C-26. Journalism

Journalism, another poorly anchored conceptual term, has it historical roots in practices, those of story writing, of printing, of reporting and of debate. But its essence, its reason for its being a profession, a vocation of professional observing … that essence lies, like public opinion, in our needed minding capability — especially for communities, where mass communication is a problem and various mass media help, more or less, to solve that problem. In its beginnings as an academic field, it attracted students enthused with writing and public affairs.

Journalism has a respected tradition of minding in one sense: that of maintaining surveillance on public institutions as part of its appointed task to furnish us with the “news.” But minding, as we have seen, comprises much more than noting non-singularities as a “watchdog.”

It is not too strong a statement to assert that public opinion can be no better than journalism, nor journalism no better than public opinion because if either fails to heed the functional demands of behavioral necessity, we are in trouble. And trouble we have. We are much more concerned with the functioning of the structures we have (e.g., institutions, vocational skills) and with the technology we have (e.g., the Internet) than we are with the behavioral structures we still require to meet our functional needs – and have yet to invent (App. VII).

This although consequentiality – hence “news value” – grows as our unsolved problems, especially those requiring collective action, pile up, growing in number and severity.

Professions, of which journalism claims to be a member, are about helping (App. I). But helping whom and how? For that we need a structured, complete analysis of functional need, applicable to individuals and communities as change agents – those the profession serves.

A good place to start is to understand the journalist as a professional observer, whose own minding needs to be informed (as by BFPS) as well as the minding services being provided the public. As a professional observer, the coverage task is far greater than that of the scientist whose adopted concerns may not extend beyond the order of things and whose pointed questions may begin and end with identifications and hypotheses. Journalistic coverage is about everything of consequence, essentially.

(For this reason, an accredited U.S. college curriculum for journalism students is nominally 75% liberal arts and 25% vocational skills. Some of the liberal arts are, however, themselves skills, limited in scope and development [e.g., inadequate, poorly pointed questioning]).

Functional analyses pertinent to the journalistic profession have been made, but incompletely with respect to needed minding capabilities. Some are also after the fact with respect to particular “uses and gratifications” served – which are now to be seen in the hundreds, as in cell phone “apps.”. These particulars breed concepts (e.g., immediate vs. delayed rewards, instrumental vs. consummatory) but not functional theory. Incompleteness is also characteristic of after-the-fact analyses based on what has been done in mass media practice (e.g. Lasswell’s surveillance, correlation and education) rather than on a foundation of behavioral theory that would specify all of the needed minding functionality for change agent capability and effectiveness. (See C-22 re anchored concepts.)

When functionality is addressed ad hoc, such as the value placed on newspapers by Jefferson, the result may be more supportive of function than helpful for fulfilling that function. There are developments, but the course of events may smack more of evolution than of development of the professional observer capability. Consider, for example, the ironic (some would say tragic) history of U.S. newspapers in regard to partisanship. Early American newspapers commonly favored this or that political party, openly and avidly. Broader circulation ambitions as the 20th century dawned led to extending coverage to other parties, with an attendant focus on controversy as a news value. An even more “objective” solution, that of balancing coverage for partisan news and opinion, was adopted by some newspapers – particularly at midcentury when McCarthyism flourished,. A responsibility to help provide for informed decision making was then often given as the functional need. And here a classic case emerges of a problem produced by a solution (0, I). What balanced coverage has done is to bring partisanship back, prominently, into newspaper functioning. Partisans are given equal voice without much regard to the accuracy and/or relevance of assertions made to problem solving. Electoral context dominates (e.g., the “horserace” metaphor). Issues displace problems. Personalities contest, as though leadership solves both the behavioral problem and the situational problems. What individuals and communities may still need for their minding is forfeit to a lower common denominator of public decision making and journalistic balance.

Entrepreneurs can find functionality in media, but as McChesney has pointed out very forcefully, their functionality is typically self-serving, with public needs met only tangentially, if at all. (See XI re the economy/polity dynamics, esp. the imbalance and interependence.) The “promise” of new media, as for educational needs, usually turns out to be more empty than full. But what else, when we conceive of journalism after the fact (“is as does”), lacking a principled foundation in behavioral need with which to design the tools and procedures we need to bring the future more usefully into the present (C-18) – which is to say, to produce the capability to solve our problems?

Expanded media capacities (e.g., virtually endless computer memory) are far from the whole answer to this question. Nor are they the simple solution for the weakness problem in our minding so apparent in public opinion (C-25). (Indeed, the content and connectedness generated by the flood of new media are confronting us with new problems issuing from these solutions (0, I). Consider too a question which the work confirming media agenda effects led by Shaw and McCombs also suggests: Do media practitioners lack the capability to bring about much in the way of any minding outcomes other than differences in exposure and focal attention (VII)? What then in light of Lasswell’s media functions of correlation and education, which more than hint of a responsibility to help develop individual and community minding capabilities?

(Note that the concept of “media power” is not the only potential casualty of this weakness. Nor is it the most significant, by far. That would be public opinion, which, given the interdependence of individual and community [XI], signals a doubly deadly affliction for us all.)

It seems clear here that improved functionality will depend on a much greater investment in experimental journalism and public opinion, with special attention to evaluative research in that enterprise utilizing the pragmatic assessment of effectiveness (C-21).

(c) 2011 R. F. Carter