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What is the legacy of “the sixties” in journalism?

"New Journalism" influenced the daily production of news only around the edges, primarily in magazines. Investigative reporting that expanded during the Vietnam war years left a powerful legacy, but it is too expensive, risky, and timeconsuming to color much of daily news production. Did the cultural upheavals of the 1960s contribute in the long term to the practice of everyday news reporting?

Yes, very much so. Changes can be seen in both the way news is written and in the attitudes and self-images of the journalists who produce it. The biggest change may be that the sixties created an enduring set of doubts that authority can be trusted. "Question Authority" was a popular slogan of the day, reproduced on buttons and T-Shirts—and also in the habits of mind and heart that became almost second-nature in journalism.

Journalists came to question the authority of government officials and other sources, and news stories in major daily newspapers grew longer and more analytical. Sources came to be more carefully and fully identified. Not only did reporters show a new skepticism of their sources, but they no longer also assumed their audiences would accept their own work without question. At the same time, the reporter's voice found a place more often—not so much a personal voice, a la New Journalism, but a voice of intellectual judgment. This was not the reporter's personal judgment but the reporter reflecting an attitude that politicians and other authorities are human, fallible, and self-interested, and that their statements are political actions rather than descriptions of reality. Reporters were not necessarily naive about this earlier, but they were not reflective about the ways their own practices contributed to perpetuating the view that "the people in charge" basically knew what they were doing and wished only for the public good. In comparing ten daily papers from around the country from 1963 and 1999, a close observer of the news media was taken aback when he found in the 1963 papers that stories were "often not attributed at all, simply passing along an unquestioned, quasiofficial sense of things. The world view seemed white, male, middle-aged, and middle class, a comfortable and confident Optimist Club bonhomie."

When Meg Greenfield, editorial page editor of the Washington Post in the 1980s and 1990s, recalled her early career in Washington journalism in the 1950s, she confessed—that's her term—that in those days she had taken it for granted that the people she covered were "basically honest, competent, and usually effective." Newsroom culture in the 1950s assumed that "the people in charge in Washington knew best."

After Vietnam, after Watergate, after the rising level of educational attainment in the population at large and among journalists in particular, after the "question authority" revolution that journalists identified with so strongly, newsroom insouciance in Washington and elsewhere faded. News grew more negative and more critical of political leaders; reporters asked more assertive and probing questions of presidents in news conferences; stories grew longer and offered context that quoted sources did not provide. They referred more to the past and to the future; they moved decisively from an emphasis on "who, what, when, where" to consideration of "why."

In a study that Katherine Fink and Michael Schudson conducted of three US newspapers from the 1950s to the early 2000s, the percentage of front-page stories judged "contextual" rather than "conventional" in the style of reporting increased (in all three papers) from under 10% to about 50% . The largest change came in the late 1960s and 1970s, but change continued in the same direction—toward more contextual reporting—at each measured point thereafter. A growing body of research converges in its portrayal of a shift toward increasingly vigorous and in some respects adversarial treatment of government officials, political candidates, and their policies.

The growth of contextual journalism represents a much larger quantitative change in news content than a reallocation of effort to investigative reporting. This had something to do with Vietnam. It had something to do with Watergate. But very similar findings appear in European journalism at the same time. Separate studies from Norway, Sweden, France, and Germany—of newspapers and of public broadcasting, too—all demonstrate a growing skeptical and critical edge in the same years. All show, as well, that reporters were more willing to intervene and interject in speaking to or speaking about politicians rather than simply hand over the responsibility for the communication to the political figures themselves.

So why the change? There is no simple answer, but we suspect that a growing prevalence of college education among journalists and a growing insistence on news professionalism had a lot to do with it. This was coupled with a new democratizing trend that took politicians (and doctors and lawyers and clergy and college professors) several steps down from their pedestals.

Question authority! Journalists came to believe that their field had a special public obligation to do exactly that.

 
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