Thursday, July 19, 2007

'Preventative Journalism' Is Hypocrisy

What role should journalism play -- watchdog? Advocate? Nonpartisan arbiter of truth? Doctor?

According to the founding editor of Washington Monthly, "preventative." And the organization he heads, Understanding Government, is offering $50,000 to the best case of it.

"We define preventive journalism as reporting that identifies inept leaders, wrong-headed policies and bureaucratic bungling before they lead to disasters like the bad intelligence about WMDs and the travesty that was the response to Katrina," Charlie Peters writes in this week's centerpiece Poynter story.

Peters goes to on reference the lack of news organizations following-up on disasters to see if things have really changed. And in that respect, he's got a point: It's that kind of journalism that prevents harm from others.

But I've got a big problem with this idea in principle -- if journalism is taking a preventative stance, how exactly is it still neutral?

I understand Peters' motivation behind the award, and I support his thoughts. But I believe Peters makes incomplete arguments in his explanation of the award, which ultimately undermines its relevance. He writes:

"Investigative reporters too often simply provide a flat one-dimensional account of what went wrong. They usually fail to explore the "why" behind the story. And when they do, as happens in the case of the better explanatory journalism, the reasons they identify are only political or economic. Rarely are cultural factors examined."

Well, aside from the fact that he doesn't mention any examples to back his claim about investigative reporting, he says that cultural factors aren't examined. His example? The fact that "the FBI still has only six fluent Arabic speakers among its hordes of agents. But we are not told what it is in the bureau's culture that produces this absurd result," citing proof when the CIA ignored a cable warning that two of the 9/11 terrorists had come to the United States.

Well, if this is a sociology paper, I might say that the reason may be continued racism of some variety. But within the constraints of Washington, I truly believe that the reason is primarily political. So in this example, it's my opinion that separating culture and politics in Washington would be a grave misstep in any investigative piece.

To get back to my point, I think the concept of this award has been bungled. In theory, investigative reporting should be covering all bases in the first place, and on principle, journalism should not be "finding out what's wrong in time to keep bad things from happening," as Peters writes. I think Peters strays into near-advocacy on this, and I'm hesitant to agree with him here. Journalism should be finding out what's wrong for the purpose of telling the public, not for the purpose of preventing bad things from happening.

If you're a journalist and a member of PETA, you might think covering a slaughterhouse might be important because they're killing animals, even if it's all done legally. To the rest of the country, it's just a way to get food. If the public doesn't perceive an atrocity, they'll be wondering why the news is setting the agenda for them.

So really journalism needs to tell the public and let them react. That's what investigative journalism is really all about, isn't it? If you're writing a story that your public doesn't care about, are you really a neutral source of essential "news" at that point? Or are you an advocacy group?

Let the public take action and prevent unfortunate events -- just make sure you tell them what's happening. Tell 'em what's wrong, just don't prescribe the medication. Morally, would I like to prevent certain things from happening? Sure -- but as a reporter, I'm not hired to change the world. I'm hired to report on who's changing it.

That's the role of journalism, I think. And I'm standing by it.


Colin said...

I couldn't agree with you more, sir. And I feel as though Peters' ideas strike at the heart of a problem with this country. What is journalism's role? So many people seem so fuzzy on that. And Peters' arguing it should help prevent things only further muddies the water.
Sure, it would be nice if journalists helped the community, but only as people. Journlists tell the people what is going on, then they react.

In your example of the pro-PETA journalist, you hit the nail on the head. No one wants the journalists opinion of what should be done, that's an op-ed columns job. The story is just the story.

On the the other hand . . .

Consider how much coverage a report on the inadequacy of the dikes surrounding Lake Pontchartrain would have recieved months before Katrina. As an editor chooses stories, there must be a method, and perhaps Peters' is simply arguing that selection of what's news-worthy needs to change? I honestly don't know.

Personally, I feel like most things that could be construed as "preventative" journalism are usually only viewed as such in hindsight. Mr. Peters ought to read a little book called "The Logic of Failure." It goes a long way towards explaining how no amount of muckracking journalism was going to stop Louisiana from not mainting it's dikes and the poor people from settling the lowlands.

Yian said...

Hey Andrew,

These are exactly the issues that I'm struggling with.

My question to you is, what if you have something to say? Do you then wait till you get a job on the editorial pages? How does one keep one's dreams/ambitions separate from one's work?