A constant and frequent complaint about journalism is that it concentrates almost exclusively on what is happening now, and not the future. Why didn’t journalists see the financial crash coming? Why didn’t they know there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Why didn’t they warn about Enron’s house of cards? Why didn’t they do more, in advance, on the climate changes that helped cause Hurricane Sandy in the United States last October? Journalists sometimes join in on this to beat themselves up – especially on the Iraqi WMD issue – because they feel foolish about giving credence to claims that turned out to be wrong, or about not asking the right questions.
Besides, the trend in a lot of the media is toward more scandal, more controversy and more opining. There are publications and broadcasts and news agencies (such as this one) that are wedded to objective reporting, investigation and rational analysis, but they are in the minority, and a lot of them are finding it hard to make a living these days.
The Web allows news organizations to make much more multimedia and source material available to audiences that have swollen in size (though many visit websites only briefly). But most new media accentuate the trend of covering the here and now, since they allow reporting and publication in, or much closer to, real time.
Of course, that’s in large part what the function of news. But journalists’ own assessment of their mission is that it must hold power to account, inform the citizenry of all issues in the public interest and adequately cover the significant institutions and events of society and the world. You can say it has never adequately done so. Regardless, it has the tools to do better now.
Fulfilling that “Sunday best” definition of our job means, more than ever, looking into the future. Not to pronounce on things we can’t know – whether or not there were WMDs in Iraq, just when the financial crash would come, etc. – but to focus on the long-term strategic issues that set the context within which politicians and institutions plan and which will be of enormous importance to us, and even more, our children. Understanding, describing and making intelligible these large questions is holding power to account, is informing the citizenry, is covering the significant.