ECREA's Journalism Studies Section Conference location:Thessaloniki, Greece date:28-29 March 2014
This paper has as objective to give some directions on how journalists can regain their ‘lost hero status’. News outlets have to deal with an audience that lost confident in the news media. This reduced confidence may be explained by a reduced quality of journalism, driven by increased economic pressure, cutbacks in news gathering, and a decreased editorial autonomy.
A historical event which is still cited as iconic for the mythical status of journalism is the news coverage about the Watergate affair. More specifically, there are the countless references to the work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two journalists who worked for the Washington Post at that time. They received their status as celebrity journalists primarily due to the best seller they have written in the course of the events, All the president’s men, and even more to the movie with the same title, with Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as the lead actors. Although the affair lasted from 1972 to 1974, so today forty years ago, it still appeals to the imagination of anyone who thinks of what good journalism ought to be (to give just one example: a movie poster of All the President’s Men sticks to the apartment walls of journalist Katrine Fønsmark in the successful Danish TV series Borgen).
Understanding the way of how Woodward and Bernstein dealt with the events might help to ‘upgrade’ the status of journalists today. The research questions are: What lessons can be learned from the way Woodward and Bernstein covered the events forty years ago? Are these practices still useful today, and if not, why not? This would give us a clue whether or not current journalists would still be able to break a story as Watergate.
The method consists of a critical reading of the book of the two journalists, a literature review and personal meetings with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at the University of Texas Austin (that purchased and manages the archives of the two journalists).
The paper is structured around ten statements on what a good journalists should do. Afterwards, all statements are refuted one by one. The erroneous statements are:
1. Journalists themselves are the greatest source of information (external nonprofessional sources are unreliable)
2. To find out the truth, the end justifies the means (and that goes beyond journalistic ethics)
3. If one threatens you with a lawsuit, you better watch your steps (you do not have a monopoly on the truth after all)
4. Base your story on interviews (and make sure you can quote your interviewees literally)
5. Press conferences provide all relevant information, and in addition, try to pick up information from expert sources (after all, they are organized to provide the press with information ready-to-use)
6. Postpone a story to a later moment in time makes no sense (your competitors will publish it anyway)
7. Make sure that if you bring a story you can also bring the wider picture (if you can’t do so, and the Why? Question remains unanswered, you better keep your mouth)
8. Partisan journalism cannot be objective (neutrality is preferred at any time)
9. A journalist operates in the shadows, like a fly on the wall (journalists that are in the spotlight make themselves suspicious)
10. Make sure that the sources you cite are verifiable (so that there is absolute transparency of sources)