Should journalism have meaningful change as its goal?

This post is a response to Barry Eisler in his blog entry  David Miranda and the Preclusion of Privacy Part 2.

In his post, Mr. Eisler stated:

“To me, the proper objective of a journalist is to bring about meaningful change.”

What we need to understand is “meaningful” and “change”. The post does not explain these phrases, though it does explain that that dumping secret files on the internet with no purpose is bad for tactical reasons, but not because it would harm the state or the common good. Such acts should serve a purpose, but it is not clear what purpose that is. What is suggested is that the goal is to push against the surveillance state. Yet, that cannot be the purpose of all journalism because all journalism is not focused on politics. There are other topics to consider. Unless, all journalists are expected to believe and act that the surveillance state is the only topic worthy of journalism. Does the journalist have a responsibility beyond that of a citizen when they act?

If meaningful change means to push back against the surveillance state, what does that involve? Are we to accept without debate that the surveillance state harms our privacy and limits our freedom? However, we are never told what the surveillance state is, why it exists, or how it has these devastating effects. Without that understanding, it is hard to know how journalism can make a meaningful change. Is journalism simply asking for change for the sake of change?

The deeper issue within “meaningful change” is that it suggests that the journalists must, by default, be dissatisfied with the status quo or at least know what is better than the status quo. If they are dissatisfied with the status quo, we have to consider why journalism and not politics is the way to deliver “meaningful change.” Democratic citizens have to ask “If we have a government and a political process that is designed to deliver “meaningful change” how do we distinguish it from journalism?”

If journalism’s goal is meaningful change, then journalists will disagree about the change. They will disagree with each other and with the public about what is meaningful. We can see that journalists may agree on a free press and the First Amendment but after those topics, their views quickly splinter. If a journalist is only to pursue meaningful change as they understand it, then we have to accept that they act in their personal interest. If they claim to act in the public interest, “the public need to be informed” they define the public interest through their personal interest. The journalist decides the public interest. What, though, are their criteria for such a choice? If journalists promote, as the public interest, what they prefer as a private interest, have they not, therefore, subverted the democratic process?

If journalism’s goal is meaningful change, then it runs the risk of being anti-democratic. Is this a worthy goal?


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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