CJR asks: What is journalism for?

Ira Glass CMU 2006

The Columbia Journalism Review published an article that compiled an incredible array of responses to the question “What is journalism for?” The answers came from people like Peggy Noonan, Arianna Huffington, Ben Smith of BuzzFeed, Matt Welch of Reason Magazine, Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic, Craig Newmark of Craigslist and so many more.

My favorite is Ira Glass, who said:

Journalism is to document and explain what’s going on in the world. The kind of journalism we do at our show also takes as its mission to entertain. On a weekly schedule, we don’t think you have to sacrifice the idealistic, mission-driven parts of the job in order to entertain.

Anyone who’s trying to get at the truth of a situation can be a journalist. It’s not fucking rocket science. Talk to people, write down or record what they say, use good judgment in picking quotes and evaluating the overall truth of what’s happening. Try to summarize it interestingly for others. A kid can do it.

Read the rest here. Then take your swing at answering the question below. Remember the specific wording: Not “what is journalism?” What is journalism for?

My answer, off the top of my head: Journalism is for making people smarter. Which means you assholes writing about Miley Cyrus have some god damned explaining to do.

45 thoughts on “CJR asks: What is journalism for?

  1. Journalism is for: keeping them honest, giving us a heads up, putting things in context and telling us things we need and want to know. It’s for shining a light in dark places so that bad things can be exposed and good things can be recognized and celebrated. It’s for bringing people closer together by pointing out the things we share and for not letting us get too comfortable that everyone’s experience is the same. It’s for telling us the news of the minute, the hour, the day, but also for reminding us of the news a month, a year, a decade and a century ago. It’s for bringing you not just the information you know you want but also the stuff you didn’t even know existed until you see it on the page. Its for setting innocent people free and sending the guilty to jail. It’s imperfect, it’s human, it’s under assault by stuff that pretends to be journalism but isn’t (the phrase “empty calories” is the perfect description) and it’s messy, but it’s better than all the alternatives I can think of.

    1. Often underappreciated: “It’s for bringing you not just the information you know you want but also the stuff you didn’t even know existed until you see it on the page.”

      1. jake says:

        G. K. Chesterton: Journalism largely consists of saying “Lord Jones is dead” to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.

  2. Dennis Lang says:

    Really interesting! I recall that one journalism prof who admonished his first-year class “to look under every floorboard, peel away the surface, tell me something I wouldn’t know unless you tell it to me. I want to think. Hit me right between the eyes with it.” At one point there was the analogy to an archeological dig–that process of discovery and dissemination, then analysis of, what is found.

    I think that was a good place to start.

  3. Barbara Gilbertson says:

    Journalism is not rooted in bias and cannot be bought. It presents the situation, event, story accurately, completely, fearlessly. Then, ever mindful of the yin and yang, the “on the one hand, but then on the other” that is fundamental to critical thinking, journalism (and by extension, journalists) invites readers to consider the smorgasbord du jour, to thoughtfully internalize what matters most (aye, there’s the rub), to be open to having one’s ignorance and one’s certainties challenged. Journalism at its idealistic best meets the reader one-to-one, as opposed to, say, talk radio and scream TV where groupthink prevails and requires no meander through reason. Etc.

  4. PM says:

    Journalism is the process of making things (knowledge, facts, opinions, feelings, pictures, understanding, stories, etc.) that exist somewhere else available to a person’s awareness.

    For it to work, it must be presented as narrative, because that is how we understand the world.

    Journalism is also a way that people interact with each other, sharing (and disputing) narratives.

    1. There’s a few things in the Ney Yorker article I would recharacterize. Big thing is, the common premise that Dallas was a right wing cesspool is obviously diminished by the fact the assassination was perpetrated by a communist. That’s always been a hard one to square. But I do not disagree that broadly ‘its always been thus’. Most things have always been thus, or at least have been thus for a long time.

      Coincidentally, there’s a recent, parallel conversation that Dallas, 1963 is what set the Democrats on their path to ‘punitive liberalism’.


    2. There comes a point where not stating the obvious would be a real credibility killer. Ezra Klein has reached that point.


      In the individual market, you don’t get to keep your plan, and the one its replaced with is waaaaaayyyyyyyyy more expensive. But yeah, ACA will be a great success, as long as we don’t measure by that, ya know, the things it was sold on.

      It’s fair to say there are legitimate principled and practical objections to the ACA, ‘settled law’ or not. And fact of the matter is, the law is a turd and will need changing. When exactly do people who have these legitimate objections get to air them, since doing so now is apparently beyond the pale?

    3. ACA is most interesting story going right now. You know what would be nice here as various SRC stakeholders make a renewed effort to have the sight be interesting again? An unmoderated open thread….

      So, ACA is a turd, amiright? Didn’t let people keep their plan, more expensive premiums, ginormous disruption to the job market.

      Now, web sight doesn’t work. Big thing is, young invincibles not on their parents policy are not going to sign up to pay exhorbitant rates. Go figure. This thing is going down. I mean, ACA will stay… But 5 years from now there won’t be an individual or employer mandate, and the feds will have to step in and prop up the individual markets, which will largely be filled with sick, old, and poor. But yeah, great, you got the train down down the tracks.

      I’m a software pro, and it’s a hard rule that if your product doesn’t work you cant deploy. And that’s because releasing a bad product is expensive and makes you look bad. Very bemused here that ‘smart people’, particularly bureaucrats, thought they could ignore this very plain point.

        1. I realize that the product is not the website. The product is the affordable insurance, which is generally double or triple the cost it was pre-ACA. The websight is merely the distribution channel for the affordable insurance that is double or triple the cost that it was pre-ACA.

          I have been reading Ezra Klein, who is more sanguine. The website is key, it can’t not work (we should take it upon ourselves to figure who trumps who, Yglessias or Klein, when earnest, precious young wonks are at odds).

          My feelings are mixed, I tell you. The way this will shake out is that people who couldn’t get insurance are going to get premium supports, ie, subsidies, vis a vis the exchanges. Healthy young people and regular individual buyers are going to get relieved of that burden to buy in, because they are going to stay away in droves anyway. Forcing them in over the next couple years to buy the affordable insurance that is double or triple the cost it was pre-ACA is going to be politically untenable, no matter how many times Ezra and Matty claim it’s a value added product. The individual mandate will collapse politically, and the govt will cover the losses on the exchange markets. And maybe this is fine, ie, the proper outcome. Some new people will have coverage. The train is down the tracks.

          But we were told premiums wouldn’t go up, existing plans wouldn’t be disrupted, and it wouldn’t screw up the employment market. Knowing better and not believing that constituted a reasonable reason to oppose ACA, yet we were insulted as either stupid or bad people for doing so. The reckoning for this is going to go on for a while. Its an albatross.

          1. PM says:

            1. We were never told that premiums would not go up. What we were told was that the ACA would contain health care costs (ie., health care inflation would be tamed–get it back within the range of the overall inflation rate, as opposed to double that rate, where it had been). This is being done. Health care inflation rates are currently much lower than they have been, and policy wonks are attributing this to the ACA implementation.

            2. You are engaging in slight of hand apples to oranges cost comparisons here, and you obviously know it. Yes, the new health care insurance is more expensive than the older catastrophic coverage, which will not longer be available. Yet, the new health care insurance is also cheaper than comparable policies under the old regime. And it becomes even more cheap when you start to factor in various subsidies that are available. So, yes, people who either did not have any insurance at all before or who only had catastrophic insurance (extremely high deductible policies) are paying more. Further, the costs for insurance under the ACA are generally coming in under the projections made for the ACA. Bottom line: the health care exchanges are working. When companies are forced to offer comparable and competing insurance programs to consumers, they lower the costs. Before, the insurance companies made certain that the plans were different, making comparison shopping difficult to impossible. Consumer choice was thwarted. No longer. (this particular aspect of the ACA is the conservative part, using markets to lower prices, and the reason that it was supported originally by the Heritage Foundation and Romney).

            3. There is no evidence at all that the ACA is screwing up the employment markets. The GOP talking points about how the ACA would lead to businesses cutting back hours, etc., are complete BS (see: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2013/10/obamacare-isnt-ruining-economy-way-republicans-had-claimed/70795/ )

            Frankly, i expect that the ACA will do wonders for the employment markets by separating employment from insurance. It is all too common now for people to not leave their jobs because they are afraid of losing their health care. This is especially the case for people with pre-existing conditions. With the ACA, that will no longer be the case. Labor mobility should improve significantly.

            4. Yes, the website is a problem. No, it will not kill the ACA. This is just one of the ways to sign up–it can be done via phone and mail as well. At some point it will be fixed. Frankly, every large government program has implementation problems. Medicare Part D had huge problems when it was first introduced, but within a year those were fixed and forgotten. It will be the same with the ACA. So, go ahead and chortle about the ACA being an albatross, etc., while you can. Soon it will become a beloved part of the government, and we will see the Tea Party folks at the next Presidential election telling Hillary to keep the government hands off of their ACA.

          2. What about the part where if you like your plan you get to keep it? A lot of people are getting policy cancellations. Assuming they get new policies, they have to get ones that cost more. So that was a lie, wasn’t it?

            Liberal economists notwithstanding, I think its intuitive that the employment market has been affected. People are getting held under 30 hours in certain businesses, particularly restraints. This might be of limited scope but it isn’t nothing.

            This value added proposition is a bit hokey. The policies cost more, which tends to diminish their ‘affordability’ by any measure you use. There was a lot of utility to be gotten from catastrophic insurance. Particularly, protection from bankruptcy. Which I thought we were all concerned with.

      1. Erik, you are correct that the website is a big mess. I share your frustration, though perhaps not your glee. For the sake of the people who need help, I hope the pointy headed guys get it fixed quick.

        But there are other important things to include in our assessment, such as this analysis from the Center for American Progress:

        “The Affordable Care Act is already working: Intense price competition among health plans in the marketplaces for individuals has lowered premiums below projected levels. As a result of these lower premiums, the federal government will save about $190 billion over the next 10 years, according to our estimates. These savings will boost the health law’s amount of deficit reduction by 174 percent and represent about 40 percent of the health care savings proposed by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform—commonly known as the Simpson-Bowles commission—in 2010.

        Moreover, we estimate that lower premiums will lower the number of uninsured even further, by an additional 700,000 people, even as the number of individuals who receive tax credits will decline because insurance is more affordable.

        In short, the Affordable Care Act is working even better than expected, producing more coverage for much less money.

        …in a preliminary analysis of plans offered in 18 areas, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that premiums are lower than CBO’s projected premiums in 15 of those areas.

        In March 2012, CBO projected an average family premium for the second-lowest-cost silver plan in 2016. This projection is equivalent to an average individual premium in 2014 of $4,700 (see sidebar). The actual average premium for the second-lowest-cost silver plan in 2014 turned out to be $3,936—16 percent lower than projected.

        We estimate that a 16 percent reduction in premiums will lower the total cost of tax credits by about 21 percent. …In its May 2013 baseline, CBO projected that the tax credits would cost $920 billion through 2023. But CBO made this projection before data on actual premium rates became available. A 16 percent reduction in premiums will lower this cost by about 21 percent, or about $190 billion.”


        1. The superceding fact here is, premiums are not going to be lower. Ever. They went up, a lot. I see your/others inability to acknowledge this as a real hindrance to the conversation.

          Rates / cost went up for everyone. This is merely ameliorated for people who get subsidies.

          1. When you say “rates went up for everyone,” are you talking about on the federal exchange only, or are you including the state exchanges? Because in my initial review of options offered through MNSure, shit got a lot cheaper for me and my family.

            1. Well, I wouldn’t say I’ve done all of my research yet, but again, after a first look it seems I’m able to save somewhere between 25%-35% for comparable coverage.

              (My family currently gets individual coverage because it was cheaper than adding my family to my employer’s plan.)

            2. Is your quote with a subsidy?

              Leave aside whether you are in the individual market now. If your employer offers a plan that meets the guidelines, you’re not eligible for a subsidized plan on the exchange.

            3. MK, yours has potential to be an illustrative anecdote.

              There’s no market circumstance the ACA fosters that would enable your preferred plan or one like it being cheaper in 2014 than it was in 2013. So if you’re getting an appealing quote, it’s with the subsidy that you are probably not eligible for (you’re an employee in a place that offers minimally acceptable benefits).

              So the non-subsidized quote vs. your current premium is what you want to hone in on. I’d bet against things getting cheaper.

            4. If I’m remembering correctly, the only “guidance” from my insurer was a letter shortly after the ACA was passed saying something like “You can stay with your grandfathered plan or you can check out a new option or you can bang your face against a brick wall or… Well, we don’t give a shit what you do, but we hope you stay with us. High-five?”

              But again, I’ve hardly done a thorough investigation. This is all based on just a cursory glance at possible costs of MNSure plans.

            5. Dennis Lang says:

              Now you’re cooking. Kind of a “Dinner with Andre” on the ACA. Interesting inquiry–and informative Q & A on this too often mystifying subject for the average Joe on the street, like me.

        2. CB0, Joe.

          “Lower than projected” does not obviate that rates went up. “Lower than projected” from the estimate is wordplay. They went up. Unsubsidized, they’re more expensive and offer less benefit value. Period.

          People are being quoted about their cancellation letters and their rate quotes constantly. At this precise, I don’t have a bunch of great links to share, but I could certainly find some in short order. I’m mystified at that O-bots don’t run into the same articles. Its an incredible lack of curiousity. It’s like being some kind of denier or something.

          1. Joe Loveland says:

            Eric, you’re smart enough to know that the debate has always been about bending the cost curve trend, not reversing it. If you know a reform that both covers the uninsured and reverses the cost trend, curve let’s hear it.

            1. Its more than fair to say that the Obama administration really played fast and loose with what the plan does. Particularly the President himself, who at times asserted this would SAVE a family $2500 a year. Oh, and he said people wouldn’t lose their current plans.

              They lied at times. Say it. Now, political lies are not unusual, and white lies within political rhetoric is forgivable to a point. But as I say, there’s a lot of people who are tired of hearing they are bad people or stupid when they articulate a practical objection to this monstrosity.

              I would just cover people out of general revenue. Its all monopoly money anyway. Its delusional to believe you have to set up all these tax and revenue regimes to accomplish this.

            2. When the President signed the bill he said:

              “”We agree on reforms that will finally reduce the costs of health care,” Families will save on their premiums; businesses that will see their costs rise if we do nothing will save money now and in the future. This plan will strengthen Medicare and extend the life of that program. And because it gets rid of the waste and inefficiencies in our health care system, this will be the largest deficit reduction plan in over a decade.

              Now, I just want to repeat this because there’s so much misinformation about the cost issue here. You talk to every health care economist out there and they will tell you that whatever ideas are — whatever ideas exist in terms of bending the cost curve and starting to reduce costs for families, businesses, and government, those elements are in this bill.”

              So, he says “save on their premiums” and “bend the cost curve and starting to reduce costs” in the same breath. Taken together he’s clearly saying “save on premiums over what you would have been paying with the status quo trend line.”

              So, it’s cheap to pull “families will save on premiums” out of the full context and demagogue it. The entire debate was clearly about saving on premiums compared to the status quo trend line.

            3. Joe Loveland says:

              That’s a good piece, Erik. Obama was vastly overly optimistic on the campaign hustings in 2008.

  5. Another under-exposed component of health care reform is discussed in this NYT columumn — cost containment and quality improvement:

    ” What you may not know is that the Affordable Care Act is also beginning, with little fanfare, to accomplish its second great goal: to promote reforms to our overpriced, underperforming health care system. Irony of ironies, the people who ought to be most vigorously applauding this success story are Republicans, because it is being done not by government decree but almost entirely with market incentives.

    Using mainly the marketplace clout of Medicare and some seed money, the new law has spurred innovation and efficiency. And while those new insurance exchanges that are now lurching into business will touch roughly 1 in 10 Americans (the rest of us are already covered by private employer plans or by government programs like Medicare), these systemic reforms potentially touch every patient, every taxpayer.

    “This is the 90 percent of the story that doesn’t make the headlines,” said Sam Glick, who follows health care reform for the Oliver Wyman consulting firm.”

  6. PM says:

    Erik: there are all sorts of stories about people whose costs are skyrocketing, etc. Most of those (from the predictable sources, of course) are blatantly false….


    The ACA opponents can hardly seem to be trusted when reporting on the implementation of the ACA…


    I suppose it is hard to see a bubble from the inside….

    In any event, we will know whether the ACA was a success or failure in about 10 years time.

    1. I’ll say it again. I don’t think Ive watched more than 5 minutes of Fox evening cable news in the last 15 years.

      I’m mindful Hannity will quote someone who isn’t even subject to employer mandates, etc.

      What I’ve seen in articles are people who talk about base premiums going from say $400 to $1000 a month. Are they lying? I’ll find the articles.

      1. PM says:

        That would be good. But what would be better would be a study that is more than a collection of anecdotes, that says that prices are increasing x%, etc.

        I have yet to see any study that shows anything of the sort (well, there was that Heritage study that was shown to be BS : http://talkingpointsmemo.com/dc/one-big-problem-with-the-heritage-foundation-s-new-obamacare-study )

        Obviously, any study like that should also account for the apples to oranges of different values of insurance policies. That is why most of the studies I have seen have compared actual premiums to predicted premiums–because the types of insurance policies are identical.

      2. A study. Rates go up, they go up a lot

        “lower than expected”

        The pull quote – “HHS compared what the Congressional Budget Office projected rates might look like—in 2016—to its own findings. Neither of those numbers tells you the stat that really matters: how much rates will go up next year, under Obamacare, relative to this year, prior to the law taking effect.

        Former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin agrees. “There are literally no comparisons to current rates. That is, HHS has chosen to dodge the question of whose rates are going up, and how much. Instead they try to distract with a comparison to a hypothetical number that has nothing to do with the actual experience of real people.”

        1. PM says:


          But…the “going up a lot” comes from cherry picked aspects (the youngest men, and does not include the impact of subsidies, and only partially adjusts for the “apples/oranges” problem).

          And that, of course, is the problem with the entire criticism from Holt-Eakin, as well. If you compare to the “current” rates, then you are comparing apples to oranges–both in that the ACA makes changes to insurance policies, and to the mix of insurance policies.

          And, of course, this is exactly what the ACA was designed to do–to reverse some of the process that has been going on in insurance of carving people out of risk pooling (the idea that you charge more for insurance for smokers or fat people or women (who get pregnant) or old people or people with bad genetics or people who are already sick). See, if you carry this too far it completely undoes the entire idea of insurance (that you spread risk across a large body of people). When you engage in risk pooling, some people (the young and healthy) will end up paying more. This is the way that insurance is supposed to work. The idea that you pay only for the costs you yourself incur (a classic libertarian positive good) is the direct opposite of the idea of insurance–spreading risk across many (a classic communitarian positive good).

          1. I thought ACA wasn’t supposed to change your current policy if you liked it. Ostensibly, that’s what it means to be able to “keep your policy”. IE, your current policy is protected from repricing that includes the incidence of risk you’re never going to have. But the keep your policy thing was bullshit, right? Or the President maybe didn’t know what he was talking about?

            In most ways I would defer to your impressive knowledge of philosophy and political science (not being sarcastic). But I don’t think insurance actually abides by an express communitarian principle. It’s merely utilitarian risk pooling, ie, frequency and incidence.

  7. bertram jr says:

    Newsflash to the ‘big hearted’ yet demonstrably vicious libtards: It has NOTHING to do with healthcare.

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