work. More important, I believe, than debates over flag pins on anchor’s lapels.


There seem to be three fundamental questions that can be asked about journalism in general as well as journalism assessing the threat of terrorism.


1. Do news organizations help citizens and communities, including political leaders, identify and respond to the most significant threats to well-being?


Increasingly, journalism has been accused of being a source of distraction rather than a tool of attentiveness, and not just because of its growing obsession with scandal and celebrity. The litany of charges is familiar: Americans’ disproportionate fear of crime reflects disproportionate crime coverage. Americans’ rank-ordering of threats to life and limb overstates dangers that journalists consider newsworthy and understates deadlier, but less newsworthy, conditions. Americans’ grasp of scientific issues– threats to the environment, risks of genetic engineering– is muddied by coverage that frames them as disputes over who calls the shots in regulatory schemes. Americans’ sense of responsibility for global suffering is eroded by “compassion fatigue” from too many heart-wrenching depictions and too few explanations of what might be done.


At the purely local level, does your news organization consistently and realistically identify the threats–economic, environmental, health, criminal, etc.–that your communities face? Or is such coverage reactive–swinging into high gear only after a horrible incident, or after a politician or activist group makes a big deal of an issue?


2. Do news organizations pursue a well-grounded definition of what constitutes substantive coverage?


In The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel set out admirable standards such as pursuing truth, serving citizens, verifying facts, maintaining independence, monitoring power, providing forums, exercising conscience. Their take on making the significant “interesting and relevant” deals mostly with storytelling forms, while keeping the news “comprehensive and proportional” discusses overstatement and niche marketing. We could use clearer standards of how to focus on what truly matters.


If our definition of substantive journalism is too narrow, we risk being entirely substantive and yet still irrelevant to the concerns of people or the threats confronting them. For example: Coverage of the apparatus and workings of power in politics can be quite substantive, but it omits a wide range of equally substantive topics, such as the policies contemplated, the uncertainties of success (not political success, but operational success), the limitations of knowledge shaping all public choice, etc.


3. Do news organizations take responsibility for how their work is pursued and how it is received?


This is a most troubling question, and one that underlies–or undermines–the answers to all others. The conversation emerging in MediaNews reflects the reflexive ways we assign responsibility to others: Political authorities who focus on domestic priorities but not international ones–or who fail to signal the significance of a report or even “shut it down.” Owners more interested in cutting costs than in covering news. A culture that has wrapped itself in a “national fog of materialism and disinterest and avoidance.” Audiences that don’t care, and worse, don’t demand enough of us.


Those notions are not atypical. Substantive research has documented that journalists and sources routinely negotiate over what’s news–over the balance of interest versus importance required to turn a report, a hearing, a claim into a story or photo. At the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications convention in August, some members of the opening keynote panel wished out loud that audiences better appreciated journalists and quality journalism. And one panelist–Michael Gartner, Pulitzer laureate, former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and of NBC News– proposed journalism education not for prospective journalists but for citizens, so they can arm themselves against shoddy work. And the body of journalistic commentary blaming owners for every journalistic shortcoming is burgeoning.


We journalists need a stronger sense of moral agency than that. We need to ratchet up our journalism ethics discussions to encompass journalism’s moral authority. These three questions point to one underlying query:


Does journalism have a sense of its moral responsibility and a commitment to discharge it?


It takes a profession


We must take responsibility for making substantive journalism about real risks salient–to use Poltrack’s term– to our sources, owners, and users. Poltrack, the CBS executive, uses salient in a psychological sense–perceiving something as relevant to one’s life. That’s useful, but insufficient. In moral journalism, salient is more than important, interesting, or relevant. It’s more than selling a story that no one would otherwise read, or dumping it on an ignorant world with the righteous justification that it ought to be read. For journalists, Salient is a moral term, not a marketing one. Its Latin root, salire, means “to leap out.” So salient also means protruding, strikingly conspicuous, prominent. Our moral responsibility is to cover significant threats to well-being, substantively, in such a way that our coverage leaps out, protrudes, and is strikingly and conspicuously prominent. So that it sears the conscience of our fellow citizens. Exceptions–a talented foreign correspondent here, a string of Page One stories there–cannot do that for a nation. It takes a profession.


Newspapers know how to make stories that they deem important salient to their readers–and to the public officials responsible for the ills they uncover. Consider “Gateway to Gridlock,” the Chicago Tribune‘s series on airport delays. The Tribune sent reporters to seven airports and five control towers to report on one day in the life of air travel in America. A total of 26 reporters contributed, and their reports ran over several full pages over four days. Chicago magazine described the series as “packed with literary detail and a dash of investigative oomph.” The Pulitzer board described it as a “clear and compelling profile of the chaotic American air traffic system.” The series won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting.


Airport delays are important to business and leisure travelers, so maybe it did not require too much literary detail and investigative dash to make the series salient to readers and regulators. Still, after Sept. 11, one has to wonder: What if the series–with the same resources, the same depth, the same conspicuous prominence–had focused its explanatory power on the chaotic American airport security system?


Newspaper sat times have blown the obligation to make an important unfolding story salient. Laurel Leff of Northeastern University has analyzed The New York Times coverage of the Holocaust, from 1939 to 1945. She published her findings in the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, Spring 2000. Her conclusion: “[T]he placement of news about the Holocaust almost uniformly on inside pages, as well as the failure to highlight it in editorials or in summaries of important events, made it difficult for most Americans to find the facts and to understand their importance….despite the detailed, credible information that was available, the American public actually did not know about the Holocaust while it was happening because mainstream American newspapers never presented the story of the extermination of the Jews in a way that highlighted its importance.”


In other words, the Times had the story. It just didn’t make it salient.


One of my heroes in our profession is Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the Times‘s publisher, because of his commitment to quality journalism and his business vision. In May, he told a journalism class at Columbia University that one of the biggest failures in the Times‘s 150-year history was not alerting the world to the Holocaust’s atrocities.


He understands the moral dimension of salience in journalism.


Substance without salience is pontificating. Salience without substance is pandering. Consistent and realistic coverage of the most significant threats to well-being (and opportunities to improve it) is the primary purpose of journalism. That’s what makes journalism a worthy calling–and a moral one.


Cole C. Campbell, former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Virginian-Pilot, is a fellow at the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, which studies what makes democracy work. He was a Poynter Fellow in 2000.