A Call for Conscience Journalism

Posted today on Poynter.org by Jerry Mitchell, a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.

These are dark days for the Fourth Estate, days when Americans trust auto mechanics more than journalists, days when crazed lawyers host news programs, days when people refuse to believe what they read in their newspapers but believe any babble they hear on talk radio.These are days when footage of celebrity faux pas is held up as news exposé, days when partisan rancor masquerades as political debate, days when amateur blogging is passed off as investigative reporting, days when a photo spread of a celebrity couple's baby is touted as an evening news exclusive.To make matters worse, the things that have been happening lately to the American press sound as if they'd be more at home in a totalitarian nation than a democratic one -- military leaders detain media members, courts subpoena reporters' phone records and journalists go to jail for refusing to reveal their sources to government officials.

Despite all this bad news, there is good news.The good news is that good journalism doesn't wait on public opinion in order to make a difference. John Peter Zenger didn't wait for libel laws to be changed before he printed the truth. Ida M. Tarbell didn't wait for monopoly laws to be changed before exposing fraud by John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Co. Edward R. Murrow didn't wait for the Senate to police its own before challenging the claims of Joseph McCarthy.

Murrow's words to the nation seem more appropriate today than they did a half-century ago: "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. ... This is no time for men ... to keep silent. ... We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home."

Murrow would certainly agree that we in the press bear responsibility for the ways we cover the news. We cannot let the public's fascination with celebrity overwhelm that which is important. We need not feel for the public's pulse to determine what stories we should publish. And we must never give in to those trying to thwart our attempts to expose the truth.

It is time for a journalism that perseveres in spite of hostile forces.It is time for a journalism that believes in doing the right thing.

It is time for a journalism that desires to help the undesirable.It is time for a journalism that never forgets the forgotten.It is time for a journalism that cares.

Call it conscience journalism, if you like ...... Conscience journalism willing to expose the truth. Conscience journalism willing to seek justice for those who've suffered injustices. Conscience journalism willing to seek to correct the sins of our present as well as our past.Conscience journalism willing to stand up for the very people we have so long beckoned -- the wretched refuse of our teeming shore.


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