The Importance of Being Essentialist: another manifesto
Proof Set 3, May 2012 The Reformation of Journalism
Previously in Proof, a small number of journalists made the case for reinstating the much-maligned concept of objectivity – a strong case based on four, substantial points:
1) Journalism is the objectification of human experience. The journalist makes an object – the story – out of what is happening to human beings; and objectivity is the quality of objectification. Thus the rejection of objectivity is a rejection of objectification; as such, it is also the negation of journalism.
2) Journalism is a secondary form of objectification: it makes an account of the world which human beings have already made. Primary objectification (human activity) and its secondary form (journalism followed by other kinds of knowledge of the world we humans have activated) together amount to the realisation of the human subject. In its widest sense, objectification compounds the primary and the secondary: it is the sum of what the human subject has done, in thought and deed. Thus subjectivity and objectivity are not only opposites, they are also related; and the value of journalism is the strength of their relationship. Conversely, the strength of their relationship is the value of journalism. Accordingly, when their relationship is weak, the value of journalism is lowered.
3) Against a background of ‘citizen journalism’ and user-generated media content, the value of professional journalism has never been lower. In response, journalists have further weakened the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity by disowning objectivity in favour of subjectivity. In effect, we have been short-selling our own stock, deflating what we do in a misguided attempt to re-float it for the digital age. But objectivity is the USP of the professionals. As we distance ourselves from it, so we endanger our own jobs in journalism and the social role of journalism. On both counts, journalists must rediscover their objective side – or risk extinction.
If you have got this far, Dear Reader, you’ll know why the Proof-ers who made this argument did not make much headway with it. As formulated above, its positive message – objectivity is human not alien, requires prior recognition of ‘the human subject’ – a universal concept which few people are now able to recognise. In other words, to understand Proof‘s positive message in this form, requires prior conceptualisation of universal human activity. If you can get the message, in other words, you don’t need to hear it, aka preaching to the converted. Meanwhile, the journalists we were trying to get to, could not get past the negative connotations of objectivity, no matter how often we said that its bad press was totally unjustified.
What follows, then, is a new way of conveying the original message of the first issue of Proof: the journalist is essential, but only if journalists live up to their social role; moreover, since the public will only pay for essentials, professional journalists had better live up to this social role or they risk becoming superfluous.
However, apart from our internal limitations, events in the outside world also demand a different level of Proof. If our first issue came out when journalism was entering an economic crisis, during the past two years UK journalists have been dragged into a moral crisis. In both senses – moral and commercial – journalism is now called upon to prove its worth; and Proof will duly respond to each aspect of this dual crisis.
In the good old days (2009-10) when we only had one crisis to deal with, it was widely believed that digital technology had done the dirty on paid-for journalism. Now it is widely held that the sordid activity of journalists, especially those employed by the Dirty Digger, has damned the ‘profession’ a second time. But in our analysis, the second form of damnation is as spurious as the first. Moral re-armament will not be the ultimate salvation of journalism, any more than digital technology was the only cause of its commercial decline. Similarly, if the fixation with digital technology was unhelpful, preoccupying ourselves with morality is equally misguided. The real priority is to reformulate the story. Ethics and economics will solve themselves, almost, if journalists first focus on finding form.
Reformulating Journalism: the essentialist manifesto
Journalism faces reform
The Leveson inquiry is yet to conclude, but the stage is already set for ‘statutory underpinning’ of journalism, i.e. legitimate, journalistic activity designated so that journalists will be obliged to adhere to this designation in order to gain legitimacy. Journalism’s reformers stress that this constitutes neither gatekeeping nor state censorship. They may be right; but ‘statutory underpinning’ will import into journalism the compliance culture (an audit for this, a risk assessment for that) which has already proved so obstructive elsewhere. In higher education, for example, ‘closing the loop’ means that academics are increasingly bound up within procedural circuits. This kind of circular definition is absolutely not what journalism needs.
Journalism faces formlessness
To keep up with what non-journalists can now do for themselves in social media, journalists have been doing whatever it takes to stay in the conversation. But when journalism loses its close association with recognised forms, e.g. the hard news story in the form of an inverted pyramid, unless it also finds new forms to be identified by, it can only be moving towards formlessness. Recent movements in this direction have been championed as the liberation of journalism from formal constraint and elitist restraint. Unfortunately, as journalism becomes anything you want it to be, there is less certainty about what anyone will want it for (or why they would pay for professional journalists to do whatever it is).
Journalism needs reformulation
The trend towards formlessness in journalism amounts to the deformation of journalism. This is the biggest threat facing journalism today. Phone hacking may have got out of hand, but the deformation of journalism as a whole is a more pressing problem than the defamation of individuals by particular journalists. Moreover, if journalists continue to be preoccupied with the moral reform of journalism, the deformation process may continue unchecked until there is little left to reform.
For journalism to thrive, journalists must not be dragooned into reform school, to be lectured by the new worthies of ‘self-esteem’ and ‘well being’; instead we should be teaching ourselves to reformulate the story, finding new forms of expression in which journalism can distinguish itself once more.
Journalism is essentialism
We habitually say that ‘journalism is essential’ but recent developments suggest otherwise; increasingly, the-people-formerly-known-as -readers can take it or leave it. Better to say that journalism was essential as and when it was essentialist, i.e. when journalism was expected to capture the essence of events and journalists found a distinctive way of realising this expectation – at least, in part. Having studiously avoided philosophy, journalists may well recoil from such terms; nonetheless, the journalist has always been a tacit essentialist.
The essence of events is the necessity of journalism
If journalists must capture the essence of events in order to remain essential, this means that journalism needs essentialism or it is bound to become optional.
In our faux modest way we are wont to say that we have ‘nailed the story’; but this really means capturing the essence of an event, where ‘essence’ includes the basics (who, what, where etc), but it is not reducible to them. Thus the essence of events entails more than the old formula; and it is different again from the new digital discourse around events and non-events.
Conversely, without aiming for essence and minus a distinctive form in which to attain it, what looks and sounds like journalism has already slipped into something casual; and therefore inessential. Many journalists are now performing a kind of post-journalism, which lacks definition because it has lost the ambition to define. Their work is in poor shape; and their long-term employment prospects are equally uncertain.
But if journalism shapes up, it could regain its essentialism. The best chance we have lies in the attempt to capture the essential character of events and to make this capture in new and distinctive forms.
Reformulating the story along essentialist lines is the only way to make journalism essential again.
By analysis and experiment, the current issue of Proof makes a small contribution to the fulfilment of this daunting task.