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From AJR,   March 1999  issue

Thinkers Without Thoughts   

Journalists have to overcome the deep-seated notion that they are simply observers and make better use of their reflective powers.


By Betty Medsger
Betty Medsger is a former Washington Post reporter and former chair of the journalism department at San Francisco State University.     

Every once in a while I meet a journalist, usually someone whose significant intellectual powers have been demonstrated either in story or conversation, who says something outrageous about the act of thinking. My most recent such encounter was with the owner and editor of a California suburban newspaper. He asked me what I had discussed in a speech I had given to journalism educators. I said I had talked about educating for thinking. "No, no," he interrupted. "Don't do that. Journalists shouldn't think. They should just get the story."

He wasn't joking. He wanted journalists to be puppies: "Go get the story.... Fetch."

Nor was the Swedish investigative reporter joking when he told a group of South African journalists and educators last year, "I should not think about the impact of what I write." I was surprised. The previous evening during a dinner conversation he had described his most recent television documentary, about serious financial conflicts of interest on the part of the Swedish justices. He had spoken then about his hope that the corrupt practices would be eliminated as a result of his documentary.

When a member of the audience was somewhat perplexed by the Swedish journalist's stated desire not to think, a Dutch philosophy-professor-turned-computer-assisted-reporting-professor came to his defense. He said, "Let the journalist write without thinking; let the philosophers come along later and consider carefully and decide whether it was the right thing to do." I may have missed the next comments, for all I could think of was this line from singer/songwriter Tom Lehrer about the visionary who designed rockets for the Nazis and later for the United States: " 'Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department,' says Wernher von Braun."

Many journalists have great minds and do, in fact, think. An impressive number of them produce great work, in written or broadcast form. Many others produce mediocre bodies of work but are capable of much better. Some in the mediocre column are managers who create or carry out policies mindlessly. Nearly all of them place ethical concerns a little too low on their agendas. Many of these journalists, I've noticed, seem to want to hide, even from themselves, the fact that they think. I call them thinkers without thoughts. They are people of great potential, but many of them have spent so much time on automatic pilot that their powers of reflection have been impaired--temporarily, I prefer to believe. The impairment, I fear, permeates the news culture in varying degrees and makes it more difficult for us to get a handle on how to improve journalism in this turbulent, challenge-filled era.

My description of journalists as thinkers without thoughts was inspired by a book, "Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy From a Buddhist Perspective," by psychiatrist Mark Epstein.

The book is, in part, about integrating into therapy a vision of the psyche freed from narcissism. Whereas Epstein seems to recommend out-of-ego experience as an aid to emotional growth, I am concerned about journalists who insist that their work should be an out-of-brain experience.

As I have become more aware of this tendency among journalists to be proud of not thinking--even when they do think--I have at times wanted to get them to repeat this mantra until they absorb it:

I am a thinking person, and it is OK.
I am a thinking person, and it is OK.

Journalists frequently claim they are powerless about what goes into the paper or on the air. When people complain about a story, they often hear a variation on this theme: "Don't blame us. We just cover what happens." Or, "Drudge reported it, then the Washington Post. We had no choice."

This attitude has convinced me that news organizations are essentially Calvinist institutions clinging to a belief in predestination. To hear journalists respond to criticism is a bit like hearing a very conservative Presbyterian minister explain poverty: Poverty is God's will; there is nothing you can do about it.

The same approach applies to journalism, according to some practitioners who aren't paying attention to what their brains are doing. They seem to believe that they walk into newsrooms each day, find out what is happening and then present it to the world--news that dropped from the sky.

The failure of journalists to recognize that they play an active role in determining what they present contributes to a sense of powerlessness, always a bad thing, but especially detrimental in a faster and increasingly corporate journalism landscape. Refusing to acknowledge the obvious--that journalists make important decisions every day about what to include and what to exclude, about fairness, context, emphasis--amounts to refusing to assume responsibility for their own work, let alone for the behavior of their news organizations. If news simply falls from the sky, you catch it rather than shape it.

The notion of journalist as conduit may stem in part from the traditional view that reporters are mere observers. From this image may come the rather foolish notion that journalists must have empty heads, that they should be untouched by human experience, beings whose brains observe and record but don't reflect. How much better off journalists and their news organizations, not to mention readers and viewers, would be if journalists embraced the idea that they are engaged in a dynamic, intellectual, analytical process in which their minds, and sometimes their hearts, are major players.

So loud has been the refrain "journalists must not be biased" that some have acted as if reflecting and having opinions must be avoided at all costs. To prove we are not guilty of bias, we often throw out reflection itself and become robot-like. We should not fear that we have opinions, not let that fear rob us of the power of constant reflection. We should simply know our opinions, know it is natural for thinking people to have views, and be informed by them rather than controlled by them.

Evidence of the failure of journalists to think is widespread. For example, editors used to proclaim that their newspapers covered their whole city when, in fact, minority neighborhoods received little attention.

Another example: When informational graphics came into vogue, they were often produced for their own sake rather than seen as elements that could enrich the presentation of important information. We bought into the fad before we knew what to do with it.

The announcement "Live tonight from our mobile unit" often says more about wanting to show off cool new toys than about reporting compelling, late-breaking news.

The response to the advent of new technology also reflects a failure to think. As new media have emerged over the last decade, I've heard editors and news directors speak publicly about the fact that they were "waiting to see" what "it" would do to "us." Rather than sit back, why didn't they assume leadership? Technology arrives without values, without a plan for what it will "do." Why didn't the journalists rush to understand what the new technology was and would be and then carefully figure out how to use it to journalism's advantage? Unfortunately, some of the same people who were waiting to see what the new technology would do declare today that it now controls journalism and has changed the values of the field, not necessarily for the better. To the degree that that is true, they let it happen.

A final example: the dichotomy some journalism educators have created between skills classes and theory courses, between "do" courses and "think" courses. The distinction masks the intellectual nature of what is taught in skills courses. In fact, the critical thinking and clear expression so crucial to good journalism should be recognized and treasured by the academy. These traits could be of great value to scholars in other disciplines, helping them make their ideas accessible to a much wider audience.

Thinkers without thoughts too easily become people who excel at journalism's processes but think too little about its substance. The result is journalists who are naive about their power--the power they do use, positively and negatively, and the power they could use if only they realized they possess it. Failure to embrace thinking as the most important attribute of the journalist seriously limits creativity and imagination. It can lead to a lack of self-respect, to seeing oneself as the puppy told to fetch the story. This, in turn, can lead to an assumption that the individuals who practice journalism, no matter how competent, are simply cogs in the machine rather than people at the controls.

On the other hand, if today's journalists and journalism students recognize their potential as thinkers and active participants in newsgathering, they might be less likely to feel like hapless victims. Instead, they might be ready to help turn this stormy period--what Peruvian journalist Gustavo Gorriti has referred to as the "wreckage" of American journalism--into an exciting era of rebirth.