Tom Rosenstiel, American Press Institute - How can American journalism get its groove (and audience) back

Tom Rosenstiel, American Press Institute
How can American journalism get its groove (and audience) back


There’s a reason it’s called news, because the content is always meant to be as fresh and new as possible.  Updating the old is a recognition — no, a celebration — of a basic fact of life: change, which is what news is all about.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the harshest critics of the American news media should be people most opposed to change on principle, or who dislike the changes they see happening in America.

These people are by far the largest of the four groups of Americans interviewed in 2019 and 2020 as part of a study done for the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

The four groups are clustered according to their adherence to five moral values, and of the five, the three valued most highly by this 35 percent chunk of the national poll are Authority, Loyalty and Purity.  The other two virtues, Care and Fairness attracted lower levels of zeal from the group the study called The Upholders.

Frankly, I would call them The Sheep since their orientation is to follow The Leader (Authority) without question (Loyalty) along the path prescribed from above (Purity).

The Goats, a.k.a. in the study’s terms, The Journalism Supporters, the Moralists and The Indifferent are all, if not “aginners,” more independent thinkers, and all heavier subscribers to the virtues of caring and fairness.

Here’s the good news, with the exception of the 21 percent identified as Indifferent who proudly tune out the news, the other 79 percent of the crowd read, listen and watch.  The bad news is how many of them consume the news and wind up with intellectual indigestion. But, they do want news, even if most of them wish it was better.

The study concluded the problem is a clash of values.  Of the five assigned to journalism … a devotion to the facts is the value that gets consistent majority support from all four groups. Two of the study’s journalistic values get approval from just under half the sample, the news as the voice of the underdog, and as the watchdog of government performance.  The two least popular values are transparency and social criticism.

I think the seven out of 10 resistance to social criticism is the assumption that criticism is negative, which it need not be.  Of course, I  could easily be subsumed in those two more popular categories… journalistic oversight, and what I would call “undersight,” the observations and insights not of professional reporters, but of a wide and diverse chorus of voices, some from under-represented communities; some not. Ditching social criticism would open a spot for something disastrously missing from the Media Insight Project values list and from too many news presentations: context.  The background and connective information that gives those very popular facts their meaning.

But here’s the most shocking absence from the discussion … what that Hall of Fame journalist Dr. Samuel Johnson said almost 250 years ago: “The value of every story depends on its being true.” Truth, now there’s a journalistic value every news consumer could support.



Tom Rosenstiel is one of the most recognized thinkers in the country on the future of news and the author of 10 books, including three novels. Before joining the American Press Institute in January 2013, he was founder and for 16 years director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, one of the five original projects of the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. He was co-founder and vice chair of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

His first novel, Shining City (2017), about a supreme court nomination, was an NPR Book of the Year. His second, The Good Lie (2019), about a terrorist incident, was a Washington Post best seller. His third, Oppo, about a presidential campaign, was published in December 2019.

Among his seven books on journalism, politics and ethics is The Elements of Journalism: What News People Should Know and the Public Should Expect, co-authored with Bill Kovach, which has been translated into more than 25 languages and is used widely in journalism education worldwide. It has been called “a modern classic” (NYT) and one of the five best books ever written on journalism (WSJ). Tom’s media criticism, his nonfiction books and his research work at API and at PEJ have generated more than 50,000 academic citations.

During his journalism career he worked as media writer for the Los Angeles Times for a decade, chief congressional correspondent for Newsweek, press critic for MSNBC, business editor of the Peninsula Times Tribune, a reporter for Jack Anderson’s Washington Merry Go ‘Round column, and began his career at the Woodside Country Almanac in his native northern California.

He is the winner of the Goldsmith book Award from Harvard, four Sigma Delta Chi Awards for Journalism Research from SPJ and four awards for national for media criticism from Penn State. He has been named a fellow of the Society of Professional Journalists, the organization’s highest honor, the Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism from the University of Missouri Journalism School, the Dewitt Carter Reddick Award for Outstanding Professional Achievement in the Field of Communications from the University of Texas at Austin, and the Columbia Journalism School Distinguished Alumni Award.




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