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The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect
By Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel

194 pages, $20


In the old days, the really old days, the most valued news-gatherers were those who "could run swiftly over the next hill, accurately gather information and engagingly retell it."

In the not-so-long-ago days (think in terms of Walter Cronkite and David Halberstam), the most valued news-gatherers were the establishment journalists who worked for the premier media organizations -- the large newspapers and the three big television networks. Credibility was paramount, and while sensationalism may have been a tabloid temptation, restraint and depth ruled the day.

Now, in the era of Matt Drudge, America Online's merger with Time Warner, and Leonardo DiCaprio's infamous interview with President Clinton, journalism -- or what passes for journalism -- has changed beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

Information is instant, the sources of it are ever more dubious, and corporate ownership of media outlets increasingly places profits above the public interest.

But maybe things aren't all that different, say the authors of this concise and worthwhile book. Speed, accuracy and story-telling skills are still the qualities people want in their news media. Restraint and depth are still worth striving for.

Even though journalism is increasingly mixed in with entertainment and advertising, creating what Bill Kovach has dubbed "advotainment news," it's still the best hope for the kind of informed citizenry that makes a democracy work. And now, more than ever, some standards are needed.

That's what Kovach and Rosenstiel set out to do in this book -- an outgrowth of their work with the Committee of Concerned Journalists. And few are better suited to the work than Kovach, a journalist with an unparalleled reputation for integrity and a resume that includes winning Pulitzers, heading Harvard's Nieman Foundation and resigning a top editing job for philosophical reasons.

The book may not be of compelling interest to the general public; it's not an especially breezy read or sexy subject. It will never land the authors an appearance on Oprah. But it's an important effort and one that any news consumer would find worthwhile. Its cornerstone is a list of nine principles -- the "elements of journalism." (Yes, this is a serious-minded work indeed; if it were something glibber, you can be sure that a tenth principle would have been added, just to round things off in a more predictable way.)

The principles include such inarguable statements as "Journalism's first obligation is to the truth" and "Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience." Each of the nine concepts is developed with provocative anecdotes and quotes, and every one of them makes wonderfully good sense.

The book is likely to remind good journalists of the high ideals that brought them into the news business to begin with.

The authors quote the much-admired Chicago TV journalist Carol Marin saying, "I think a journalist is someone who believes in something that they would be willing to quit over."

With this thoughtful and significant book, we now have a better idea of what that means.

Margaret Sullivan is the editor and vice president of The Buffalo News

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