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From AJR,   January/February 1998  issue

A Natural Tension in A Year of Dialogue   

Journalism is churning with reformist impulses.

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

A 1998 forecast, and some ruminations:

Journalism is churning with extraordinary introspection, and 1998 will focus this on many fronts. Reformist impulses will surge. Don't look for a revolution or a rebellion. Market forces will still largely drive the mass media. But they may have to yield more ground to higher values and broader common sense.

That's the forecast.

It will be all about the natural tension between journalism as a commercial enterprise and journalism as the only constitutionally protected business. Discussions that evade that tension (like one I recently engaged in) will not be quite real. They may be useful in some way, but avoidance will keep them from amounting to much.

ehe current buzzwords among journalists at conference tables are "accountability" and "credibility."

Those good terms (and desirable objectives) are recurrent because, in the professional world of the 1990s, many people are uncomfortable with value-laden terms. Even when "Values" is the word at the top of the flip chart in discussions at big organizations, people seem nervous about any super-charging, anything too passionate or ringing.

Keep it down, guys. You don't want people to think you are naive or just full of apple-pie rhetoric.

(Recently I heard someone say newspapers had a dual responsibility: an obligation to the shareholders – meaning what we used to call owners – and an obligation for public service. One conferee immediately construed "public service" to mean the kind of thing the newspaper's promotion department does: nice community things, perhaps some materials to help the school teachers.)

"Accountability" is a useful word, though.

To whom is a journalist accountable? Well, to the boss, but..

To the public? If so, to some people that may mean pleasing the public and to others it may mean doing some things the public does not like; for instance, things that a responsible press (print or broadcast) ought to do.

And does accountable also mean responsible? "Responsible" used to be the leading buzzword in these discussions. It often seemed ominous to journalists. It implied that there was a force in society, government perhaps, to which the press was responsible. (The word "accountable" also will take on that coloration, no doubt, but let's give it a year or two.)

How may the press be made accountable? (Should it be?) Talk to editors about this and often they turn toward efforts to connect with readers in ways that don't involve ink, ways to get feedback about what the customers want. That may be one useful way for newspapers to make themselves accountable, depending upon what they do in response. But it is just one way.

We also should take a new look at ways to sort out those basic tensions between owners' rights and the public-service role of a news organization.

That could turn out to be the most important topic of this reformist year. But it should not be just the topic of one or two conferences or one or two statements of principle or any new studies of journalism performance. It should infuse the whole Dialogue of 1998. l