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Overview – Intro

Intro

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Glance at some items in the news of late and it seems that many long-held ideas about journalism are unraveling.

President George Bush told ABC’s Diane Sawyer in December that he preferred to get his news not from journalists but from people he trusted, who “give me the actual news” and “don’t editorialize.” After spending time at the White House, the New Yorker writer Ken Auletta concluded that senior staff members there saw the news media as just another special interest group whose agenda was making money, not serving the public – and surveys suggest increasingly that the public agrees.

Some argue that as people move online, the notion of news consumers is giving way to something called “pro-sumers,” in which citizens simultaneously function as consumers, editors and producers of a new kind of news in which journalistic accounts are but one element.

With audiences now fragmented across hundreds of outlets with varying standards and agendas, others say the notions of a common public understanding, a common language and a common public square are disappearing.

For some, these are all healthy signals of the end of oligarchical control over news. For others, these are harbingers of chaos, of unchecked spin and innuendo replacing the role of journalists as gatekeepers over what is fact, what is false and what is propaganda. Whichever view one prefers, it seems everything is changing.

Or is it?

This study, the first in what is to be an annual report on the state of the news media in America, is an attempt to answer this question, to take stock each year of the state and health of American journalism.

The answer we arrive at in 2004 is that journalism is in the midst of an epochal transformation, as momentous probably as the invention of the telegraph or television.

Journalism, however, is not becoming irrelevant. It is becoming more complex. We are witnessing conflicting trends of fragmentation and convergence simultaneously, and they sometimes lead in opposite directions.

While audiences are fragmenting, we have greater capacity than ever to come together as a nation in an instant – for September 11, the Super Bowl or watching soldiers live on the battlefield in Iraq. While Americans are turning to more and varied sources for news, the media that they are relying on increasingly tend to be owned by a few giant conglomerates competing to cover what seem to be at any moment a handful of major stories.

Quality news and information are more available than ever before, but in greater amounts so are the trivial, the one-sided and the false. Some people will likely become better informed than they once could have been as they drill down to original sources. Other consumers may become steeped in the sensational and diverting. Still others may move toward an older form of media consumption – a journalism of affirmation – in which they seek news largely to confirm their preconceived view of the world.

The journalists’ role as intermediary, editor, verifier and synthesizer is weakening, and citizens do have more power to be proactive with the news. But most people will likely do so only episodically. And the proliferation of the false and misleading makes the demand for the journalist as referee, watchdog and interpreter all the greater.

These conflicting movements toward fragmentation and convergence are not new to the culture in general or media in particular, but they have different consequences when they come to news. Journalism is how people learn about the world beyond their direct experiences. As our journalism fragments, it has consequences for what we know, how we are connected and our ability to solve problems.