Friday, June 11, 2010

Jay Rosen: Eight key terms for determining legitimacy in journalism

Eight key terms for determining legitimacy in journalism
by Jay Rosen
Public Notebook


What would you say are some easily discernable, objective criteria to gauge legitimacy?

I'd start with the will to veracity, also known as truthtelling. Truthtelling even when it hurts or causes problems for your friends. Real journalists tell us what happened because it actually happened that way, and not some other way. All forms of legitimacy derive from this one.

Then I'd move on to a manifest concern for accuracy, as in getting it right and correcting it when wrong.

Third pillar: transparency, also called disclosure, so we know where you're coming from and what your stake is in the matter under review, if any.

Intellectual honesty: like when you paraphrase what Senator Brown says it actually does capture what Senator Brown says. This is sometimes called "fairness," but I think my term is more descriptive.

Currency, in the sense that you are trying to report what happened recently, to keep up with events and what is known now. Journalism is about the present, not what was true six months or six years ago. Legitimacy in journalism has something to do with a determination to keep us up to date with a shifting world.

Inquiry: not the perfect word but the closest fit I can find. I refer to the drive to find out, to inquire and reveal more than what lies on the surface. We all know of situations in which the person in question didn't lie but also didn't try... to find out. That's what I mean by inquiry: trying to find out. Journalism, to be journalism, must do that.

Utility, sometimes called by another name: public service. Journalists can get into legitimacy problems when they are trying to find out, but finding out serves no public purpose. Their legitimacy is clearest when the public interest is served by what they are striving to reveal to us.

Veracity, accuracy, transparency, intellectual honesty, currency, inquiry, utility. That's where I would start in attempting to define legitimacy in journalism. Providers of news, information and commentary who devote themselves to those seven things are solid citizens of Legit-a-land.

I have to add one more, but you will probably hate me for it because it will strike you as jargon, and all journalists claim to hate jargon (but "lede" is okay, right?) Anyway, my eighth pillar of legitimacy is polyphonicity. I know: awful term! It means "more than one sound."

Journalism to be fully legitimate needs to present a plurality of voices, not just one. I don't mean to invoke the gods of balance. They are false gods. I mean to suggest that journalism isn't a monologue. More than one person speaks in it. More than one angle is taken on the object.

Now I am sure you noticed that among my eight key terms for determining legitimacy in journalism one does not find such things as: objectivity, professionalism, "code of ethics," balance, getting paid, being incorporated as a commercial business, working full time at newsgathering, eschewing opinion, bearing a press pass, or getting certified by the (journalistic) powers that be.

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