Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Walter Williams' Journalist's Creed in the 21st Century
In 1908, a long-term Missouri newspaper editor named Walter Williams became the founding dean of the world's first university school of journalism. It was an historic development in the emergence of a profession we now call journalism. Just as important in the development of this profession was a statement of principles and standards that Williams wrote for this new profession.
His The Journalist's Creed became the bedrock statement of vision and principle that journalists throughout the world, in many different languages, can recite from their hearts.
Click here for a printable version of the creed in different languages.
As the Missouri School of Journalism prepared to celebrate its centennial, the school's senior faculty member, Phill Brooks, asked the new generation of journalists how this creed relates to the 21st century of new technologies, market demands and societal expectations:
I believe in the profession of journalism.
Walter Williams (WW) was a religious person. So he would not have used lightly, and repeatedly, the verb "believe" in describing the level of his personal commitment to this new profession. Even now, it is an unusual word to use in describing one's allegiance to the standards of a profession. What, then, were the unique characteristics of this "profession of journalism" that warranted, for WW, the use of that verb in the early 1900s? Which remain valid today, which do not and are there new attributes to this belief a century later?
I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust.
In Walter Williams' time, as today, there were a multitude of public communication outlets -- ranging from newspapers to political rags, from comics to entertainment publications. WW's creed does not exactly define what he meant by a "public journal" worthy of "public trust." However, the remainder of his creed does identify the attributes and characteristics of those who serve the "public journal." So, today, with an even greater variety of media, what types of communication outlets fit with WW's definition of a "public journal?" Would blogs? Would data-resource Web sites like Google?
To coin Marshall McLuhan's phrase, has the medium transcended the message in our generation? In other words, is technology more important than "public trust" in defining the objective for a public journal?
What, in the 21st century, constitutes "acceptance of a lesser service" that Williams would condemn as a betrayal of the public trust? A century after his creed, American newsrooms are facing growing marketing and ownership pressures. Is it a "lesser service" to bow to those market pressures in order to maintain commercial survival of a "public journal?" Or is it a "betrayal of this trust" to pursue journalistic efforts that suppress audience/readership numbers and which thus undermine financial survival of a "public journal?"
I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.
Does WW's emphasis on fairness mean that the opinionated chatter dominating cable TV in our century is outside his profession? What about the forms of "advocacy journalism" practiced in Europe and "entertainment journalism" on American cable TV? If these forms of mass communication are, in the 21st century, considered inside WW's "profession of journalism," how should this sentence be rewritten?
Does the admonition for "clear thinking" imply a more reflective approach than is possible with the growing pressure for instant news production, live reporting and blogs in the 21st century?
This sentence may address what journalists later would call the agenda-setting role of journalists -- to bring before the community the issues of importance. Today, however, the capabilities of digital delivery systems for personalized news extracted from vast quantities of information threaten that agenda-setting role of journalism. Would Williams applaud or would he be concerned about this decline in the power of agenda setting that journalists exercise?
I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.
What does this sentence imply about the growing use of man-on-the-street broadcast interviews and Web-passed instant polls that the reporter knows have no scientific validity? Does our creed need to be revised to allow for information we're not sure is true -- but certainly is interesting or entertaining?
What about live reporting while a journalist still is gathering information to determine what is true? Does this sentence of the creed need to be rewritten to reflect the instant-communication technologies that were not possible during WW's generation?
I believe that suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the welfare of society, is indefensible.
Media and marketing consultants are playing an increasing role in defining what newsrooms should and should not cover in order to build audiences. Complete topics are described as readership/audience killers. Is it defensible for a journalist to bow to these pressures to keep his/her job or to preserve the news organization's financial stability? How can WW's creed be adjusted to reflect the growing financial, marketing and ownership pressures on journalists?
What about journalists in dictatorships like China where personal survival prevents writing what one knows to be true? How do we rewrite these two sentences to acknowledge the compromises that journalists must make to continue to function in totalitarian environments?
I believe that no one should write as a journalist what he would not say as a gentleman; that bribery by one's own pocketbook is as much to be avoided as bribery by the pocketbook of another; that individual responsibility may not be escaped by pleading another's instructions or another's dividends.
Don't write (or broadcast) what you would not say as a gentleman (or lady)! Is that true today with the growing coverage of scandal? And, should it be? Do not some of the most important stories journalists produce involve topics that shock and disturb -- topics that you might not discuss in polite, gentile society? Does this sentence reflect an elitism of Williams that is out of touch with journalism of the 21st century? Or, alternatively, to what degree was this sentence written as an attack against the sensationalism that prevailed in WW's time that is akin to growing gossip and celebrity concentration of many outlets in the 21st century?
If WW meant that a journalist should not take a bribe, he could have written the second part of this sentence with much more simplicity. He was, after all, a gifted editor who knew how to cut out excess verbiage from a story. So, he must have meant to convey a more complex and substantive moral than just the standard of "don't accept a bribe." To what, then, was he referring in that phrase "bribery by the pocketbook of another" or the phrase "not escaped by pleading another's instructions or another's dividends?" What does this sentence say to us, a century later, about the marketing pressures imposed on newsrooms?
I believe that advertising, news and editorial columns should alike serve the best interests of readers; that a single standard of helpful truth and cleanness should prevail for all; that the supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service.
In WW's day, the editorial page represented the personal opinions of the publisher about what he/she felt was best for the community. Today, however, many newspaper and broadcast outlets are owned by corporate conglomerates with profit generation as the overriding objective. How can this sentence of the creed be crafted to reflect that corporate-ownership reality?
Should federal and state laws be changed to impose a public-service obligation on profit-making corporations that own news outlets? A few decades after WW's time, federal law imposed a public-service requirement on broadcast stations. Those requirements (public service and fairness in news) came under growing attack by journalists and have been largely abandoned (or unenforced). What position do you think WW would have taken in that debate?
I believe that the journalism which succeeds best -- and best deserves success -- fears God and honors Man; is stoutly independent, unmoved by pride of opinion or greed of power, constructive, tolerant but never careless, self-controlled, patient, always respectful of its readers but always unafraid, is quickly indignant at injustice; is unswayed by the appeal of privilege or the clamor of the mob; seeks to give every man a chance and, as far as law and honest wage and recognition of human brotherhood can make it so, an equal chance; is profoundly patriotic while sincerely promoting international good will and cementing world-comradeship; is a journalism of humanity, of and for today's world.
This is the longest sentence describing what WW held as beliefs that a journalist should hold. A century later, what should be added, deleted or changed? For example, should there continue to be an expectation that a journalist be religious, one who "fears God?" What values should be included that Williams left out -- respect for gender equality, diversity, democracy, etc.?
Williams writes that a journalist should be "profoundly patriotic." How has 9-11 changed the attitude of the current generation of journalists about personal patriotism? Has 9-11 made WW's statement about patriotism more or less relevant to journalists in the 21st century?
Missouri Digital News is produced by Missouri Digital News, Inc. -- a non profit organization of current and former journalists.