The Purpose of Journalism — Attacking A Common Definition

David Cohn, an acquaintance from my journalism school days in New York City, is an innovative thinker whose work I follow eagerly, and whose success I desire greatly, but I disagree vehemently when he defines the goal of journalism as follows:

At its best the aim is “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” This is one of my favorite quotes on the purpose of journalism.

That’s one of my least favorite quotes about journalism. Sometimes the comfortable achieve their perch justly. And the afflicted occasionally get their just deserts. Captain Sullenberg is awfully comfortable these days. Osama Bin Laden is hunted by the most powerful military on earth. Is it journalism’s goal to bring balance to that situation? When the distinctions are finer than the ones in the extreme examples I’ve cited is journalism even capable of deciding who it should afflict and who it should comfort? Doesn’t asserting that the end of journalism is “comforting” and “afflicting” imply that truth is incidental, insofar as lies can often comfort and/or afflict better than anything else?

The goal of journalism is to convey reality as accurately as possible, and as enjoyably as possible so long as accuracy isn’t sacrificed. Or at least that is a much better purpose than pretensions about deciding who should be comforted and who should be afflicted, and manifesting one’s value judgments. Journalism is not the earthly incarnation of God on the day of reckoning.

That said, the journalism David Cohn does is top notch. And check out his project Spot.us. He is helping to figure out what’s next.

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7 Responses to “The Purpose of Journalism — Attacking A Common Definition”

  1. Tweets that mention Conor Friedersdorf - Metablog – The Purpose of Journalism — Attacking A Common Definition - True/Slant -- Topsy.com Says:

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  2. Caitlin Kelly Says:

    I disagree.

    While the crusading/preachy notion behind it may feel dated to you or to others, the basic principle — seems to me — is crucial: don’t just blithely accept and praise the status quo (ooooh, those Goldman guys, they’re so successful. Such talent and dedication, etc.) and laud those who are wealthy and powerful without really trying to discern what is at the root of their wealth and power. It’s rarely incidental, just as — and I agree with you on this point — those mired in poverty and criminality end up or stay in that situation thanks to many reasons.

    I don’t always take this dictum literally and, given how many thousands of journos are being canned every single day, I wonder who still does. It way too easy, cheap and therefore deeply tempting to the lazy and those who employ them for maximum profit to just rewrite rah-rah press releases or use video news releases on the nightly news and call that “journalism” — more like “urinalism.”

    If journalists can’t be bothered to look long and hard at those wielding enormous financial and political power to find out what’s going on, who will? I suggest no one.

  3. digidave Says:

    Perhaps a more appropriate way of saying it is: Journalism’s higher calling.

    Obviously the goal of journalism is not JUST to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. To do that without keeping context in mind would be ludicrous (as your Osama Bin Laden example shows).

    But: You must admit whenever people hold up journalism, praise it for its ability to be the 4th estate, move mountains, etc – it is usually doing one of those two things: “comforting the afflicted or afflicting the comfortable.”

    All the precious journalism awards (side story about how the industry is too obsessed with these) are usually given to projects/work that do this.

    That journalism be accurate is not enough. As the commenter above notes: It is accurate to say the folks at Goldman are successful. But journalism and journalists would not be reaching for a higher purpose if that was the end of the story.

  4. digidave Says:

    On a side note: Always good to see you Conor – even if it is digitally. If you come out to the Bay – come say hi!

  5. Conor Friedersdorf Says:

    Dave,

    Good to see you too — you’ll see me in the Bay Area before long, I think. Forced to modify this formulation, I’d say that journalists should afflict the comfortable when reporting the truth about them reveals that their comfort is unjustly held. And that journalists should comfort the afflicted when reporting the truth about them and their circumstances is a comfort, especially when it can right wrongs.

    I have a feeling that we wouldn’t disagree about the merits of any specific pieces of journalism — I am certainly in favor of journalism that, by getting at the truth, would have the effect of afflicting Goldman Sachs.

  6. Caitlin Kelly Says:

    Slippery slope! “Unjustly” is very much in the eye of the beholder – as any of us who read the WSJ editorials and op-ed page are aware.

  7. Conor Friedersdorf Says:

    Ms. Kelly,

    I take your point, but again, if you want to afflict the justly comfortable, then you’ll have to start going after Captain Sullenberg, the firefighters who survived 9/11, and various lottery winners. Being comfortable shouldn’t itself subject one to being afflicted by the press!

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