Journalism: Needed, necessary for democracy - and for us

Journalism – the profession of seeking and relaying information – is needed and necessary in ways big and small.

We need journalism in the “big” way as a cornerstone of democracy – as that means and method by which we keep a watchful, informed eye on our government so that the self-governed may make competent decisions about public policy, spending and about those we elect to public office.

And we need journalism in a much smaller, individual scope: For the necessary information to lead our daily lives safely, intelligently, with the shared information necessary for us to work, play, worship and connect with our friends, family, neighbors, and others

In the most basic way, we need journalism as our surrogate. We need the profession and people in it who act in our behalf as we go about careers and have personal lives that likely do not allow for us to regularly attend government meetings, dive deep into government or private records involving public interests, track and question – and yes, at times, salute – public officials who direct policy and spend public funds.

As a First Amendment advocate, lets note that the terms “free press” and “journalism” intersect quite naturally, to me the profession is but a portion of the freedom.

The constitutional protection of a free press in the U.S. means we are able to express ourselves in any manner with very little legal restraint –limits imposed in only a few areas such as defamation, fraud or true threats.

Journalism imposes self-restraints on that freedom, with the aim of providing truthful, accurate and fair accounts to our fellow citizens. Journalism – not the government – when practiced well sets its own standards of conduct, holds itself publicly accountable and has a commitment to accurate, fair and clear newsgathering and reporting.

Notice that none of that excludes having opinions or even biases – but “journalism” requires its practitioners to be transparent about such views, and to separate decisively reporting matters of fact from expressing opinion.

Journalists also have a dual obligation not to be careless or unmindful of the effect and impact of their work, even as they recognize that some truthful reporting will bring sadness, harm careers or invite criticism – with the latter leading to a willingness to correct, clarify or even admit fault and failure to a voluntary degree unseen in any other profession.

There is no small irony that part of today’s public skepticism about journalism and journalists is rooted in the necessary, self-inflicted wounds inflicted by the profession’s own commitment to publicly exposing those who plagiarize, distort or fabricate. Yes, not all is well – or perfect – in journalism today, nor has it ever been. A professional that relies on trust is deeply wounded at times by frauds, tricksters, manipulator and others who betray their colleagues and the public trust.

Still, what other profession over the last 50 years has itself as so openly investigated and exposed its own faults? Certainly not Wall Street, nor government or most private enterprises.

We are living through an era in which those who feel disassociated from American social and political life find at least self-satisfaction in attacking journalism more from reflex than reason. We are faced a political landscape where some find political traction or gain in attacking journalists as “enemies of the people” act in defiance or ignorance of the obvious: That journalists are “the people” in all of our boisterous, inquisitive, flawed, demanding, at times arrogant and at all-times challenging, majesty.

Those who would complain that journalists today somehow fall short of those of an earlier time also ignore that today’s professionals a better educated, are more diverse and are more transparent and accountable than ever.

We need journalists today and in the future if for no other reason than “enlightened self-interest.” For the higher principles of our society the regularly question even as they uphold them. And for the daily updates on the minutia of life that regularly becomes important to each us.

We need journalism.

This article was written by Gene Policinski. Gene is the president and COO of the Freedom Forum Institute, and has been a journalist for 50 years, first as a reporter in Greenfield, Ind., and later as one of the founding editors of USA TODAY. He is a 1972 graduate of Ball State with a degree in journalism.

Gene Policinski