Journalism’s Culture War: “It Always Boiled Down to a Battle Over the Very Purpose of What We Do”

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From an article, “Who cares if it’s true: Modern-day newsrooms reconsider their values,” by the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher in the March/April 2014 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. Five years later the question might be: Have most newspapers moved much closer to the digital journalism model, especially at the Washington Post after it was bought in late 2013 by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos?

For nearly two decades, a culture war has divided journalists. The gap seemed mostly generational, but it always boiled down to a battle over the very purpose of what we do. All the dismissive sniping and straight-out antagonism between old-school defenders of the print craft and the young digital brains propelling start-ups came down to a debate over values: The old guard argued that they were driven by the quest for truth, and by their sense of what citizens need to know to be informed participants in democracy. Reporting was all about locking down the facts and presenting them to readers, who would know best how to take advantage of the light we shined. Digital journalists countered that their way was more honest and democratic—and quicker. If that meant presenting stories before they’d been thoroughly vetted, that was okay, because the internet would correct itself. Truth would emerge through open trial and error.

With the collapse of old business models, the debate over values turned into a death match. Print chauvinists still muster mock horror when a few news sites run with wholly unconfirmed reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle, apparently fallen from favor, was stripped, caged and eaten by 120 ravenous dogs. And more than a few digital evangelists find a proud identity in the distance they keep from stodgy, superfluous, layered editing structures that persist at many newspapers and magazines. . . .

But Smith [Ben Smith, editor of BuzzFeed] rejects “formalistic rules like ‘you have to have two sources to go with something.’ It’s easy to get nine sources to say the same thing and still get it wrong. I prefer to rely on smart reporters and on Twitter,” fixing stories as they develop.

The iterative approach, while capturing the spirit of the Web, still grates against many older journalists; in a critique of “The Truthiness of BuzzFeed,” Andrew Sullivan said the post-first ethic undermines the compact between journalists and readers. . . .


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