Professional journalism is important but endangered, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Jones.
Jones discussed the powers and tenets of professional journalism at the New England Newspaper and Press Association’s winter convention Friday, Feb. 10. His talk on “The role and future of professional journalists in serving our democracy” focused on the responsibilities of a journalist.
Professional journalists are bestowed with the power of disseminating knowledge, Jones said.
“The revolutionary idea of passing knowledge onto people — that power is a critical role in our society. Journalists know intuitively what they are doing,” he said.
Jones said his belief that “knowledge is power” and that journalists are doing something of value by spreading that knowledge made him want to be a journalist.
Jones grew up in a family of journalists. That gave him the opportunity both to flirt with journalism and flee from it at the same time, he said.
“I grew up with working Linotype machines,” he said.
Jones’ father, who is 97, is publisher of their family-owned newspaper in East Tennessee.
But journalists often do not talk about why they chose to be in the profession, which is something they should do more often, Jones advised about 40 people who attended his talk in the Boston Park Plaza Hotel.
“I don’t believe you would be in this room if you did not believe that professional journalism is something important,” he told the audience.
Jones is director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. He has been a reporter for The New York Times; a host of National Public Radio’s “On the Media;” and a host and executive editor of Public Broadcasting Service’s “Media Matters.” He has co-authored two books, “The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty” and “The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times,” with his late wife, Susan Tifft.
Jones talked about his experiences as a young reporter. One of his assignments required him to stand up to a government official who had misused his power for personal benefit. Jones acknowledged being afraid of confronting the person at the beginning.
“But confronting is what honorable journalists do in such situations. I had a moral obligation to my readers. When I owned up to that obligation and to myself, I became a professional journalist,” he said.
Satisfaction and a surge of pleasure are what journalists experience when they do their job right, he said.
“Being a professional journalist means owning up to a certain standard of your own rules and obligations. There is a professional pride attached to the job when you do it right,” Jones said.
Jones said objectivity in journalism has developed from a burgeoning desire in the news business for professional journalism.
“Objectivity was the way journalism was always intended to do something that it had not been able to do, which was to apply some kind of scientific methodology to deal with the problem of lives. It was created because journalists had bias. Objectivity is about practical truth based on intellectual honesty,” Jones said.
Objective reporting makes people think in another way than the way they are inclined to think, Jones said.
“The whole idea of objectivity grew because there are personal opinions. The whole idea of journalism is one that demands character. That is where the rubber meets the road,” Jones said.
But he stressed that objective journalism doesn’t mean dry, lifeless journalism.
The mission of journalists should be public service, and journalists with intellectual courage should represent the profession, Jones said.
Jones also talked about how technology has changed journalism.
“Technology changed the idea of what news was. Today we come to know what’s happening 100 miles away from us instantaneously,“ he said.
But the drawbacks of the “Web culture” are that journalists today place more importance on how quickly they can get a story distributed than on accuracy, Jones said.
“For professional journalism to survive, it has to represent values that came from the past,” Jones said.
Journalists should also be careful in dealing with sources, Jones advised.
“Deal with sources with (an) intellectual honesty. Be very careful with your sources; do not be deluded that you are not being used,” Jones said.
Jones also discussed his experience while writing “The Fall of the House of Bingham,” a story for The New York Times about a powerful newspaper family in Louisville, Ky., which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1987.
The story was “the best piece of work” he had ever done and it made him feel “exulted and fulfilled,” Jones said.
“I treasure that feeling, that I had done the very best work that I could do. I hope that you have had such moments. If not, I hope that you do,” Jones told the audience.
Jones suggested that newspapers today should operate on many platforms, including digital, to reach new generations. But his advice for those starting out in the field of journalism was to begin by working at a newspaper.
Jones said he thinks that newspapers, as an institution, are here to stay.
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