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Grow up, journalists [Commentary]

Newspapers are in trouble. Not just because of the Internet and advertising and subscriptions. But because, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, only 28 percent of Americans think that journalists contribute a lot to society's well being.

That's pretty bad considering that journalists like to think of themselves as guardians of democracy. In other business enterprises, such public disdain would be a cause for alarm. But newspapers are different. Criticize journalistic professionalism, and you're likely to hear a thing or two about the importance of the First Amendment, or my favorite catch-all self-justification: If people are unhappy with us, "we must be doing something right!" Really? Is that the only reason people might be unhappy with you?

Like most Americans, I understand the need for journalists as watchdogs. But the unquestioned primacy of its watchdog duties has given serious journalism an air of self-righteous adolescent rebelliousness and sanctimony.

Veteran journalist James Fallows has written about this phenomenon in more polite terms. By falling "into the habit of portraying public life in America as a race to the bottom," he wrote in his 1996 book "Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy," journalists foster greater public cynicism, which, ironically, hurts the business of journalism. "If people thought there was no point even in hearing about public affairs — because the politicians were all crooks, because the outcome is always rigged, because ordinary people stood no chance, because everyone in power was looking out for himself — then newspapers and broadcast news operations might as well close up shop. … If people have no interest in politics or public life, they have no reason to follow the news."

If the press is to uphold its self-proclaimed duty to protect our system of governance, it has to envision itself as being more than an elite defender of the public interest removed from the social fabric. Instead, journalism should fully embrace a more affirmative — and dare I say grown-up — role as the very connector of that fabric, the web of communication that defines the contours of our diverse society.

Nearly a century ago, philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey reminded us that "a democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience." For democracy to function, he argued, citizens need to understand not only the inner workings of government, but also how our actions and opinions play out in society as a whole.

Today's journalists rarely refer to themselves as narrators, but that may be their most important societal function. In 1923, one-time journalist and University of Chicago sociologist Robert E. Park argued: "If we propose to maintain a democracy as Jefferson conceived it, the newspaper must continue to tell us about ourselves."

Covering the news isn't the same thing as making a concerted effort to give voice to our nation's people and places. Too few Americans see themselves in daily journalism today. And if hiring statistics are any indication, professional journalism may not even care whether it reflects the nation. Despite the major demographic shift in our country over the past generation, the percentage of overall newspaper staffers and supervisors who are non-white has remained unchanged since 1994.

And opportunities for non-journalists to contribute to newspapers are meager. The op-ed pages of major newspapers have long since been given away to professional opinion makers, interest groups and the powerful.

American journalism needs to discover new ways to bring regular people into the conversation. I'm not talking about more cheap social media tricks that ask people whether they agree with a court decision or what they plan to do over the long weekend. I'm referring to ongoing efforts to bring real people's stories — with their conflicts of interest, their messiness, their refusal to be categorized in partisan terms — directly to the public.

The loss of thousands of journalism jobs in recent years has made journalists even more self-obsessed. This concern about the survival of their careers and their outlets is understandable but counterproductive. Journalists don't look very useful when Americans constantly see them talking among themselves about themselves.

Journalists, look beyond the next website redesign, the new business model. Think about being not just democracy's watchdog but an active participant in its making.

Gregory Rodriguez is founder and publisher of Zocalo Public Square (zocalopublicsquare.org), for which he writes the Imperfect Union column. His email is gregory@zocalopublicsquare.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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