When Bill Kovach, founding chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, was inducted as a fellow into the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in October 2005, he also delivered the keynote address at that year's SPJ convention. An edited version of his speech follows.
I had a chance to truly understand the power of information in a much deeper way in 1990, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Empire, when Tom Winship, the late editor of The Boston Globe, and I organized the first conference between journalists from the West and journalists from the newly freed press of the crumbling Soviet Empire. For three amazing days in Prague we listened as speaker after speaker talked with great emotion of how the revolution in communications technology breached the Iron Curtain to allow uncensored news to pour through.
As Czech President Václav Havel explained, technology was "what allowed us to take back our language, a language which had been stolen by propagandists to convince us that show trials were 'justice' and slavery was 'freedom.'" Only when the language had been freed, he said, could people begin to have honest thoughts about political affairs, about the real state of the world, and about their place in that world.
It was an exhilarating time as we surveyed the rubble of an old order based on thought control and looked forward to the dawning of the new age—the Age of Information. The lesson Havel taught us that day is, I believe, relevant to us in the United States today. For now, a little more than a decade later, I believe we are caught up in a competition of our own over the uses of information that includes political uses but goes far beyond those to encompass our whole culture in a struggle that tests whether the press will serve a self-governing public or whether it will serve the power elites.
From the moment 24/7 digital news was introduced the process of verification—the beating heart of credible journalism in the public interest—has been under challenge. First came the temptation to publish now because "we can always correct it later." Then to publish news simply "because it's out there," a challenge made more complex in the aftermath of the events of September 11th.
But the threat posed by centralized control of information by institutions of power is the one I would like to address. I know advocates of "we media" believe that no one controls information anymore so that problem is solved. That potential may reside in cyberspace, but I have been unable to find support for that position. I'd like to talk with you about this because too many journalists, especially of my generation, remain confused about the challenges of this new media environment and remain dangerously passive about the opportunities presented to traditional journalism by the new communications technology.
Any doubt about the competitive nature of the media environment was surely washed away by the recent report by the Center for Media Design at Ball State University that found the media today engages more than two-thirds of the waking moments of some 400 people they studied in "Middletown USA." Such engagement has transformed citizens from passive consumers of information to more proactive participants as they choose their own knowledge of the outside world. Citizens have become their own editors and publishers. Each day that passes swells the number of people who join this tech-savvy generation accustomed to receiving and communicating what they want, when, where, how and from whom they want it.
The question is: Do those who pass along this information have the time, the motivation, and the skills this task requires? If not, then the question for journalists is: Do we have the skills and the will to help citizens gain these tools?
One concerned news executive told me recently that this media environment so confuses and intimidates both the business side and the news side that it is difficult to find an ally on either side of the organization when trying to employ new ways to address these questions. Our hesitancy to learn how to put the new technology to our use has left us at a serious disadvantage to other powerful institutions that become more important mediating powers with the help of this technology.
Think for a moment about the increasing ability of other mediating institutions to condition public thought and demand public attention:
Government institutions carefully insert propaganda into the public information stream to create "conditioned" responses to government actions and proposals. Information is shaped by access to a computerized profile of intimate details of each citizen's behavior and private life so information can be presented in its most appealing form. Consider the deeply sophisticated way the military first used fusion of data technology to engage the enemy on the battlefield and now uses the same approach to engage young minds with devices like video games to condition responses to issues of war and peace. Deep research into the use of information allows those in the political sphere to create reality for us, as an advisor to George W. Bush told Ron Suskind for his report in The New York Times Magazine. Remember the quote? "[Journalists] are in what we call the reality-based community .... That's not the way the world really works anymore .... When we act, we create our own reality. While you are studying that reality ... we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study, too...."
The entertainment industry rivals all others in creating gripping new realities that spawn a popular culture conditioned by fear and self-indulgence. Such conditioning creates an environment more congenial to the marketing techniques of other mediating institutions: the you-can't-trust-the-media-to-tell-you-the-truth mantra of government to cite only one example.
Social institutions, such as churches, are becoming more politicized and using their communication power not to create new realities based on communities of tolerance, love and compassion, but to turn major policy debates into conflicts between belief and pragmatic science. Many of these new realities discourage and demean independent pursuit of knowledge in favor of dependence on inspired individuals for interpretations of cause and effect.
Looking at the content of journalism today from this perspective, it is hard to ignore the fact that in many ways journalism is more dependent for its content on the handouts and assertions of these other institutions than it is on independently verified information. To mention only one obvious example, think of the virtually unchallenged assertions about weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the war on Iraq, assertions Colin Powell now confesses to be false and a "blot" on his career. This dependence is made all the greater as news organizations, in reaction to shrinking audiences, cut back on their newsgathering resources.
The "we media" culture suggests that since citizens can communicate with each other more easily, they will be closer to real truth and more accurate information. No doubt they can communicate more easily. Millions read blogs although the data suggest those numbers may already be stabilizing. Whether or not the end result is more verified and truthful information will depend on the degree of commitment to those goals the "we media" culture develops. For no matter how widespread this movement becomes, history tells us that society's more powerful institutions use new technology in a very disciplined way to do what they have done throughout history—perpetuate their power.
The driving force of the Age of Enlightenment out of which the notion of individual worth and a public press grew was a search for truthful information—information that freed the public from control by the kind of centralized dictatorial or dogmatic power developing in our society today. If journalism of verification is to survive in the new Information Age then it must become a force in empowering citizens to shape their own communities based on verified information.
The changes brought by our wired world are much like the change in immediacy and intimacy that printing introduced in the Enlightenment. Then, as now, the public was acutely sensitive to current news. The difference is that then when news broke, dialogue was sought in public spaces like coffeehouses where communities of interest were incubated. Today when news breaks in the intimacy of people's private communications system, they tend to seek out communities incubated in cyberspace.
As Walter Lippmann said more than 80 years ago: Citizens in a democracy do not act on reality but on the picture of reality that is in their minds. Most of the guiding principles of journalism are shaped by this concept. As an organizing principle for newsroom values it has served democracy well. But the world has slipped beyond the reach of the light Walter Lippmann cast. Today we live in a media world in which competing interests are creating realities designed to encourage communities of consumers, communities of belief, and communities of allegiance. It is in this environment that a journalism of verification must find its place by using these new technologies to support communities of independent thought. Journalists must find tools that will enlist a methodology of verification in a more citizen-oriented way and help the public to weigh this against what they are told daily by the popular culture and political spin.
We have, I think, all accepted the fact that our old gatekeeper role is no longer a viable organizing principle for journalism. But the purpose behind that principle—the search for truthful information—must continue if informed self-government is to remain a viable form of civic organization. We must begin to think of news reports as in some ways tool kits for these new citizen editors and publishers, just as the early newssheets were the tool kits that helped the first self-governing people arise out of the mass. It was concern for the individual as capable of self-governing that made our work unique and of lasting value.
Today we must ask ourselves some important questions: Can we open our process of gathering, organizing and developing information by using the interactivity of the new technology to make citizens become active participants in a community of verification and discussion? Can this be done with well-thought-out tools to engage their knowledge and experience more directly as sources for reporting? As analysis experts? As assignment advisors? Can synthesizing technologies be used to help our audiences build communities based on current news disclosures and to solve community problems? If there are to be new realities, can we help people build their own based on verified facts?
Can we find in the tools of video, sound, data mining, narrative and interactivity ways to connect our work to the public in appealing even if educational ways? Can we find here an opportunity for more civic education in a way that helps people unlearn some of what they've been told by the popular culture?
We can if journalists learn how to use our information-rich environment to build more immediate and powerful narratives in the limitless well and the multiple layering of storytelling forms that this new technology allows. For example, we can offer stories to different audiences in a variety of ways using different kinds and forms of data. We can do this if we take as our guides narratives like Henry Mayhew's 19th century interviews with the street people of London that appeared in the London Chronicle and finally brought into the light of public attention an entire layer of society that had gone unnoticed until his stories gave them substance and visibility; or Joseph P. Lyford's "The Airtight Cage" and "The Talk in Vandalia" in the 1960's that changed Americans' views about the reality of poverty by the accumulation of minute detail and analysis of daily urban and rural life.
The kind of narratives once only possible in book-length presentation can now more immediately inform audiences in ways that allow the public to enter into the stories that help them discover realities more exciting, more engaging, and more rewarding than any artificially induced world. These kind of public affairs narratives could be utilized by our audiences to create new communities of interest that the sudden renewal of concern about the plight of poor Americans in New Orleans after Katrina clearly suggest are possible.
Think of the ways other institutions have learned to use technology to create new audiences. Major League Baseball and the National Football League are creating a new generation of fans by helping them interact with their own teams and leagues. Theirs is a world of fantasy, but is it possible we could imagine coverage of public affairs in a way that allows our audiences to use verified information to engage effectively in self governance? Can we imagine coverage of foreign aid that allows our audiences to track what is sent, where and how it is used?
What I am talking about is the kind of engaging, verified information that helps the public resist the messages of fear and self-indulgence they receive so frequently from the popular culture: These messages of fear and self-indulgence are ones that favor a passive, not an engaged and alert, public.
This new Information Age calls for a new journalism that recognizes that to assure that our principles and purpose do not disappear we adjust to those things irrevocably changed by the new technology. This journalism must recognize that the distribution, the organization, and the sources of our work must change.
In June 1997, a group of 25 journalists met at Harvard to organize the Committee of Concerned Journalists (CCJ). In our statement of shared purpose, here is what those journalists said defines our work: "The central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need in order to make informed judgments in a self-governing society."
Since then the CCJ has been engaged in training in newsrooms around the country to help journalists think more critically about how and whether the techniques they employ are working to achieve the purpose of journalism. As citizens become more proactive consumers, journalism must help equip them for that role and not continue to see them as a passive audience. Unless journalists can develop tools to do this, we will abdicate the role we once held—to provide the raw material of self-government. If, and only if, we can accompany citizens as they move into cyberspace will we be able to justify the hope placed in the press by Antoine Nicolas de Condorcet in 1794, when he wrote while in hiding from the Jacobin revolutionaries who would murder him, "We have now a Tribune ... whose scrutiny it is difficult to elude and whose verdict it is impossible to evade."