Working in Prague on July 4th with college students on a cross-cultural multimedia project, I think about the future of journalism in the United States.  The aspirations of our Founding Fathers were encoded in key documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Among our cherished freedoms, articulated in the First Amendment to the Constitution, are freedoms of religion, speech, and the press.  Framers of the Constitution are credited with recognizing that a free press could serve as a counterweight to government abuses of power and wrongdoing, and that prior restraint would fatally weaken the ability of the press to perform such a function.  They saw guarantees of press freedom and free speech as bulwarks in defense of liberty.

Woven into the historical fabric of the American democratic experience has been a thread acknowledging the value of journalism carried out by a free press. Journalism has been seen as enabling the civic good; a force for creating a more civil society.  In the modern era, journalists have seen their role as providing information through original reporting that enables citizens to make sound decisions about government, economics, culture and other aspects of civic development. Accountability journalism, in particular, has been seen as a means of ensuring citizens have a clear vision of government activity and as a check on criminal activity by those in power.

Today, however, the American public continues to exhibit deep skepticism about the value of the journalism practiced by mainstream media according to the latest report by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism.  In the  “State of the News Media 2009” report, report authors say in the summary,

“… There was no indication that Americans altered their fundamental judgment that the news media are politically biased, that stories are often inaccurate and that journalists do not care about the people they report on.”

Continuing on, the report summary says,  “… In short the the public’s view of journalists hasn’t worsened much in recent years.  But neither has it improved, despite a technological revolution that has given the public more choices than ever before about where and how and from whom to get news.”

This truth would seem to be echoed in the sentiments of many public comments found attached to articles on major newspaper and broadcast websites where vocal citizens seem actively to be rooting for the collapse of such media organizations.  As expressed, this discontent echoes the findings in the summary.  Citizens see media as self-interested, elitist, removed from their daily concerns, and indifferent to the values traditionally espoused as core values by the profession itself.

While these attitudes may not differ historically from previous eras, they are not good news for media.  Indeed, as many media companies chase the remaining lucrative “business decision maker” audience in their quest to maintain revenues and operating profits, are these companies sowing seeds that will only increase the perceptual gulf about journalism’s value?  Should the public cease to value journalism itself as a mechanism for promoting civic discourse, social good, and government accountability, will that in turn weaken American democracy at precisely the time when U.S. citizens need maximum support to understand the modern world?

Mainstream media needs business model reinvention. But even more, American journalism may need a reinvention of journalistic forms and fundamental reexamination of the core content it has been generating in the last quarter century.  If we are to be faithful to the vision reflected in the documents attending the nation’s birth, it would seem that journalism needs to be about more than the most base, trivial concerns of the day.   We cannot limit our role to being a “bread and circus” act in a desperate bid to solicit the attention and financial support of fellow citizens, formerly known as “the audience.”  Journalists need to transcend the myopic focus on maintaining media organizations in their present state, and instead invest in work that can reclaim the respect and trust of fellow citizens.

Some of the American students I have been working with in Prague have discussed their aspirations for their journalism future with me.  They are excited about the possibilities of using newly-developed storytelling skills and multimedia, in particular, to express information that can bring groups and countries closer together.  Their commitment to cross-cultural reporting is being strengthened by the experience of working with fellow Czech students.   They like the idea of reporting out stories that are currently underrepresented in major global media outlets. They view their experience here as very useful learning; a crucial ongoing part of their skill development process.  I am encouraged by their commitment to the traditional values of journalism and their desire to infuse their own efforts with a commitment to their subjects and audience, as well as their desire to avoid the trap of too narrow a worldview.

Reflecting their excitement and idealism, I still believe we in the media profession can renew journalism and make it more valuable to our fellow citizens.  We can start that process by carrying out reporting and storytelling activities with a focus on speaking for, about, and to as many of our fellow citizens as possible.

Always seeking to raise craft practice standards, reaffirming a commitment to core values of full independent inquiry, sound, unbiased fact-finding, transparency about reporting processes, and working with fellow citizens to provide tools for community building are all steps to be undertaken to realize responsibilities supported by the First Amendment.

I don’t want to see the fabric of the American democracy damaged because the public diminishes journalism’s value and role to the point it can no longer receive enough support to perform in ways envisioned by the Founding Fathers.  The onus is on those of us who are shaping and conducting the practice of American journalism today to make the proper fixes, notwithstanding the business concerns of the moment.