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The Purpose of Journalism — Attacking A Common Definition

November 21, 2009

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 He is helping to figure out what’s next.