Orienting to Journalism: The Ever-Changing Now

Carlin Romano

Read the preface to this essay series here.

All professions require the people who work in them to know a lot, and to continue to learn. In the United States, lawyers learn the basics of the law in law school, or as a major in law, then pick up much of the practical aspects of the profession through actual practice after law school. At the same time, they must periodically engage in what we call “continuing education,” so that they keep alert to changes in the law.

Life turns out much the same for medical students, though their education is significantly more practical than that of law students. After studying biology and chemistry as undergraduates, they learn the basics of the human body, disease and injury at medical school, while accumulating clinical experience as well. Following that experience, they work as so-called interns, residents and fellows, building up still more clinical experience and knowledge before they become full-fledged physicians. Like lawyers, they must participate at times in forms of continuing education, particularly in their specialties.

Yet lawyers and doctors orient themselves to new information in relative slow motion. While legal systems change and evolve, they tend to do so slowly and, in almost all societies, the changes are public and easily accessible. While doctors must stay aware of new drugs, techniques and diseases, the human body itself, how it is constructed, how its problems may be addressed and cured, largely stays constant. To a certain extent, the lawyer and doctor need not pay constant attention to what’s happening in the world to pretty much get things right in their work.

Journalists, by contrast, face a much stiffer challenge when it comes to comprehending the world around them. The world is new, and full of new facts, every day. What was true yesterday may not be true today, and vice versa. Major and minor changes take place, both in the areas one writes or broadcasts about, and elsewhere. To make matters more difficult, journalists must write or broadcast about them very quickly, exposing themselves to criticism or ridicule or even firing if they make a mistake. The doctor or lawyer who misses some development in her or his field may not get called on it for a considerable amount of time. The journalist who makes mistakes in print or on air will be in trouble very quickly.

So one of the greatest challenges of journalism is the need to pay attention, to keep up constantly on what’s happening in the world and one’s area—to orient oneself to what I call, in my title, the ever-changing now.

As a result, journalism stands as a paradigm practice that exemplifies many observations of Werner Stegmaier, the foremost philosopher of orientation. Much of Stegmaier’s philosophy examines larger abstract and metaphysical aspects of orientation in a Kantian mode, pondering the preconditions of orientation, and such puzzles as what he and his translator, Reinhard G. Mueller, call “the recursive self-referentiality of orientation.” But when Stegmaier focuses on direct, or what some philosophers call first-order forms of orientation, he provides a context for the more concrete forms of journalistic orientation I examine and explain in this essay. In that mode, Stegmaier captures much of the viewpoint of journalists, though with some differences that may ultimately amount to differences in emphasis.  Let me, then, first set out some of that context.

In his introduction to What is Orientation? A Philosophical Investigation, the abridged English-language edition of his major German-language work on the subject, Stegmaier asks of philosophy, at the outset, what I’d like to ask of journalism in this essay: “Can we, with philosophy, face the rapid changes of our world that so severely confuse our orientation? Can philosophy understand how to keep up with the times?” Stegmaier writes that “we assume today that change in all areas of life, including its most basic conditions, will continue to accelerate, making our world ever more unsurveyable and uncertain as time goes on.”

Many journalists would agree with his first three clauses while demurring on the fourth. They’d disagree with the fourth because journalism’s currency is “facts,” or claims that can be verified as true or provisionally true even amid a host of other uncertainties. To many journalists, it’s not clear that the world is becoming “ever more unsurveyable and uncertain.” Many might assert the opposite: that in our increasingly globalized, digital world, we confidently know more things and places than ever before—that our world is actually ever more surveyable and full of certainty, though much remains uncertain.

When Stegmaier defines orientation as, “in common understanding, the achievement of finding one’s way in an unsurveyable and uncertain situation so that one can successfully master the situation,” such journalists would protest, “a situation is not unsurveyable and uncertain because some aspects of it are.” Such journalists would add, “A situation is never completely unsurveyable and uncertain because we almost always start with some surveyable and certain facts about it.”

Happily, a full reading of Stegmaier’s book alleviates most of this concern. It suggests that some of the problem lies in Stegmaier not qualifying his claims early on as carefully as he does later.

It’s not clear, for instance, that Stegmaier means to describe the place of uncertainty in a situation of orientation in such an absolutist form. Elsewhere, he acknowledges that “Any orientation, in everyday life as well as in philosophy, is preceded by other orientations; orientations are always reorientations.” Here, Stegmaier’s view aligns with that of journalists, who would say they approach every story with a pocketful of trusted facts (e.g., “Emmanuel Macron is the President of this country I am covering”) and general surveyable conceptions of the terrain to be covered (e.g., “I am in France, which has, in many respects, a conventionally accepted history and territory”).

It also aligns with the common sense view that, in everyday life, with its established societal beliefs and structures, even pragmatists start from a foundation of some beliefs, however provisional. Indeed, some pages later, Stegmaier writes, “Orientation is usually understood as an achievement in finding one’s way in a new situation,” leaving out any sense of absolute uncertainty or unsurveyability in that new situation.

If one takes Stegmaier’s view to be the latter, and interprets the “absolutist” conception of uncertainty in a situation to be an unintended implication of some early sentences, his view falls into line with the overarching pragmatist direction of his book—that orientation, an activity Peirce, James and Dewey mostly would have recognized under different terms (such as “inquiry”), helps organisms in the world to overcome obstacles in an effort to survive. Stegmaier indeed notes that James once called pragmatism “an attitude of orientation.” Orientation, in other words, precedes decision-making, and here one grasps the existentialist aspect of his philosophy of orientation as well, for Stegmaier recognizes that we always face “alternatives” in life from which we must choose, and particularly in situations that mix certainty and uncertainty.

In the same vein, Stegmaier argues, “If every orientation is the achievement of dealing with a specific situation, be it private, social, or global, then orientation as a whole is the ability to keep up with the times: the strength to make decisions in ever-new situations on how things may continue to run successfully…” In exercising that ability, “we rely…on observations,” the stock in trade of journalists.

Stegmaier thus rewards one’s considered judgment that his larger view of direct orientation segues with pragmatism, secular existentialism  and common sense. He writes, a couple of pages later, that his investigation of orientation writ large “proceeds from the simple fact that one must already be oriented in everything one does, thinks, or says, in everyday life as well as in science and philosophy, and even when adopting orientations from others.”

With this understanding of Stegmaier in place, let me turn to the more concrete, empirical place of orientation in the practice of journalists and in their lives—how journalism’s imperative toward orientation plays out in the real world. Are you thinking of becoming a journalist? Let me speak to you directly.

For tyro journalists, I’d first warn, orientation must be connected to personality. Aspiring journalists should ask themselves some questions that challenge not just their intelligence and talent, but their very selves.

Do you enjoy following the news every day? Do you simply check the news for a few minutes each day? Do you care so much about the news that you arrange your day to make sure you’re getting it regularly, on your phone, on television, or elsewhere?

If you don’t actually enjoy following the news, if you don’t feel a kind of hunger to know what’s happening in the world every day–the way you might feel about not missing an episode of your favorite TV show or soap opera–you’ll probably find a life in journalism very unsatisfying. When the great American cultural critic Susan Sontag was dying of cancer, she said the part of her illness that most upset her was that she wouldn’t be around “to see how everything turns out.” That’s the kind of hunger for information and news I’m talking about.

Stegmaier, incidentally, appreciates this connection between one’s individuality and one’s angle of orientation, though he phrases it differently. He observes, “Orientation processes always take place in individuals….Individuals’ orientations are bound to their standpoints, perspectives, and horizons; to the clues they hold on to and the signs that are available; to their routines, beliefs, and identities…”

The journalist, I would argue, must begin with a personal avidity for orientation. Now let’s step back and think more about how journalism as a profession differs from professional activities like law and medicine. That helps one see how journalism’s form of orientation to the world also differs.

For a long time, most people did not see journalism as a “profession.” The word in English typically presumes a required kind of education, and a guild-like authoritative organization that licenses those who have proven their expertise and ability to handle the work of their field. Until recent times in the United States, many working journalists had never taken a journalism course or studied journalism. That has changed significantly in recent decades, with the explosion of journalism and media studies in American academe.

But it still remains true that one does not need a license or specific sort of education to become a journalist in the U.S., and there is no authoritative organization that licenses journalists, or can keep people from becoming journalists, or can punish them if they do something wrong. If someone thinks you’re good enough to be a print reporter, or a broadcaster, or a digital journalist, and hires you, guess what? You’re a journalist.

It is, in short, a much more free-wheeling profession in the United States than law, medicine, engineering or a number of other lines of work. That’s one reason journalism presents special challenges. Much of the terrain is less certain than in other fields. In the United States, at least, many people disagree about proper and improper practices in journalism. The disagreement expands when one looks at how media systems differ around the world, the core of one of the courses I teach at the University of Pennsylvania, “Comparative Journalism.”

Many countries, for instance, license journalists, and even require them to take a test before permitting them to work. In some countries, workers own and run the newspaper, broadcast station or digital news site. In some countries, the government owns and operates the newspaper, broadcast station or digital news site. So any journalist, and especially journalists who work in countries other than their own–such as foreign correspondents–must always be aware that the media system to which they are reporting may not be the same as the media system in which they are reporting.

In some countries, it’s considered okay and normal to occasionally pay sources for information, or accept money to publish a story. In others, it’s not. Orientation for a journalist requires not just attention to the broader aspects of the society or subject one is covering, but to the journalistic ground rules in the media cultures in which one works. The individual features that mark journalism in a host of different cultures means that a journalist’s precise orientation in any given place will differ far more than that of a physician, or even a lawyer.

A whole different type of orientation involves the trench-level practices one needs to absorb in order to accomplish the very act of writing a story, of reporting the news. Some of these practices may be more similar across cultures. Let me turn to a few of those.

Successfully performing as a journalist involves knowing how to get the information one needs to write or broadcast an assigned story. We now live in a digital world full of misinformation and fake news. This triggers more questions the journalist must look in the mirror and ask. Are you able to distinguish sources that provide accurate information from those that don’t? Are you sufficiently familiar with the basics of a story (there’s that requirement again of keeping on top of things) to be able to tell when you’re being fed false information, or when a source is lying to you? Over time, an excellent journalist develops a kind of special sense—Stegmaier might call it a special orientation instinct—for sniffing that out, the way someone in the restaurant or grocery business can tell better than anyone else when food has gone bad.

Pulling together one’s information to write a story requires yet further skills of orientation. Part of gathering facts as a journalist almost always involves interviewing people, from officials to ordinary citizens, and working with people, such as public relations professionals, to receive prepared materials. A part of any journalist’s skill set must be an ability to read people, to accurately size up their personalities. To get a sense of when it’s okay to joke with them and when it’s not. To sense when a certain question may provoke a source to get up and end the interview, or not. To understand which questions may be too invasive or offensive.

This is a skill that, as with all else in journalism, improves the more you know whom you’re dealing with. Smart journalists may research a figure who has a public record to get a better understanding of how to interview that figure. With strangers without a public record, such as ordinary people interviewed in the wake of a disaster or unexpected event, it can be helpful to ask some initial questions about the person himself or herself, to better judge one’s approach with further questions.

A second form of orientation in gathering facts involves paying attention to what other journalists are simultaneously writing and reporting when one is covering something to which many other journalists are also assigned. Sometimes a journalist is a lone wolf, the only reporter in a place or on a particular subject. More often, and this is particularly true with political reporting, one is competing with many other journalists attending the same news conference, or covering the same public events. Without ever plagiarizing the work of others, it’s always important to keep up with what one’s peers are writing or broadcasting, in case you’ve missed something important or gotten something wrong. It’s not easy, but it’s part of the job.

Here, too, it’s worthwhile to note in passing that Stegmaier appreciates this point, without specifically applying it to journalism. “Orientation assures,” he asserts, “that one quickly knows with what or whom `one is dealing’…and whether one can `make use’ of it or not.”

A still further challenge of journalism is time management. Journalists must orient themselves to the fast-paced reality of the trade. More questions arise. How good are you at determining how much time you have to report a story, and how much time you have left to write that story, or craft a broadcast report? Journalism works on tight deadlines. While it’s a myth that deadlines are sacrosanct in journalism, and professional journalists never miss them, it’s true that if you repeatedly fail to meet your deadlines, you’ll eventually suffer for it, or even be fired. Think of when you’ve had to write a paper for school and procrastinated, and received an extension. In journalism, procrastination is almost impossible, almost always a self-inflicted wound.

Let me offer a concrete example of time management from my own career, and one trick of the trade—one practice to which one should orient–that print journalists use to handle it well. For many years, I was the Literary Editor, Literary Critic and Chief Publishing Correspondent—three jobs at the same time–of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the main newspaper of Philadelphia. One of my tasks every October was to write a story about the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature for the next day’s paper.

The winner of the Nobel Prize would be announced in Stockholm, Sweden at 7 a.m. Philadelphia time. My story and analysis—perhaps as long as 2500 words—would have to be written and sent to the editors by 17.00—10 hours later. In that story, I’d need to look like the world’s greatest expert on that winning writer. In some years, I indeed knew a fair amount about the winning writer. In other years, the problem was that the Nobel would go to a surprise winner about whom I knew almost nothing.

Over the decades, I developed a rough game plan. I would spend the five hours from 7 in the morning to 12 noon researching the writer, gathering material, looking at what other journalists were writing and what various commentators were saying. After lunch, around 13.00, I’d start concentrating on the writing. But in doing so, I would not be starting from an empty page.

Because one lesson I had learned in my journalism career—and this works for writing academic papers too—is that it’s much easier to arrange and organize paragraphs and short passages you’ve written– piecemeal thoughts–into a logical form, than it is to start with a blank page and attempt under time pressure to present everything you’ve found and thought in a sensible, coherent order.

So, if in my research, I came across material that I was almost certain I’d use in my story, I wrote the few sentences necessary to express that, and just let them hang in my document. At 13.00, when I began to write in earnest, much of my work would be rearranging and adjusting paragraphs and writing coherent transition sentences. Almost every print journalist knows this trick, and it can reduce the pressure you face in a deadline situation. Orientation to journalism includes orientation to basic methods of doing the job.

That thought leads me to raise one more practical aspect of journalism that behooves smart orientation. Aspiring journalists may see it as the greatest challenge of all, the challenge that, if solved, represents the most fundamental triumph of successful orientation, to be getting a journalism job in the first place. Can one orient oneself to the needs and aims of a prospective employer and win a position necessary to start earning money as a journalist?

A matter I mentioned early on–the importance of following the news, of knowing what’s going on in the world and the area in which you wish to work—comes together here with orientation to the specific people with whom one is dealing. That means knowing the basic vocabulary, history and dynamics of a subject area, what happened in it recently, and the relation between that and the employer facing you across a desk or on Zoom.

The person interviewing you for a job in journalism will want to hire someone who already has a lot of that in his or her head. Because, while anyone can look things up, journalism operates at such a fast clip that it’s necessary to already have a lot of facts in one’s head, while, of course, checking the ones you’re unsure of. Imagine, for instance, that you are being interviewed tomorrow for a job at CNN, or Fox News, or the New York Times, or CCTV in China, or Novaya Gazeta in Russia. What might they ask you about?

As should be obvious, these journalistic outfits differ greatly in their politics and cultural milieu. If you’re interviewing for a job in the cultural department of a Chinese news outlet, your interviewer might ask what you think about new rules affecting so-called celebrity worship among China’s young people. If you’re interviewing for a job in business journalism at a Russian newspaper, your interviewer might ask how you think Russian businesses should conduct themselves in regard to so-called “foreign agents.” If you’re interviewing for a job with the international desk of the New York Times, your interviewer might ask what you think about the latest events in Afghanistan and Ukraine.

If your replies demonstrate that you’re not really in command of the recent news in those areas, your chances of getting the job will plummet—your interviewer will want to hire the candidate who knows that stuff.

Of course, I’m talking here about ideal merit-based hiring. We all know that in every culture, it can matter whom you know. Family connections, and other factors over which one has no control, may enter into hiring. But when you’re looking for a job, you should try to control what you can control. You can’t suddenly belong to another family. You can demonstrate command of the news, and familiarity with the employer who sits before you. Understanding that before you sit down for an interview constitutes canny orientation to the realities of getting hired as a journalist.

Above and beyond such trench-level aspects of journalism, inevitably,  come more profound challenges once you’re up and running as a reporter, feel that you’ve found the truth about some subject, and are ready to write. These are challenges that arise in every sort of journalistic culture, from those that are very free, to those that are not.

What will your bosses allow you to write or broadcast? What’s fair to write in regard to your sources? What will be the consequences of your reportage for the people quoted or written about in your story? What will be the consequences for the public good? Is your journalism helping the public, or hurting it? Orientation to journalism requires pondering such further questions.

These may be the greatest challenges of journalism because there are no easy answers. The responses ultimately depend on what an individual journalist thinks and believes. They may be matters of conscience. They may be determined by practical considerations. In every country, some journalists are very idealistic and some very cynical. Some journalists are very brave and some very cowardly. They divide just like people in other professions. Every journalist must decide individually what kind of journalist to be.

This, finally, leads us to the largest possible issues to which a journalist must orient, and a convenient way to engage them. In his own essay on how orientation operates in a particular empirical field – “Decision-Making as an Orientation Skill in Poker and Everyday Life” – the Hodges Foundation’s executive director Reinhard G. Mueller wisely brings into discussion an important how-to book about poker, Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets (Portfolio/Penguin, 2018). Mueller recognizes how an influential book can help steer the practices of a field, identify the landscape to which an aspiring practitioner must orient, and even provide pointers beyond the immediate field. In closing, I’d like to follow the same strategy in regard to journalism.

In U.S. undergraduate journalism courses, arguably the most widely-used and influential book is The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect (Fourth Edition, Crown, 2021) by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, both onetime elite journalists who moved on to academe. The book mixes how-to elements with a broader philosophical outlook on how journalism operates, and ought to operate, in a democratic society.

I can’t include here all the guidelines they present—I urge anyone who wishes to “orient” to journalism to read their book—but it’s important to include a key part. Kovach and Rosenstiel call them the 10 fundamental principles of journalism. They are:

1–Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.

2–Its first loyalty is to citizens.

3–Its essence is a discipline of verification.

4–Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

5–It must serve as a monitor of power.

6–It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.

7–It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.

8–It must present the news in a way that is comprehensive and proportional.

9–Its practitioners have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience.

10–Citizens have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news as well—even more so as they become producers and editors themselves.

 

Even quick perusal of the principles suggests some areas of difference that may linger between orientation to journalism as journalists see it, and Stegmaier’s view. Let me address just one here, circling back to my initial thoughts on situations of unsurveyability and uncertainty.

One way in which Stegmaier expresses his possibly over-generous embrace of uncertainty is through the concept of “plausibility.” He writes, “A philosophical investigation focusing on how we deal with the unsurveyabilities and uncertainties of our orientation in the current world must itself be as clear as possible in order to establish , if not certainties, at least plausibilities.”

Many journalists would rejoin: plausibility, almost all the time, is not enough. That is, it’s not enough to put something in print or on the air, except in an opinion writer’s column or segment, a critic’s review, or an editorial. Predictions and speculation are one thing, reporting another. The journalist’s job, which requires superb orientation to her or his subject, is to capture and verify truth, even if that truth (as I think Stegmaier would acknowledge) may be conventional truth, intersubjectively established truth by political or academic authority, truth susceptible to change in the future by what Dewey would have characterized as further inquiry, and Peirce would have seen as the further efforts of the “community of inquirers.”

I, for instance, worked for decades at one of the greatest investigative newspapers in the U.S., the Philadelphia Inquirer, which won 17 Pulitzer Prizes in 16 years in one streak. I can’t calculate the number of times my investigative colleagues, ready to watch their painstaking work over months or years finally leap into print or online, slink back to their desks, having been told by the top editors, “Sorry—you just don’t have it yet.” It happened to me a few times too. We still had to jump that final hurdle from “largely established” and “plausible” to “true.”

Journalism, indeed, lines up rather well with Peirce’s playbook on truth. When Stegmaier, as he often does, resonates with Peircean pragmatism, his notion of orientation fits most snugly with journalism. Like his fellow pragmatists, Peirce urged that we “not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.” He argued that we “struggle to free ourselves from doubt,” struggle to reach a “state of belief.” We’re always seeking the ‘fixation of belief.” Once we achieve that, we’re grateful to take a breather, happy to reach “thought at rest.” Truth, for Peirce, ends up “the opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate…the object represented in this opinion is the real.”

It almost sounds as if Peirce were describing a newsroom.

Stegmaier’s philosophy of orientation shines a bright light on a key epistemological activity that he rightly sees as scanted by the history of philosophy, despite the nods to orientation by Kant and Moses Mendelssohn. He insists that it applies to every area of life, and I agree.

It is certainly, indubitably, doubtlessly and undoubtedly of enormous importance in journalism.

 

End