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Journalism vs Art

April 7, 2012

One of the best things about being a John S Knight Fellow at Stanford is that when a line of thinking tugs at you and you're struggling to reel it in, all you have to do is put the word out to the other 19 journalists in the group and before you know it, you've convened a group of smart people to hash out the idea with, most often in the sun over a glass of wine.

This was the case recently for me. I've been fascinated by the slippery link between art and journalism for many years (theres a reason why this blog is called 'lies like truth') and in light of the brouhaha surrounding This American Life's retraction of its Mike Daisey program following the revelation that the monologist fabricated details in his acclaimed solo show about the conditions facing workers in Apple Computer factories in China, I decided to convene a discussion among members of my fellowship program.

It was a small group of five (three of us pictured above) that met up in front of Stanford's Student Union last week for a chat about this topic. What began as a discussion about the Daisey affair (we all seemed to agree that Daisey crossed a line in not being clear about his storytelling approach, regardless of whether he was telling his story in the context of a theatre production or a journalism-focused radio show) quickly devolved into a hot debate about the basics of what it means to be a journalist and practice journalism.

It was a great discussion because there was a lot of lively disagreement. Some people in our cohort felt that the media still has the power to be a trusted source of information for the public and should maintain scrupulous fact-checking and other ethical standards. Others thought that this notion was hopelessly idealistic and at best aspirational.

The main takeaway that I got from the conversation was a confirmation of a reality that I was already growing to understand -- that "the truth" and "the facts" are blurry concepts even in the most rigorous of media settings. Thanks to the tech boom and the economic downturn among other factors, we are entering an era where this is becoming increasingly the case as the media landscape fragments and commentators and reporters become increasingly "artful" in their attempt to rise above all the noise and get attention for their stories.

The conclusion? Every individual journalist and media organization, large and small, should have a long hard think about the basic rules or tenets that define their work, even going as far as to codify a set of rules for how they aim to operate in the world. The rules will be different for different people, but it's setting standards in the first place that matters.

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