Defining good journalism: A response to Stephen Bloom

April 3, 2014 | 9:09 am

By Stephen Berry, Frank Durham, Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Judy Polumbaum

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Good journalism transforms the world by speaking truth to power, and, as our colleague Stephen Bloom said last week, shines “a light into dark corners.”

However, we have a profound and professional disagreement with Professor Bloom concerning the practice of “good journalism.” We do not believe, as he does, that good journalism entails scathing attacks on powerless people, nor do we endorse any work riddled with inaccuracies and factual errors, and based on sweeping generalizations and superficial stereotypes.

On the contrary, while we do agree that good journalism may reveal uncomfortable truths, it also illuminates the complexities and contexts of those truths. Good journalism offers multiple perspectives and discerning explanations of social problems and salient issues, be it poverty in Iowa or political caucuses. Good journalism takes time and thought, and in the end, it offers something of real value to its audiences.

At a time when “hits,” ratings and circulation numbers seem to matter more than substance, it’s easy to become confused about what good journalism is, or whether it still exists. It does, but it’s not to be found in caustic columns tossed off to pander to prejudices and preconceptions. Iowa, like every state, teems with stories that deserve attention and analysis, and that need to be reported on with care and complexity and — yes — compassion.

Nellie Bly practiced that kind of journalism in 1887 when she exposed the brutal treatment of patients at a New York insane asylum, leading to radical reforms in the care of the mentally ill. David Halberstam practiced it in the turbulent 1960s when he revealed uncomfortable truths about the American involvement in Vietnam, helping to end that war. Evelyn Cunningham practiced it when she focused on the violence of desegregation in the Civil Rights movement, changing America’s understanding of race relations. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein practiced it by exposing government corruption at the highest levels in the Watergate scandal and prompting investigations that toppled a tainted presidency; Seymour Hersh practiced it when he wrote of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, catalyzing important discussions about U.S. investments in human rights and the uses of torture. Walter Rideau practiced it in his prize-winning chronicles from the heart of the Angola prison. And there are countless other examples.

This is journalism that takes the public good as its driving principle, journalism aimed at providing citizens with accurate information so they can make informed decisions about their lives, journalism that exposes wrongdoing and gives voice to the voiceless. This sort of journalism holds to tenets of ethics, accuracy and social justice. And journalism of this sort lies at the heart of a functioning democracy.

Most people know good journalism when they see it. And the good people of Iowa — natives, transplants and émigrés — know bad journalism when they see it. We can probably all benefit from occasional reminders of the difference.

Stephen Berry, associated professor and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, 1993; Frank Durham, associate professor; Meenakshi Gigi Durham, associate professor; Judy Polumbaum, professor, all from the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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