‘The Elements of Journalism’: Review and Discussion

In preparation for a journalism class I will be taking in the fall, I decided to read The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. This book is the product of a three-year study conducted by the Committee of Concerned Journalist that included: twenty-one public forums that saw 3,000 people attend and included testimonies from over three hundred journalists, more than a hundred 3 1/2 hour interviews with journalists discussing their values, two surveys of journalists about their principles, a summit of First Amendment and Journalism scholars, a dozen content studies of news reporting done by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, and a study in the history of journalism. The introduction to the book describes “[t]his book [as] the fruit of that examination. It is not an argument. It is, rather, a description of the theory and culture of journalism that emerged from three years of listening to citizens and journalists, from our empirical studies, and from our reading of the history of the profession as it evolved in the United States.” The Elements of Journalism explains what it means to be a journalist, the history of journalism, investigation into recent scandals in journalism, and what can be done to keep journalism relevant in the digital age.

While this book may sound like it would only appeal to someone who is interested in journalism, it could appeal to anyone who is concerned about democracy, with being an informed citizen, or strives to be objective. The book makes the case that journalism’s purpose “is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” To fulfill this obligation, there are ten elements of journalism that must be considered:

  1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth
  2. Its loyalty is to citizens
  3. Its essence is a discipline of verification.
  4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover
  5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power
  6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise
  7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant
  8. It must keep the news comprehensive and in proportion
  9. Its practitioners have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience
  10. Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to news.

Of these elements, two stand out to me. The first is “Its loyalty is to citizens”, this seems to be the most important of all the elements. It appears that many journalists, and particularly TV news organizations, forget who they work for. They don’t work for themselves or the people who write their checks; they work for their fellow citizens. The book explains that journalism and representative government were born at the same time, and both depend on each other. The duty of a journalist is to inform and educate the population, even if it is not the popular or profitable thing to do. You can only have an effective democracy with informed citizens.

The second important element is, “Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to news.” Democracy requires participation by citizens. Citizens have to be engaged with journalists. If you do not like how the news covers, or doesn’t cover, certain things; write a letter or an e-mail. Don’t just shut off and avoid the news–apathy never solved a problem. Democracy requires effort, but if there is one thing that is worth your time, it is freedom and the truth.

If you are interested in journalism, or you just care about democracy, I suggest you read this book.

You can purchase the book here.


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