For years I’ve taught my students about the nine principles and seven yardsticks of journalism. The nine principles come from the Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the seven principles come from an organization called Grade the News. The former was put together by a group of experienced, professional journalists; the latter by a group of regular citizens who were concerned about the quality of news in their community.
As you can imagine, there is a lot of overlap between the two sets of standards. Both of them expect journalists to include multiple perspectives in their stories, to seek the actual truth (as opposed to merely reporting what each side claims as the truth), and to focus mostly on stories that will have a significant impact on their audiences (as opposed to titillating, shocking, or dramatic stories that actually have little to no impact on the public).
Telling the truth about significant events is important, but one of the most important duties of journalists is their unique ability to hold powerful people accountable. The nine principles call this “watchdog” and the seven yardsticks call this “civic contribution” — both of these standards refer to journalists’ ability and obligation to delve deep into the world of the elites and tell us exactly what the man behind the curtain is doing.
The modern news media doesn’t do well when it comes to many of their obligations, but they perform especially poorly when it comes to acting as a watchdog. In fact, modern journalists are often the voice of Oz, ordering the rest of us to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain while they distract us with petty controversies and pointless caught-on-video drama. The failure of journalists to act as watchdogs will be a recurring theme in this blog.