Pulitzer Prize Winner Alex Jones Says Journalism Values “Not in Fashion”

October 12, 2009

By: Laura Franzini

In the wake of the release of his new book, Losing the News: The future of the news that feeds democracy, Alex Jones’, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center of the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, message to a group of fellow journalists and aspiring journalism students at Emerson College was one focused on truth. In the age of digital media advancements, the future of journalism is inevitably rooted in change. And though Jones said he welcomes the digital age, he stated that he doesn’t want to see the values that made journalism the “type of journalism that feeds democracy” go by the wayside. He hinted at the widely-recognized revolution that now finds people more interested in entertainment and sports news, over the kind of news that shows that what journalists are doing “is in fact something that is a public service.”

What makes journalism a public service, according to Jones, is objectivity—one of the journalistic values he focused on during the speech. He said that what made news organizations successful in the past was that they were able to persuade the people that the information they were providing was indeed the truth, as opposed to obscured and biased storytelling. But Jones countered that the “truth has never been what objectivity has been about”; instead, objectivity is about an objective method of reporting, one that was created because reporters are not naturally objective. Objective journalism allows the results of a particular investigation determine what the truth is, which, according to Jones, is “the one thing that can get people to change their mind.”

The key to Jones’ argument, though, was that journalists cannot be objective only sometimes: in order to persuade others that one is telling the truth, one must never allow personal opinion to slip in and obscure the hard facts. However, that is all one can do—persuade people of their own truth-telling—for the truth itself is the true persuader of actual belief, Jones explained.

Nevertheless, Jones realized that the unique situations are hardly ever that simplistic. He noted that “in its most difficult phase, [journalism involves] trying to figure out in what sphere the ethical code should apply.” Though he drills the point that, straightforwardly, journalism is supposed to be about telling the truth, he knows that issues arise when the truth comes in conflict with another set of morals we all have. He recognized that sometimes one’s obligations as a citizen and a human being may trump one’s obligation as a journalist. This means that “you don’t publish the name of a rape victim,” for “the truth is less important than damage done to someone who has already gone through a great ordeal.” The hats one wears as journalist, citizen, and human are all different, but each affects how one handles a situation and the morals one uses to interpret appropriate action. Jones said that the power to tell the truth comes with the ability to play God, and “when you do play God, you must be very careful.”

It is in concerning these roles where Jones believes that journalistic ethics “are in real jeopardy.” The digital age of the Internet, with its blogs and 24-hour news coverage, values speed over accuracy. He cited that, nowadays, the news “has to be entertaining” in order to “entice people to read” it and he said that “when you make those things the priority…you have lost something really precious. It’s the values that have made journalism what it is…The reason [journalism] has value is the values that it runs on.”

And it for this reason that Jones believes that, in this time of economic hardship, it is not just journalistic businesses that need protection—“If new organizations are saved, but journalism and the values and style are diminished, then nothing has been saved.”

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