Gil Thelen, the former publisher and president of The Tampa Tribune, believes the journalist has a very specific role in society. He calls it the “committed observer.”
What he means by that, Thelen explains, is that the journalist is not removed from community, though at times may stand apart from others so as to view things from a different perspective.
Rather, says Thelen, journalists are “interdependent” with the needs of their fellow citizens. If there is a key issue in town that needs resolution and is being explored by local institutions, “we have a commitment to reporting on this process over the long term, as an observer.” The journalist helps resolve the issue by being a responsible reporter who supplies background, verifies facts, and explains the issues involved.
Thelen’s ideas are echoed in the words of other journalists as well, who talk about the press creating a common language, a common understanding, or being part of the glue that defines and adheres a community together.
The notion of the committed observer also provides language to clarify the journalistic role when reporters may be confused about how patriotic versus independent they should be, and citizens are often either confused or angered by the coverage of controversial issues or the disclosure of secrets.
This confusion, note Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach in The Elements of Journalism, doesn’t serve anyone well.
Other professions are much clearer about their role and citizens as a consequence are much clearer about the need for their doing controversial things.
People understand and accept, for instance, that doctors serve a Hippocratic Oath that requires they try to save people they may hate, whether the enemy soldier in war or the wounded gunman who just shot a police officer. Or that lawyers are required to provide a zealous defense for even the worst people in society.
Journalists need to be equally clear about their role, both to themselves and to the public. A journalist is not aloof from society. They are citizens. Even patriots. Journalists express their commitment and duty by performing the prescribed role of observer to provide their fellow citizens with the information they need to make judgments and decisions.
Even in times of war or national crisis, that means not only providing people with information they might find scary, but information the government or other powerful institutions do not want revealed.