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Journalistic Values in the 21st Century

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In 1973, Colby College awarded the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for Courageous Journalism to Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, for the paper's extraordinary coverage of the Watergate affair. The award went to Graham, not to the reporters or to the editors, because Graham risked her paper's entire future defending the principle that reporters should be free to follow a story wherever it led and that neither they nor their paper should be cowed by threats from even the most powerful people in government. It was Katharine Graham whom then-Attorney General John Mitchell threatened, with an oft-repeated claim that he would place certain parts of her anatomy through a wringer.

Last weekend Katharine Graham's granddaughter and namesake, Katharine Weymouth, the current publisher of the paper, penned an extraordinary letter to her paper's readers, apologizing for what seemed like an effort to use her prominence to sell access to power brokers in Washington. As she said in her letter, she feared that the episode would cause readers "to doubt our independence and integrity."

Weymouth asserted that neither she nor any of the editors in her newsroom approved of the flier that many found so offensive; yet she was chagrined enough to spell out the paper's standards in great detail. And so she should.

The major newspapers in this country adhere to rigorous journalistic standards; so too do many of the smaller papers and the vast majority of working journalists.

But what exactly are those standards? And are they the same for all media? When readers pick up the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, or the Washington Post, they have a certain expectation. Generations of journalistic giants have defined the role that newspapers play in our society. Today's reporters, editors, and publishers are heirs to the tradition of the Kay Grahams, the Robert Maynards, the Tom Winships and Mary McGrorys, the Don Bolles and Dan Pearls, all winners of the Lovejoy Award.

We all know, however, that journalism today is evolving radically. Most citizens, particularly young citizens, do not get their information from traditional newspapers. They do not even get information from the major television networks. Readers of this blog are among those who go to the Internet for some of their news; perhaps some go for all of that news. Various news outlets cater to specific audiences -- either by age or demographic group, or ideology, or some other identifiable trait.

What do we know about the standards followed by these media? And the key there is that we do not know what standards apply.

To be a literate consumer of the news today, one needs to know about the sources on which one relies. Most young people simply go to the site that is most convenient to them; few ask about the ways in which information for that site was gathered, about the standards for publication, about the role of ideological values in interpreting the news.

During the post-election disturbances in Iran, most mainline journalists were kept away from frontline reporting. How did we get our news? When President Obama's staff notified a Huffington Post reporter that he would be called on at the President's press conference, to ask a question that came from those on the ground in Iran, he came under severe criticism. Press Secretary Gibbs' response was that they did not know what the question would be, but that they wanted to recognize that those reporting through social networks were closest to the action in Iran and giving us much of what we know.

Last week I spent a good deal of time reading various news outlets coverage of Sarah Palin's announcement that she would resign as governor of Alaska. What one learned of that event depended heavily on where one read the news.

It is not easy to be news literate, particularly not for those who rely largely on digital media. It is difficult to know how to interpret news one receives. Under a grant from the John S, and James L. Knight Foundation, the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College has just launched a website to work on this problem. The Lovejoy Journalism and News Literacy Blog is intended as a conversation among journalists with two goals in mind: first, to educate news consumers about the strengths and weaknesses of the various media on which they rely, to assist them as they learn to consume news intelligently, to understand what it means to be news literate; second, and of equal importance, to raise the consciousness of news producers in the same variety of media about the expectations of their audiences. The goal is not to criticize journalists working in any media nor is it to criticize the news that is produced. Rather, it is to encourage thought and dialogue about what it means to be news literate in the 21st century. Take a look and join the conversation.