Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Carnivals and Journalists

There are a growing number of assessments appearing about the plight of journalists and their employing publications. I try to read some of the more interesting ones because, first, the media is a barometer of what is happening with information in the digital age and, second, their products, newspapers and news magazines, have long been important documents that librarians and archivists administer.

Neil Henry, a former news reporter and now journalism professor, has given us a surprisingly compelling of journalism in his American Carnival: Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). Henry sounds a similar refrain as he reflects about whether the weakening of journalism is a troubling sign of what is happening with our society. “As I take stock of the marvels of the age, I can’t help but worry about the direction of a society in which there are ever fewer arbiters who are trusted and recognized by a consensus of citizens,” Henry muses (p. 11). Although Henry demonstrates that the internal problems – plagiarism, fabrication, ethical miscues – journalism has inflicted on itself are nothing new, he still argues that the declining influence of the journalistic enterprise can’t be good for our society: “When professional journalism is systemically weakened in an age when we should expect it to be better after centuries of refinement aimed at creating higher standards, our faith in what joins us as a people in a civil society is also damaged in a way that is difficult to repair” (p. 41).

Henry’s book is an insider’s examination of his own profession, with recommendations for change and an interesting assessment of how to educate future journalists that makes this book another compelling account of professional schools and their mission in universities.

What caught my attention, however, is how Henry depicts the role of journalists in our society: “Real journalists are experts at presenting these reports to the public – these products of dedicated intellectual process, of digging and hard work – in as timely, substantive, accurate, and independent a fashion as possible. Journalists regard serving the public trust as central to their purpose, and they believe in questioning and, if necessary, challenging power and vested interests to protect that trust. They question the powerful on the behalf of the ordinary citizen and regard corporate and political elites as subjects to be watched closely, not as figures to be fawned over. Journalists are professionals with ethical and moral standards who inform the people in a democracy about the community and the world so that we all may become knowledgeable enough to make decisions about the best ways to improve our lives” (p. 58). Later, Henry writes, “Real journalism means cutting through the deceptions and fraud and being willing to stand up and fight the pressures that would compromise the practice of the craft. It means bearing witness and telling the truth” (p. 210).

So, my question is, how does Henry’s characterization of journalists differ from how we think of the role of archivists? Isn’t it closer than we might assume? Archivists are experts in records and recordkeeping systems, preserving documents for use by society for evidence, accountability, and memory. If they are doing this, then they also must be standing against the powers and principalities of the world as well. If they are not, and often it does not seem that way, then they are supporting the powerbrokers and are pawns in controlling records and information systems for their purposes. This is, of course, not an easy issue to deal with, but it is one archivists must mull over.