Putting Journalism Back into Focus at Seattle’s Town Hall

The Town Hall discussion, moderated by former Seattle Times Executive Editor Mike Fancher (left) with Tom Rosenstiel (center) and Bill Kovach (right)

While many hail the awe and power of the internet as the most revolutionary medium since the printing press, its most complained about side effect is information overload. Popular web evangelist Clay Shirky likes to say, “It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure,” and there are plenty of technological filters in place to help us (Google, Wikipedia, Digg, Newsvine, and so on…). Smart technology, however, doesn’t make up for smart people, which is why the new book Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload is an important addition to the discussion.

If you’re a reporter that’s been through journalism school, then you’re already familiar with authors and veteran journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel who penned The Elements of Journalism back in 2001 . Following their long successful careers as reporters for staple publications such as Newsweek, The New York Times, and The LA Times, the two are now hard at work trying to keep the values of journalism itself alive. Rosenstiel stays busy with the Project for Excellence in Journalism at Pew Research, and Kovach runs the Committee for Concerned Journalists (after spending 11 years with Harvard’s Nieman Lab). The duo made an appearance at Seattle’s Town Hall last Thursday to discuss the impact of journalism’s newest and arguably most potent element yet, citizens.

There are many interesting ways to compare the traditional media paradigm with the new era of citizen journalism, but perhaps the most dramatic is the shift in power dynamics. Gone are the days where we had a single trusted brand telling us “and that’s the way it is” with no recourse for dispute except a shot in the dark known as the letter to the editor. With an infinite supply of places to get news, the authority of the newspaper has greatly diminished.

While this conversation has been rehashed many times over the last decade, Rosenstiel and Kovach added some new insight to consider. One would assume that more democratic media equals a greater check on power, but as Rosenstiel pointed out, the irony is that more media gives more power into the hands of those who wish to manipulate it. A press release that was turned down by a major newspaper has many more places to go and spawn without first being vetted by trained journalists. Rosenstiel also disputed the notion that our news consumption has grown increasingly partisan, saying that of the top visited websites for news, 80% are what can be considered traditional non-partisan sources (i.e. Yahoo, MSNBC, CNN, AOL, etc.) It’s only after we get the story that we turn to opinionated sources to help digest and analyze the information.

In Blur, the authors detail six essential questions that all consumers of information must consider:

1. What kind of content am I encountering?

2. Is the information complete? If not, what’s missing?

3. Who or what are the sources and why should I believe them?

4. What evidence is presented and how was it tested or vetted?

5. What might be an alternative explanation or understanding?

6. Am I learning what I need?

The last chapter of the book offers advice on how journalism needs to change in order to adapt to the shift in relationship between reporter and audience. As Kovach noted in the talk, newspapers who once said “trust me” are now being asked to “show me.” It’s no longer enough for a reporter to give a summary, they need to offer the database. The new function of the press is to empower the audience to take action, use tools, and find information for themselves. Perhaps this explains why The Seattle Times won its Pulitzer through its use of Twitter, Google Wave, and other participatory tools.

There were many good questions from the audience about the responsibility of the press, and perhaps the most interesting question came from former Seattle PI reporter Monica Guzman, who asked about the responsibility of the citizen. Taking the idea of good Samaritan law a step further, she asked “If you see news and have the tools and don’t use them, are you being irresponsible as a citizen?” This definitely merits a lot of thought, as we’ve seen situations where citizen journalism was enormously valuable (i.e. the 2009 protests following the Iranian Election) as well as harmful (i.e. the inaccurate details of the Fort Hood shooting where reporters relied on a witness’s tweets).

Despite the skepticism that runs through their blood, both Kovach and Rosenstiel agreed that while there were virtues of the past that need to instilled today, we are overall better off in the new era of people powered reporting.

Watch video of the event below, courtesy of the Seattle Channel and Puget Sound Access


About Jacob Caggiano
JACOB CAGGIANO is the Council’s Communication Strategist. It’s his job to pitch ideas and get audiences to latch on. He also dedicates long hours behind the scenes working with the website, the Washington News Lab, and other experiments designed to change the way we interact with news and information. Connect with Jacob in the Washington News Council Community.


  1. John Hamer says:

    Great post, Jacob. Thanks for all your help with the event — setting up, taking notes, demo-ing our website, etc. And posting this excellent blog over the weekend. We need you more than 10 hours a week! If our fund-raising efforts succeed, that will happen! (Anyone reading this: Go to our DONATE page and help keep Jacob working! And don’t miss my Special Offer — Cookies! Lawn Mowing! Back Rub! — for anyone who donates $200 or more!)