I’m There, You’re Not, Let Me Tell You About It

Mar.
27
A Brief Essay on the Origins of Authority in Journalism

A few months ago at PressThink, I published Voice of San Diego’s guidelines for new reporters. They say:

Write with authority. You earn the right to write with authority by reporting and working hard.

Which is true. The way I like to phrase that idea is in the title of this post: “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” This, I think, is the original source–headwaters–for all forms of authority in journalism.

By “authority” I simply mean the right to be listened to, a legitimate claim on public attention. You begin to have authority as a journalist not when you work for a brand name in news (although that helps) but when you offer a report that users cannot easily get on their own. If we go way back in journalism history, the first people to claim this kind of authority were those who could say… I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.

1.

Perhaps the first people to be employed as professional correspondents were letter writers hired by rich merchants and bankers in early modern Europe. These correspondents lived in cities from which the banker or businessman needed regular reports. Their letters conveyed much the same news that a trader would want today: prices, conditions for trade and transport, what the local authorities were up to, rumors of war, court news and gossip, business disruptions. The most famous examples are the newsletters written for the House of Fugger, perhaps the most powerful banking family in Germany in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Here’s a sample:

Insolvencies at the Exchange at Antwerp
From Antwerp, 9th December 1570

Here the Genoese have arranged a competition at the Exchange & because of it two Genoese houses have gone bankrupt this week: they are Giovanni Grimaldi & then Pedro Francesco et Pedro Christophoro Spinola, who have behind them all the Germans here. It has always been regarded as a well-established business, & has long traded in this town. The creditors kept of good cheer. It is, however, to be feared that it may be with this as with other bankruptcies. At first there is ever enough on hand, but in the end no-one can obtain anything…

This bankruptcy has put an end to credit among the Genoese. Within the space of a few years many bankruptcies have taken place, but I have never seen such excitement on the Exchange as there is regarding this. They are owing a large amount, but no-one knows how much, for their books have not as yet been balanced.

It will probably not end with these two, but they will drag others down of their nation with them.

What is this, but a dispatch from 442 years ago on the difficulty of valuing toxic assets? “I’m in Antwerp. You, the Fugger family, are not. Let me tell you about two big bankruptcies.” Reporting! At a minimum, it involves a correspondent, an event, and a report, but also—and this is the part we tend to overlook–recipients who have a stake but can’t be there themselves to see how their investment fares.

In my example from 1570, that part is played by the Fugger family. It’s tempting to say that they were among the founders of modern journalism, but we can’t for a simple reason. The newsletters they paid for didn’t circulate publicly. They weren’t meant for public eyes at all. They were a private intelligence network for a rich family that had a stake in Antwerp’s business climate but couldn’t be there. The public, you see, hadn’t been invented yet. The advantage of this system is that the correspondent with a single house to inform is easily instructable.

2.

Here’s the example I would use in the classroom to make certain that every student understood what I meant by, “I’m there, you’re not…” It’s a clip of Edward R. Murrow reporting from London for American audiences during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Indulge me for a moment (actually a minute, thirty-nine seconds) and listen to it. Go on, I’ll wait…

Murrow is there. We’re not. His report has an unmistakeable authority, not only because we can hear the air raid sirens and feel the urgency in the air, not only because he’s good at telling us what he sees, but also because we feel for the Londoners and don’t want Hitler’s Luftwaffe to win. That’s our stake. Yet we’re an ocean away. Like the House of Fugger we can’t know how our investment is faring without a correspondent who is on scene and able to tell us.

Shared language, shared assumptions, a similar-enough consciousness across reporter and recipients: these make possible the depiction of reality. Had Murrow been there and said: “Tonight in London, God is crying. Here, listen…” the sound of air raid sirens would still be heard, but his report would shatter in the clash of worldviews: secular vs. religious.

So there’s a lot packed into that plea: Let me tell you about it. No one can be informed without her consent. Information requires for its transmittal the user’s grant of attention. Among the prerequisites for reporting to take its course is a shared world, a weave of common assumptions, connecting reporter to recipient. If that breaks apart so does the possibility of there being any journalism. There has to be some stake, or who cares about a bankruptcy in Antwerp? And it has to be difficult to know how our investment is faring without the work of the reporter.

I’m sorry if some of this seems obvious. It’s like the frame around a painting. Obvious, but if you’ve been staring at the painting for a good while, maybe not.

3.

I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it… is headwaters for a whole system of authority in journalism. Further downstream we find:

“I reviewed those documents, you couldn’t–you were too busy raising your family, trying to pay the mortgage–so let me tell you what they show.” (Link.)

“We interviewed the workers who were on that drilling platform when it exploded, you didn’t, let us tell you what they said.” (Link.)

“I found out how that bill died in Congress. You didn’t have access to the key players. Let me tell you what I learned.” (Link.)

“We fact checked that statement, you didn’t, let us tell you what we found.” (Link.)

As Voice of San Diego said, authority originates in hard work–reporting!–but also in the conditions that prevent the users from doing that work themselves. We can describe those conditions in either spatial or temporal terms. “I’m there, you’re not…” is a more spatial image. “I took the time to look through those documents, you couldn’t…” is temporal. Something I teach my students: the simplest way to create value in journalism is to save the user time. As in, “I give you the most interesting parts of the Facebook IPO so you don’t have to dig through it.”

4.

Let’s bring my story up to the present. “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it” isn’t limited to professional journalists. That should be obvious to everyone by now. The tools for staking this kind of claim have been distributed to the population at large. So rather than decide, “who’s a journalist?” we should focus on who’s doing the work. Who’s there when we’re not and ready to tell us about it?

Tim Pool has made a name for himself by live streaming the action around the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City. He simply carries his camera into events and shows what’s going on: live, over the web, for free. He sometimes has a few hundred viewers and at other times his audience swells to 10,000 or more. Starting at about 28:05 in the clip below, Pool comes upon people letting the air out of the tires of New York City police cars, which of course is an illegal and provocative act. He is met with hostility and attempts to keep him from broadcasting, but he continues to broadcast.



Video streaming by Ustream

As he later told On The Media, “When we’re at something as pivotal, something as historic as that night, the camera’s not going off. Especially since we had a very large amount of people watching, and I have an obligation to those people to let them know what’s happening.”

In other words, “I’m there, you’re not and no one’s going to stop me from telling you about it.”

27 Comments

  1. Jay Schiavone says:

    Of all the the Tim Pool reporting you give us the incident of law-breaking #OWS types being deliberately provocative. The main problem with your observation of the merit of “I’m There, Your Not” is, as your last example demonstrates, the greater power of omission in framing the story. No wonder we don’t like those occupy kids: those poor cops. We get mainly reporting, no matter the source, that has passed through the mainstream filter. Occasionally the bigger story sneaks out, as when Shep Smith finally explodes with indignation on FNC. But, in the main, there are stewards of our news, like Prof. Rosen, who pull back the curtain being careful not to disrupt the status quo. I would like to believe that reporters could give us the news the public might not want to hear, but your there, I’m not.

    • Mary Mazzocco says:

      Isn’t the bigger point that Tim Pool, an average guy who is “acting like a journalist” without the backing of a big news organization, still has the integrity to cover #OWS objectively? And that if you want to get outside the filters of the major media, isn’t it good to have smaller operators with high standards? Or is coverage just supposed to be an echo chamber, like FN?

  2. Interestingly enough Jay, I think there’s a few brief lines in this post which ties the origins of authority in journalism into a lot of the reasons why so many of us are conflicted about paywalls. For reasons that are not– generally speaking– economic ones.

    “In my example from 1570, that part is played by the Fugger family. It’s tempting to say that they were among the founders of modern journalism, but we can’t for a simple reason. The newsletters they paid for didn’t circulate publicly. They weren’t meant for public eyes at all. They were a private intelligence network for a rich family that had a stake in Antwerp’s business climate but couldn’t be there. The public, you see, hadn’t been invented yet.”

    In the emerging ecosystem of the net, where information circulates, is deliberately targeted at a variety of factions and “sub-altern counter publics” (hey! Nancy Fraser!), and various walls and velvet ropes filter access in a variety of ways, I think our understanding of what the public is, is changing.

    I don’t think a paywall turns a public news provider into a “private intelligence network,” nor do I think that a political news letter does so either, but I think that the line is far harder to draw than it used to be, and it is becoming more complicated all the time.

    I am sure at this point that paywall advocates will point out that the news has always “cost money” and was never free- wasn’t a 50cent newsstand price a limitation on the public? Yes, but: there is a major sea change when a news organization changes its business strategy from increasing visibility of information and reporting at all costs (the general strategy prior to 2005) to limiting it in oder to create a revenue enhancing condition os scarcity.

    My frustration with the paywall argument stems from news organizations deep inability to understand how these questions of democracy are inevitably problematized by arguments about the bottom line.

    Reporting *and* the public. That’s where journalistic authority comes from, right?

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Hi Chris. You are right to raise this issue. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot.

      My sense of the line is that it’s not free/pay so much as private/public. Here’s what I mean. Part of the value to the House of Fugger in employing agents in European cities to write news letters back to HQ in Augsburg is in the news itself, knowing what’s happening in Antwerp, Venice, Lisbon. But another part of the value is precisely that this news did not circulate, except within the Fugger empire. It was worth paying for only because others did not have it.

      Versus… It’s worth paying for because “everyone” (a figure of speech) is talking about it. This is where the line can be found, if there is one. Not free/paid but whether news has value because it’s a public possession and you want to be part of the public that possesses it… or the news has value because you think you can be part of a private network with superior information to everyone else, in which case you pay because the public is in the dark but you, the informed elite, are not.

      Obviously there are different implications for the work of the journalist between these two possibilities.

  3. Bryan Murley says:

    You begin to have authority as a journalist not when you work for a brand name in news (although that helps) but when you offer a report that users cannot easily get on their own.

    I would argue that prior to the age of the Web, most journalistic authority was explicitly tied up in the brand names of news. A byline, or opportunity to speak on air, was not given to every person, because not every person had a printing press or broadcast tower.

    You could argue that “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it” was operative before the printing press, but it’s not adequate in the age of mass media.

  4. John O'Neil says:

    This is great, but I think the analysis could go a little further. Along with
    1. I am there
    2. You are not

    there’s also
    3. You can hear me
    4. You have some reason to want to listen to me rather than somebody else

    And I think it’s #4 where things have gotten much more complicated, because #3 and #4 used to go together in much simpler ways.

    During the Blitz, we in the US couldn’t hear from everybody in London, only those with a broadcast channel. So we could hear Murrow because he worked for CBS, and part of his authority came because he worked for CBS. And the value of being the purveyor of a scarce good was a relatively stable thing, as there were huge barriers to becoming, say, a competitor to CBS.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Yes. So another way to say this is that authority in journalism is more fractured today.

      • Andrew Selbst says:

        This fracturing, I think, does a lot to explain why people think of professional journalism outlets being the source of authority in journalism in the first place. When there is more available, we need a source of accreditation, and brands fill that void. (This is the entire point of brands more generally and the basis of trademark law.) However, in the age of social media and ubiquitous crowdsourced ranking systems, we have other methods of accreditation emerging, and that’s what’s killing the brands. (Compare yelp and chain restaurants .)

        All that is to say that I think there are two senses of the word “authority” at play in this discussion, one being what you discuss and one essentially meaning accreditation. It seems to me that the ideas are pretty distinct. “Authority” seems to apply to the legitimacy of the act of reporting generally, and “accreditation” to the value of a particular report or reporter.

  5. Taylor says:

    That first grouping, as Habermas points out in the Structural Transformation of Public Sphere, basically boils down to “actionable intelligence briefings”, which still exists within a lot of companies and trade organizations and the CIA, etc.

    Framing media in terms of actionable intelligence is an interesting counterpoint to the majority of local newspaper and TV news reporting, which actually provides content stripped of or decontextualized from of actionable info and re-inflated with “personality”.

  6. Terry Heaton says:

    The account that Luke wrote for the people of Christian faith in the 1st Century, begins thusly:

    “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus…”

    Whether one believes the account or not, the writer is essentially saying, “I’m (Was) There, You(’re Were) Not, Let Me Tell You About It

  7. Reminds me of something Doc Searls wrote:

    (…) What we call “authority” is the right we give others to author us, to enlarge us.(…)

    I think that accommodates most of the factors mentioned above. The right we give to (pro/am) journalists to author us is earned by consistent value delivery, a common frame of reference, opportunity, scarcity of time and place, and – more generally – trust: either personal trust or trust accredited through a larger brand.

    I let the BBC author me with news, even if I’ve never heard of the reporter, because I value the consistency in their reporting standards. I let Jay author me with meta-journalism because I find his analysis and opinion always stimulating.

  8. Michael Hill says:

    I first heard the term “write with authority” in 1993 when I was a fledgling foreign correspondent in Johannesburg as the first democratic election was approaching. It was spoken to me by a veteran, a Pulitzer winner, who said my paper, the Baltimore Sun, had sent me there to tell its readers what was going on — just as Edward R. Murrow did from London — not to do a “he said, she said” rendition. It was the best advice I got. But to do that properly, there is a huge caveat — you’d better be right. And how to get there? Let me give a shout out to a oft-criticized concept: objectivity. That is, I had better not go into these stories with a preconceived agenda if I want to find authority. I could only get there after open-minded reporting that weighs all sorts of possibilities. In other words, I better be objective, listening to a lot of what he said and she said before deciding what I say. By the way, the reporter who gave me that advice, and followed it at a level I could only aspire to, was Bill Keller.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Michael. I agree completely about the importance of not going into the story with a preconceived agenda. But to me that is a principle of intellectual honesty and professional integrity. It’s not clear to me why you’d want to call that “objectivity.” Are you saying that a journalist with a point of view cannot approach a story with an open mind? That seems awfully mechanical to me. Dogmatic, in fact.

      • Tom Klein says:

        That’s because you have never been in a situation as a working journalist that challenges your preconceptions and biases. Your entire argument was formulated within the bubble of academia. You’d have ‘authority’ on the subject if you could speak from experience. You know having been “there.”

        • Terry Heaton says:

          Mr Klein’s reply is one I’ve heard before regarding academics and other “outsiders” whenever their observations are counter to the status quo. The suggestion that only those inside an institutional velvet rope can truly understand certain matters is an empty relic of cultural modernity. I think this is especially true in this day and age. We need to see that such a position can and does blind us to innovation, and for media today, this is suicide. It’s hard to think outside the box when the only thing you know IS the box.

  9. Since you pulled out that line from the VOSD guidelines, Jay, I wanted to give it proper citation — it’s something I once heard the Seattle Times’ David Boardman say.

  10. I agree completely about the importance of not going into the story with a preconceived agenda. But to me that is a principle of intellectual honesty and professional integrity. It’s not clear to me why you’d want to call that “objectivity.” Are you saying that a journalist with a point of view cannot approach a story with an open mind? That seems awfully mechanical to me. Dogmatic, in fact.

    Earlier, in your discussion of Murrow, your claim was much stronger than merely allowing “a point of view.” Earlier, you insisted on a point of view, citing two criteria: ideology and discourse.

    Ideologically, you insisted that Murrow’s reporting would have been invalid had it come to a pro-Nazi conclusion, even if that conclusion had been arrived at through a process of intellectual honesty and professional integrity. In other words, I’m here. You’re not. Let me tell you about it as long as it conforms to your previously held anti-Nazi ideology.

    Discursively, you insisted that Murrow’s reporting would have been invalid had it resorted to a non-journalistic frame of reference — for example, a theological one — in order to explain what he observed. In other words, I’m here. You’re not. Let me tell you about it as long as the telling conforms to a set of journalistic norms.

    There is a variety of ways to offer a non-fictional account of events, of which journalism is just one. The academic, the scientist, the pollster, the forensic eyewitness, the anthropologist, the theologian may each offer his own account of reality and not be engaging in journalism, which filters events and prioritizes them according to the demands of its own discourse — for newsworthiness, vividness, emotional involvement, controversy, for example.

    The authority that imposes these straitjackets of ideology and discourse derive from the public receiving the journalism, not from the presence of the reporter on the scene doing it. I’m here. You’re not. Let me tell you about it. But, first, I agree to abide by your rules on what will make the telling sound like authoritative journalism.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      I don’t disagree with your fundamental point, Andrew.

      I’d phrase it a little differently: “But, first, we have to agree on some rules about what will make the telling sound like authoritative journalism….”

      But we’re getting into the nuances of what I have argued here, so things get more complicated.

      Ideologically, you insisted that Murrow’s reporting would have been invalid had it come to a pro-Nazi conclusion…

      Not so much invalid as non-communicative for an American audience. That a Nazi victory over Britain would be terrible belongs to the sphere of consenus, on this model…

      http://archive.pressthink.org/2009/01/12/atomization.html

      …and as such is a premise of the kind of reporting Murrow was doing. And yes, I am trying to suggest in this post that an act of reporting always has such premises underlying it, even when it may seem otherwise.

      I don’t see that as the same question as: Can a reporter with a point of view go into a reporting situation without a preconceived idea of what he will find? But I would say that no reporter can go into a journalistic situation without prior assumotions of some kind.

      Discursively, you insisted that Murrow’s reporting would have been invalid had it resorted to a non-journalistic frame of reference….

      Not so much invalid as impossible. The result of the report would be a clash of worldviews, not an account of what happened.

  11. Tom Klein says:

    Mr. Heaton: Not sure how the ideas set forth in this blog post swim against the stream. You’d be hard pressed to find a serious newsroom that doesn’t want “reporting and working hard.”
    your comments sound a lot like a ‘new media’ consultant justifying his existence — something I’ve heard a lot of.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      You’re just a hater, “Tom.” That’s why you come here: to hate. And as the Internet expression has it, “haters gonna hate.” Meaning: nothing we can do about it. No one’s going to stop you. So keep on hating. We all recognize what it’s about. Oh, and cheers. :-)

  12. I’ve never thought I was smarter than my audience. But yeah, often I’m there and they’re not. And I have more time for research than they do. That’s my value to them.

  13. BensonP says:

    Oddly, the word “truth” does not appear anywhere in your essay on “Authority in Journalism”.

    Without truth… any supposed ‘authority’ is mere posturing.

    Journalists earn authority — it is not a “right” they are born with or bestow upon themselves. A practical record of accurate & reliable information is the only cause of any valid ‘authority’ — and that authority can only be granted by the audience.

    The “I’m here, You’re not” stuff is bogus. Billions of people are constantly somewhere — and have little or no understanding of what’s actually going on around them, beyond the mundane issues of life. Eye-Witness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Truth-Telling (journalism) requires knowledge & effort — not ‘authority’.

    _____

    ” To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle. ”

    — Eric Blair (aka George Orwell)

    _________

    • Jay Rosen says:

      You’re right. I didn’t argue this case through the central value of truthtelling, though I often do that and write criticism precisely along those lines…

      http://pressthink.org/2012/01/so-whaddaya-think-should-we-put-truthtelling-back-up-there-at-number-one/

      I was trying something different here. Assuming a variety of truthful reports from different kinds of observers, which ones have a specifically journalistic authority and value? Where does this originate. I say it originates in a certain kind of claim the early creatures called correspondents made to their first employers: I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.

      We could just as easily state it from the employers end: You’re there, we’re not, what say you tell us about it, … and keep your eye out for these things…..

      My argument at this URL is: If we go way back in the system by which journalism first asserted its value as a social practice, and the derivations on those original ideas still with us today, like the $5000 a year oil industry newsletter, which is just the House of Fugger in a slightly different form…. if we go way back, we are going to find a version of: I’m there, You’re Not, Let me Tell You About It.

      http://archive.pressthink.org/2008/04/22/business_model.html

      So let’s bring that idea forward: one of journalism’s classic derivations, useful in old fashioned and newfangled reporting, especially business reporting: I’m there, you’re not…

      Jay Rosen

  14. Nowadays, being in a “reporting situation” is only one of many ways that new media deliver non-fiction information, and journalism is only one of several discourses for delivering reportage. The recent disgrace of Mike Daisey and the death of Andrew Breitbart prompted me to pen this op-ed on Post-Journalism Media for The Hollywood Reporter.