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Read about Jay Rosen's book, What Are Journalists For?

Excerpt from Chapter One of What Are Journalists For? "As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press."

Essay in Columbia Journalism Review on the changing terms of authority in the press, brought on in part by the blog's individual--and interactive--style of journalism. It argues that, after Jayson Blair, authority is not the same at the New York Times, either.

"Web Users Open the Gates." My take on ten years of Internet journalism, at

Read: Q & As

Jay Rosen, interviewed about his work and ideas by journalist Richard Poynder

Achtung! Interview in German with a leading German newspaper about the future of newspapers and the Net.

Audio: Have a Listen

Listen to an audio interview with Jay Rosen conducted by journalist Christopher Lydon, October 2003. It's about the transformation of the journalism world by the Web.

Five years later, Chris Lydon interviews Jay Rosen again on "the transformation." (March 2008, 71 minutes.)

Interview with host Brooke Gladstone on NPR's "On the Media." (Dec. 2003) Listen here.

Presentation to the Berkman Center at Harvard University on open source journalism and NewAssignment.Net. Downloadable mp3, 70 minutes, with Q and A. Nov. 2006.

Video: Have A Look

Half hour video interview with Robert Mills of the American Microphone series. On blogging, journalism, NewAssignment.Net and distributed reporting.

Jay Rosen explains the Web's "ethic of the link" in this four-minute YouTube clip.

"The Web is people." Jay Rosen speaking on the origins of the World Wide Web. (2:38)

One hour video Q & A on why the press is "between business models" (June 2008)

Recommended by PressThink:

Town square for press critics, industry observers, and participants in the news machine: Romenesko, published by the Poynter Institute.

Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

Eschaton by Atrios (pen name of Duncan B;ack) is one of the most well established political weblogs, with big traffic and very active comment threads. Left-liberal.

Terry Teachout is a cultural critic coming from the Right at his weblog, About Last Night. Elegantly written and designed. Plus he has lots to say about art and culture today.

Dave Winer is the software wiz who wrote the program that created the modern weblog. He's also one of the best practicioners of the form. Scripting News is said to be the oldest living weblog. Read it over time and find out why it's one of the best.

If someone were to ask me, "what's the right way to do a weblog?" I would point them to Doc Searls, a tech writer and sage who has been doing it right for a long time.

Ed Cone writes one of the most useful weblogs by a journalist. He keeps track of the Internet's influence on politics, as well developments in his native North Carolina. Always on top of things.

Rebecca's Pocket by Rebecca Blood is a weblog by an exemplary practitioner of the form, who has also written some critically important essays on its history and development, and a handbook on how to blog.

Dan Gillmor used to be the tech columnist and blogger for the San Jose Mercury News. He now heads a center for citizen media. This is his blog about it.

A former senior editor at Pantheon, Tom Englehardt solicits and edits commentary pieces that he publishes in blog form at TomDispatches. High-quality political writing and cultural analysis.

Chris Nolan's Spot On is political writing at a high level from Nolan and her band of left-to-right contributors. Her notion of blogger as a "stand alone journalist" is a key concept; and Nolan is an exemplar of it.

Barista of Bloomfield Avenue is journalist Debbie Galant's nifty experiment in hyper-local blogging in several New Jersey towns. Hers is one to watch if there's to be a future for the weblog as news medium.

The Editor's Log, by John Robinson, is the only real life honest-to-goodness weblog by a newspaper's top editor. Robinson is the blogging boss of the Greensboro News-Record and he knows what he's doing.

Fishbowl DC is about the world of Washington journalism. Gossip, controversies, rituals, personalities-- and criticism. Good way to keep track of the press tribe in DC

PJ Net Today is written by Leonard Witt and colleagues. It's the weblog of the Public Journalisn Network (I am a founding member of that group) and it follows developments in citizen-centered journalism.

Here's Simon Waldman's blog. He's the Director of Digital Publishing for The Guardian in the UK, the world's most Web-savvy newspaper. What he says counts.

Novelist, columnist, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, with a PhD in literature. How many bloggers are there like that? One: Austin Bay.

Betsy Newmark's weblog she describes as "comments and Links from a history and civics teacher in Raleigh, NC." An intelligent and newsy guide to blogs on the Right side of the sphere. I go there to get links and comment, like the teacher said.

Rhetoric is language working to persuade. Professor Andrew Cline's Rhetorica shows what a good lens this is on politics and the press.

Davos Newbies is a "year-round Davos of the mind," written from London by Lance Knobel. He has a cosmopolitan sensibility and a sharp eye for things on the Web that are just... interesting. This is the hardest kind of weblog to do well. Knobel does it well.

Susan Crawford, a law professor, writes about democracy, technology, intellectual property and the law. She has an elegant weblog about those themes.

Kevin Roderick's LA Observed is everything a weblog about the local scene should be. And there's a lot to observe in Los Angeles.

Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

Ryan Sholin's Invisible Inkling is about the future of newspapers, online news and journalism education. He's the founder of and a self-taught Web developer and designer.

H20town by Lisa Williams is about the life and times of Watertown, Massachusetts, and it covers that town better than any local newspaper. Williams is funny, she has style, and she loves her town.

Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

Rebecca MacKinnon, former correspondent for CNN, has immersed herself in the world of new media and she's seen the light (great linker too.)

Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

Susan Mernit's blog is "writing and news about digital media, ecommerce, social networks, blogs, search, online classifieds, publishing and pop culture from a consultant, writer, and sometime entrepeneur." Connected.

Group Blogs

CJR Daily is Columbia Journalism Review's weblog about the press and its problems, edited by Steve Lovelady, formerly of the Philadelpia Inquirer.

Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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March 9, 2004

Players: Toward a More Honest Job Description For the Political Press

Given all the different roles the press has taken on since 1960, it's time to retire the old job description for the campaign press, and write one more honest, more nuanced, more effective— more true. My essay from the new CJR.

Originally published in Columbia Journalism Review, March/April, 2004.

What is the proper job description for a journalist during campaign season? You don’t find much discussion about it. Whether the press is doing its job consumes our attention, as it should. But we cannot know how well the press is doing unless we know—and sort of agree—on the job to be done. I am not sure we do.

I know this: The standard job description needs work. It does not point to all the tasks the press has accumulated since 1960, when the modern media campaign began. Horse race handicapper is not in there, but the press does it. (And not very well, either.) Press language needs to stay current, not only with trends “out there” in the world, but with roles and responsibilities journalists themselves have taken on—sometimes without announcing why, or thinking it through fully.

David Shaw writes in the Los Angeles Times: “When political journalists predict the future, their predictions often seem to eclipse — and at times substitute for — the reporting they’re supposed to be based on. Worse, those predictions can become self-fulfilling prophesies. Look at the coverage of Howard Dean’s post-caucus speech in Iowa.”

I would go further than Shaw. There are ethical reasons for leaving the future to itself, for not turning it into a probability statement or a handicappers’ ball in hopes of a generating more news buzz today. There is no bigger cliché in journalism than “time will tell,” but under the cliché is a moral proposition: don’t play god, don’t pre-empt the future.

Whenever we re-describe what journalists do new problems arise in what they should be doing—and perhaps quit doing. New questions of accountability spring up. A conventional, common sense description of the job during campaign season would look like this:

  • Cover what the candidates are doing and saying as they compete for support;
  • Dig into their backgrounds and explain where they come from, where they stand;
  • Track the progress of the race and factors that go into winning it, like fundraising;
  • Examine the major issues in the campaign, showing where the candidates stand;
  • Pose tough questions that illuminate the issues and hold actors to account;
  • Offer analysis and commentary for additional background and context;
  • Sometimes feature voters and their views as they make up their minds.

That’s how you cover a campaign, right?

Right. Except that more is involved when the press gets going; and this has been known for some time. “Somebody had to prune the field, to ‘get rid of the funny ones,’ as one 1988 campaign manager put it.” Paul Taylor, formerly of the Washington Post, wrote that in his book, See How They Run (1990). “With the party bosses out of the equation, there was a huge vacuum at the front end of the process. Who would screen the field? The assignment fell to the press — there was no one else.”

Screening the field is rather different from covering it. If the press actually announced, “once again, we’ll be screening the field for you,” it might have to say how, why, when. It might have to defend its practices, or at least explain them in terms the public can grasp. There are costs to that. There are costs to letting it slide too.

Taylor reflected on those costs after years on the reporters’ bus for the Post. He noted that with the decline of the political parties as screeners with the final say, “journalists have increasingly become players in a political contest in which they also serve as observers, commentators and referees.” One of the ways they influence things, he said, is through a “journalistic master narrative built around two principal story lines: the search for a candidates character flaws, and the depiction of the campaign as a horse race.”

This helps explain why the Dean Scream grew to such proportions as a news event from January 20th on. Yes, the scream really happened, and it really did turn people off. It is not implausible to say it crystallized public doubts about Dean, for some. But we also know that the master narrative favors a search for the candidate’s character flaws. The Scream said to reporters: search over, flaw found.

Beyond screening the field and maintaining a master narrative, there are other recognizable tasks not in the official description:

  • establishing the figure of the “frontrunner” and its rituals of scrutiny;
  • previewing the get-elected strategy of candidates and reviewing it as performance;
  • conducting polls, by formulating the questions to be asked, paying for the research, and publicizing the results as news;
  • moderating and sometimes sponsoring candidate debates, which means selecting who belongs in them;
  • creating a class of “authorized knowers” who are repeatedy quoted and asked to comment on the campaign;
  • enlarging some unexpected or dramatic moment (or gaffe) with a flood of news attention and repetition of the event;

Then there’s everything the press does during those strange episodes that have come to be called frenzies. Here the news cycle feeds on itself, overwhelming all other news, and bringing a sense of siege or crisis to the stricken one’s camp. (The scream aired 700 times in the week after Dean released it.) Producing frenzies isn’t an official part of the job. But it happens and journalists know they are involved.

In fact they tell us. Around the time of Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Tim Russert, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said that when he and his colleagues focus relentlessly on a single story, “we may find ourselves driving the story.” Event driver is not in the job description, either. It happens.

The people the national press assigns to campaign coverage are smart and able, and they work extremely hard. The experienced ones know a great deal about politics, the people in it, and what drives them. It is inconceivable that reporters at this level would fail to notice there are times (like the news frenzy) when, without plan or purpose, the press is “causing” things to happen. And there are other times (such as the “expectations game”) when journalists are fatally mixed up in the action, which would not be happening this way without them.

Comparing the declared and de-facto roles of the press, E.J. Dionne, columnist for the Washington Post and a student of American politics, put it this way:

No one elected the press, yet the press is now an intimate part of everything having to do with elections. The press is not there to make political decisions, yet everything the press does helps shape those decisions. The press does not exist to represent the citizenry, yet in fact reporters do believe they represent citizens (or at least their interests) when they probe and question and analyze and pontificate.

Now if journalists know all that—and by the evidence in these quotations they do—then they also know their professional codes don’t cover these other roles the press has assumed. The profession has an observer’s code, a watchdog’s code, possibly a critic’s code, but nothing beyond that.

What does the code book say about the proper way to handle yourself in a frenzy? It is silent, stumped. What do newsroom codes say about the expectations game and how journalists should play it, so that citizens benefit? They say nothing. If all of a sudden you realize you are driving an event, what should the wise, responsible and public-spirited journalist do? The codes don’t know.

So then what?

Political journalists need a new description that recognizes their status as players in a contest they also report and comment upon. I understand why the press is reluctant to say it this way— a player. Yet Shaw, Taylor, Dionne, Russert and many others of sound reputation have said just that over the years. The public knows it too. Conventional wisdom gets beaten up a lot, but journalists actually need wise conventions if, collectively, they’re going to do a good job.

It’s time to rip up the old job description for the campaign press, and write one that’s more honest, more nuanced, more effective—and more real.


Posted by Jay Rosen at March 9, 2004 2:30 PM   Print


That is an excellent piece of writing, Jay.

There are three points I might add, or quibble with:

(1) You failed to excoriate jounralists' overuse of anonymous sources, including the verbal construct, "Many experts believe that ..." Why won't the journalist name these experts, I wonder. If not, why should I believe these unnamed experts?

(2) Establishment journalists' failure to criticize each other by name. I can see no reason not to do so politely, except for the unwritten rule that Establishment journalists do not upbraid fellow members of The Guild.

(3) This Master Narrative business -- is it all that innocent and unintended? Or do many journalists knowingly parrot the master Narrative of Democrat or Republican HQ, or of some think tank?

Posted by: David Davenport at March 9, 2004 4:18 PM | Permalink

I would say the press is actually an intentional influencer - they have someone they want to win, and they slant th coverage to try to help out. By their own book of ethics, that's unethical. Of course, that's only the book of ethics they SAY they follow, primarily for show... there isn't one they ACTUALLY follow (or even think they do). They know what they are doing - it may once have been side effect, but it is now the goal.

Posted by: Deoxy at March 9, 2004 6:07 PM | Permalink

[ They know what they are doing - it may once have been side effect, but it is now the goal.]

That's a succint way of putting it, Deoxy.

The "Master Naarative" hypothesis is a bit too deep psychocultural rootsy. There is a more parsimonious theory: that many journalists are knowing political partisans, not innocents.

Posted by: David Davenport at March 9, 2004 7:08 PM | Permalink

I doubt it's as much an innocent by-product of the evolution of the political process as it is deliberate and calculated. Call me cynical.
I heard a group of journalists respond to a question from a fellow journalist: "Why are we journalists?" The response was "Because we [some said I] have a lot to say." And I thought, "No, you don't. You have a lot to tell, but telling is different, isn't it?"
But, I've concluded it is so; they feel they have a lot to say.
I'm also certain that journalism, in its post-modern form, suits the times: you can hold everyone else to account, without having to hold yourself--or your profession--to account.

Posted by: Susan Robbins at March 9, 2004 11:12 PM | Permalink

I know three working reporters and editors and they are conscientious and try to present a factual, balanced story. However, I also have experience as the subject of news stories and it's disappointing how sloppy reporters can be. Facts aren't important when a particular angle needs to be addressed. I had a copyright dispute with a major automaker over some of my embroidery designs and when the local daily did a story about it (at my encouragement - big guy picking on a little guy is great publicity) I stressed three points: 1) It was not a trademark dispute but rather a copyright dispute where the automaker was claiming exclusive rights to the images of its cars thereby jeopardizing fair use rights of photographers and other artists. 2)Though there were very real First Amendment issues, I was not claiming First Amendment rights to use such images but rather that my use was within the parameters established for editorial use by the automaker (in IP cases, First Amendment defenses are the kiss of death - courts don't like people saying that the constitution allows them to steal). 3) It was ironic that a company that recently paid $1 billion into a fund for Jewish slave laborers in the Holocaust was now picking on a company that made Jewish gifts. When the story ran, the headline said it was a trademark dispute, the story said that I was claiming a First Amendment right to use the images, and the story lead with the fact that I started out making Jewish gifts. One out of three isn't bad, I suppose. Fortunately, someone in Auburn Hills saw the story (good thing I live in the Detroit area) in their Sunday paper, and I'm guessing that the call to their licensing company to back off came about 10 seconds after they read the opening graf. Still, it was agravating to see the reporter get things wrong.

Posted by: ronnie schreiber at March 10, 2004 12:11 AM | Permalink

Do political reporters need to recognize their status as players, or do we need to get rid of the idea of "political reporters"? The NYT's recent appointment of David Kirkpatrick to something the paper calls the "conservative beat" is only the most absurd example of a flawed system of "beats" by which journalists all too often imagine they acquire a kind of authority. Immersion and depth are admirable qualities in an article; the chumminess and arrogance too often evident in the work of political reporters are not. Political journalists work their beats not like reporters but like cops, enforcing order and hardknuckling misfits like Dean off their streets.

Posted by: Jeff Sharlet at March 10, 2004 3:07 AM | Permalink

For the record, when Deoxy says, "they have someone they want to win, and they slant the coverage to try to help out," and when David says,"many journalists are knowing political partisans, not innocents," I believe they simplify and distort the political role of the press. There are third, fourth and fifth options beyond: 1.) "innocent" delivery of objective, factual news, or 2.) slanting the news for partisan reasons. No real discussion can be had with only these alternatives in hand.

Jeff: should there should even be "political" reporters? is a question that never ocurred to me. I will have to think on it.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at March 10, 2004 8:43 AM | Permalink

How do you square all of the theories of a benign influence by the press (put out, of course, by journalists and j-profs) with the abysmal performance on the Bush-ad controversy. The withholding of information on just who was "enraged" by these ads amounts to a journalistic travesty. If "journalism" is supposed to get to the truth, then most of the mainstream press failed miserably in this instance. As several above have said, it can't be just happenstance. They knew what they were doing and that moves the dial from incompetence to corruption.

Posted by: rivlax at March 10, 2004 10:34 AM | Permalink

I once received a really stunning insight into press coverage. Someone who had suffered a particularly unpleasant bout of media exposure asked me to think about the following question: How many times had I, watching the press deal with a subject I was intimately familiar with, seen them come even close to getting the story right?

My response, after some thought, was "almost never." The fellow I was talking to then asked me why I would think they would do much better on any other topic. It was a very eye-opening moment for me, especially when I considered that most reporters are seriously left-leaning political partisans and, where politics are concerned, large amounts of power and money are at stake.

I've never trusted the press since. Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Andrew Gilligan just drove the point further home.

Posted by: Dan McWiggins at March 10, 2004 11:08 AM | Permalink

We should teach reading newspapers in civics class. A lot of readers don't know a Editoral from a news article. Students should be taught critical reading skills. Letters to the Editor should follow bad writing.
That is why I like to read good Journalsit Watch sites. They have made me a better reader.

Posted by: Ron Schmidt at March 10, 2004 12:10 PM | Permalink

Raises an interesting question, Ron: You said watch sites have made you a better reader of the press. Does the press try to make you a better reader of the press? Or not? Or is that impossible to begin with?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at March 10, 2004 12:25 PM | Permalink

[ A lot of readers don't know a Editoral from a news article. ]

So, a lot of reporters and editors know the difference?

Posted by: David Davenport at March 10, 2004 6:24 PM | Permalink

[ when Deoxy says, "they have someone they want to win, and they slant the coverage to try to help out," and when David says,"many journalists are knowing political partisans, not innocents," I believe they simplify and distort the political role of the press. There are third, fourth and fifth options beyond: 1.) "innocent" delivery of objective, factual news, or 2.) slanting the news for partisan reasons. No real discussion can be had with only these alternatives in hand. ]

There is also an axiom known as Occam's razor.

Posted by: David Davenport at March 10, 2004 6:26 PM | Permalink

You have a very thorough site. You are to be commended for all of the information you have made available to us the searchers. I didn't find any info on my ancestors, but I still enjoyed looking around

government grants

Posted by: government grants at May 25, 2004 2:26 PM | Permalink

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