Journalism: Why It Matters by Michael Schudson

The Blurb On The Back:

Despite the criticisms that have been levelled at news organisations in recent years and the many difficulties they face, journalism matters.  It matters, argues Schudson, because it orients people daily in the complex and changing worlds in which they live.  It matters because it offers a fact-centred, documented approach to pertinent public issues.  It matters because it keeps watch on the powerful, especially those in government, and can press upon them unpleasant truths to which they must respond.  Corruption is stemmed, unwise initiatives stopped, public danger averted because of what journalists do.

This book challenges journalists to think hard about what they really do.  It challenges skeptical news audiences to be mindful not only of media bias but also of their own biases and how these can distort their perception.  And it holds out hope that journalism will be for years to come a path for ambitious, curious young people who love words or pictures or numbers and want to use them to improve the public conversation in familiar ways or in ways yet to be imagined.

You can order JOURNALISM: WHY IT MATTERS by Michael Schudson from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Michael Schudson is a sociologist, historian and Professor of Journalism at Columbia University.  This is a well-constructed, clearly argued book that sets out what journalism should be and why it is important and I did not disagree with any of his arguments.  However Schudson doesn’t really tackle news media ownership and how ownership determines editorial direction and content, thereby undermining trust in journalism and increasing skepticism.

Schudson starts by looking at what types of journalism matter most, drawing distinctions between community journalism, advocacy journalism, informational content, and accountability journalism and then providing a potted history of journalism as a profession and business.  I found this all very interesting, particularly the difference in approach between European and American newspapers to reporting and formatting such as headlines.

Schudson argues that the “beating heart” of journalism is relating what political leaders have done and that to do this it needs to be reported, emotionally compelling and assertive.  This is fine in as far as it goes and I didn’t disagree with or question his breakdown descriptions but there’s no discussion of the role played by access in political journalism in particular and how that can distort the beating heart.

He makes some good points on media bias and how journalists learn to put their judgement from their preferences and setting out how news organisations have attempted to diversify their staff in order to offer better reporting.  However there’s a distinctly rose-tinted view to this, given how white the profession remains and there’s no consideration of how falling salaries (caused in part by the collapse of business models) locks out people from lower income social bands.  This in turn comes back to the distorting influence of access because if you need contacts and approval to “be in the room” then to what extent can you separate judgment from preference?

To be fair, Schudson does address media bias but he decides to treat it as a mater of individual reinforcement and prejudice, arguing that media bias such as Fox News has no more effect than advertising for cornflakes.  However I can’t say that I was convinced by this either.  Unlike advertising (which are confined to set bands between programmes), TV media runs 24/7 and it combines reporting with editorialising, opinion pieces and investigative journalism that all works to give it a deeper credibility than any mere advert could hope for.  It isn’t just TV either, anyone who has loved ones in the UK who regularly buy newspapers like the Daily Mail, Daily Express of Daily Telegraph know about the drip feed they are subjected to that warps their perception on the world around them.  Indeed, it has been argued that part of the reason for the Brexit vote in 2016 was because of the 30 year campaign by the right wing press against the EU and its institutions, focusing on bureaucracy, gravy trains and pointless legislation to skewer public opinion.

Similarly, in assessing the impact of technology I was interested in how investigative journalism has increased in newspapers but how the trend is still for local newspapers to close down and Schudson points out that the impact this has on communities.  But again, there are no answers here or suggestions on how to tackle it and it’s difficult to assess the overall importance of journalism and how that can preserved without offering some thoughts on this.

Schudson is passionate in arguing for the future of journalism and why it is important and I honestly didn’t disagree with any of his arguments.  The problem I have is that you can’t consider the future and importance of it without considering where its weaknesses are and how it can be undermined – especially not when 2020 has shown the many failures of journalism and the dangers of its ‘both sidesism’ approach and unless that’s factored in, I struggle to see how the discipline will survive. 

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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