Reimagining journalism in its time of ill fortune

Reports of the death of American journalism have been greatly exaggerated, but the enterprise is weathering crises on multiple fronts, with threats to its business model, opportunities for employment, and overall credibility and value as a profession.

An era of such radical uncertainty presents an opening for journalism’s height and rebirth, says Barbie Zelizer, the Raymond Williams Professor of Communication in the Annenberg School for Communication.

In her new book, “What Journalism Could Be,” Zelizer, a former journalist for Reuters, calls for a rethinking and reimagining of journalism, a reconsideration of the craft, and thoughtful change.

Challenging time-honored traditions in journalistic scholarship and practice, the book offers an updated set of articles and chapters published over the past 25 years by Zelizer, who is also director of Annenberg’s Scholars Program in Culture and Communication. She revisits earlier arguments and applies them to contemporary problems and issues confronting journalists. Graduate students Jennifer R. Henrichsen and Natacha Yazbeck, both former journalists, collaborated with Zelizer on the book.

Missing from American journalism is imagination, Zelizer says. The system is thought of using old models of practices. Journalists cling to a preconceived set of standards and occupation cues, sourcing practices, notions of deference and impartiality, and preferences for understatement and euphemism, from a bygone era.

“One could argue that there are all these little pieces of our thinking about journalism that are outdated,” Zelizer says. “They’re misguided, and they don’t attend to the stuff that makes up journalism today, and they haven’t attended to the stuff that makes up journalism for quite a long time.”

Historical, social, cultural, economic, political, moral, ideological, and technological factors have separated imagination from most understanding of the news. “What Journalism 
Could Be” addresses questions about what has been lost in the compartmentalization of imagination, and what might be gained by awakening its significance.

“Imagination forces us to rethink all the cues by which we think we’re examining what good journalism is,” Zelizer says.

The journalistic profession could be reimagined, Zelizer says, to adopt a fuller sense of what being a journalist actually entails.

Credentials such as the flair for independence, the capacity to write, initiative, and an exploratory soul are not usually mentioned as necessary for the craft, but Zelizer says they are “absolutely central.”

“If you can’t develop initiative, if you aren’t naturally curious, if you can’t put two words together in any kind of way that sings, you really are not going to make it as a journalist,” she says. “But yet those are not the kinds of cues that we have tended to valorize as being valuable for thinking about journalism, and I think that’s a mistake.”

Zelizer does not believe journalism is dying. Its business model is failing, but she says that doesn’t mean journalism itself is failing.

She says obstacles posed by the internet are surmountable, and similar to previous competition print journalism encountered from radio, broadcast television, and cable television.

“It’s dire. I’m not minimizing it,” she says. “But as an apparatus, journalism is far more complex and far more multisided than what I think we’re giving it credit for, and I think it has far more vitality and survivability than we tend to have given it.”

The media in the United States has faced accusations of being liberal, but Zelizer says the practices of American journalism as an institution are very conservative and resistant to change.

“They have to be conservative because they’re holding in place an institution that has existed across time, across contexts, across geography, across circumstance, across all kinds of challenging circumstances that, at different levels and often unpredictability, kind of throw into question the very viability of journalism,” she says. “One deals with that as an institution by being conservative, but my argument is that the conservative impulses and keeping the institution alive are helping to hobble it, they’re helping to disable it, and if we don’t recognize that, journalism is going to be a much harder row to hoe.”

Barbie Zelizer