In Institutions We Trust: What Is Quality Journalism?

November 5, 2018 • Comment, Ethics and Quality, Recent • by

Back in the day, it was all about pornography. “I know it when I see it”, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward argued in the ground-breaking verdict Jacobellis vs. Ohio in 1964, a ruling that settled much about what was legal and what was not in matters of show and tell.

“I know it when I see it” also seems to be a common response when it comes to quality journalism. Many of the debates we are having about the media these days often zero in on the question of what quality journalism actually is. And at first glance, the answer seems to be an easy one. But the deeper one digs, the fuzzier the concept becomes. And why does it even matter?

What Do We Mean By Quality?

It does because journalism is in trouble. Traditional business models are being rocked and so is trust, while the risks for journalists are rising even in Europe. Increasingly, new talent seems to be opting out for these reasons. If the trend continues, the survival of the profession will be at stake.

This is why initiatives to support quality journalism are mushrooming. The Council of Europe is running an expert committee working on guidelines for member states (the author of this text is a member). Journalism trust initiatives and projects are trying to help, too. This is where the quality debate kicks in: If we want to save journalism, shouldn’t we focus our energy and resources on the high-end, high-quality part? Maybe – but where does the high-end begin?

If we want to save journalism, shouldn’t we focus our energy and resources on the high-end, high-quality part?

There are quite a few members of the wider journalism community who would, for example, like to deny tabloid journalism any support. “Where is the quality?”, they ask. Where is the value added when reporting about Meghan Markel’s possible pregnancy outfits, or in articles about the likelihood of an alien visit from outer space? Where, they ask, is the quality in a gruesome and overly detailed report of some fatal accident where even the bereaved haven’t had a chance to hear all the details in advance? Others opine that fashion reporting can impossibly be called quality journalism. At best, some say, this kind of content is justified if it pays for “the real stuff”.

What Is “The Real Stuff”?

But what is the real stuff then? Is it only political or business reporting, or investigations of any kind? What about sports reporting, food journalism, or the more entertaining parts of the culture section – and where, by the way, does “quality” culture begin?

It is here, where it becomes obvious that defining what is and is not “quality journalism” is not only an incredibly challenging task. It is also a slippery slope that can lead to all kinds of abuse. Authoritarian regimes, for instance, won’t find it hard to tell you what quality is from their point of view: certainly nothing that involves challenging those in power. And you don’t even have to go back as far as to Hitler-Germany’s book burnings. Viktor Orbán’s decision to ban gender studies in the name of quality is a more recent example. You can bet that we won’t see much balanced reporting on gender issues from Orbán-controlled media in the future. The lesson in this is: defining quality along the lines of content opens the door for censorship. So how can quality be defined without tapping into this trap?

Quality Is About The Process, Not Only The End Result

There is only one solution: The term quality journalism needs to be separated from single pieces of content. Everyone with newsroom experience in high-quality news organisations would agree that even here, low-quality content occasionally slips through. I’m not even talking about misinformation, but rather about the kind of copy-and-paste stuff put together hastily to meet a deadline or to make a boss happy. To be honest, there is plenty of bad journalism in high-quality publications.

“The censored press remains bad, even if it brings forth good products … The free press remains good, even if it brings forth bad products.” – Karl Marx

Instead of being associated with an award-winning story, the term quality should be tied to the processes that can lead to the same: reporting on the ground, consulting a second or third source, having a second or third pair of eyes editing a story, using relevant data, being independent of business interests, sporting a pressure-proof fact-checking process, providing transparency in dealing with factual mistakes and bad journalistic judgement, holding up the bar in talent recruitment and training – and nourishing a culture that is ready to scrutinise these processes. Making sure that a diversity of social backgrounds and viewpoints are represented in the newsroom would take the quality to an even higher level. Looking at it this way, fashion reporting can indeed be quality journalism, if it follows these procedures, rather than writing puff pieces.

Ultimately, journalism is about helping citizens to make their decisions and form their opinions in all matters of life, not just in politics or economics. It is about holding power to account, about lifting the curtain, about explaining and portraying the world. And it is about the ambition–and obligation–to make these things interesting. Without an audience, journalism won’t achieve any of these goals.

We Need A Powerful Corrective

It goes without saying that size matters in all this. The bigger the organisation, the more of these standards can be implemented. A three-person newsroom cannot, for example, afford a fact-checking department. And yet, the proper collection and verification of facts will still be at the core of what they are doing.

The powerful need to be held accountable by a powerful corrective. This corrective can only be a collective, operating under procedures that stand the test of credibility.

What about the lone blogger then, trying to raise her or his voice above the noise? Do they deserve the same protections and support quality journalism is asking for? Not quite. A blogger is protected by freedom of speech rights just as any other individual. But just writing, recording or filming something and publishing it on the web cannot qualify as the kind of institutionalised journalism any democracy should cherish and uphold.

The powerful need to be held accountable by a powerful corrective. This corrective can only be a collective, operating under procedures that stand the test of credibility. In the digital world there is much talk about the wisdom of the crowd, but in the end, the mechanisms of this world are about separating the crowd into individuals. Journalism stands as a force to counter that separation. It needs to remain and be supported as an institution.

You might also be interested in Charlie Beckett’s What Is ‘Quality’ Journalism?

Opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views, policies or positions of the EJO.

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