Everyone in Journalism Has an Agenda

Journalists should be more up-front about it — because it's a good agenda.


You read here every day a wide variety of stories. Some offer advice. Some offer amusement. Some may make you jump for joy, while others may make your blood boil. All of them fall into that broad category we call journalism, and most of them are produced by people who, like me, call themselves professional journalists.

Why do we scribblers and talkers and picture-takers take up this craft? The answers are probably as varied as the people who practice it, but I think the best among us do it for one reason: we think this world can be a little better for our efforts.

That was certainly what motivated John Siegenthaler, who as editor of The Tennessean in Nashville put his paper solidly behind the Civil Rights Movement at a time when many Southern newspapers ignored it or worse. Siegenthaler, who died July 11th, also championed freedom of speech and the press and called journalism “the most important thing I could have done with my life.”

Veteran digital journalist Jim Brady certainly believes this. The serial news innovator and fomer editor of Digital First Media said as much before an audience at the Pen & Pencil Club recently in describing what he saw as the mission of a new mobile-friendly Philadelphia news digest platform he and former Inquirer online editor Chris Krewson are developing. In determining how to curate and develop content for the platform (working title: Brother.ly), Brady said he had as a goal “to get up every morning and make this city a better place.”

Then he said something else: that this didn’t really jibe with the way many journalists view their work.

Huh? Then why do so many journalists here and elsewhere go around pointing out wrongs and exposing bad actors? Isn’t their goal setting things right? Or, in other words, making this a better place?

“I agree that’s why reporters get into journalism,” Brady said in an email exchange, “but many of them don’t feel comfortable saying that out loud, because it feels like advocacy, even if you’re not being prescriptive in how to make a city better.”

Brady pointed out that the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists states that “journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.” “That could easily be read to say ‘just tell them what’s happening and stop there,’” he said.

Yet it’s clear that for many reporters, just doing that isn’t enough. Former Philadelphia Daily News editor and Metrocorp editorial director Larry Platt doesn’t intend to do that with his new publication-in-formation, The Philadelphia Citizen; he told an audience recently that the publication’s mission would be to tell readers “what happened, what it means, and what you can do about it.”

Even “service journalism,” whose main function is to make you a little better, seeks to tell you this. On a scale of world importance, shedding pounds may not be as weighty as securing for African-Americans the rights they deserved but were denied by whites, but they share that impulse — making things better — in common.

Yes, the public has a right to know, but what should concern us is why the public has a right to know, and the reason why is so they can act to set right what’s wrong. By letting them know what’s happening, we give them the power to fix what’s broken and make this city, this country, and this world better if they so choose.

So we write, talk and take pictures in order to make things better every day. Why don’t more of us openly embrace this as our mission? It’s implicit in just about everything we report on. Perhaps it’s time again to make it explicit.

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