Journalists and others concerned about the status of the news industry in North America and Europe keep arguing that we are getting poorer journalism because of the economic state of the industry. But when you ask them “what makes good journalism?” they find it nearly impossible to articulate the concept.
Those trying to articulate the elements good journalism tend to use comforting and immeasurable platitudes and to describe it through attributes based on professional practices: pursuit of truth, fairness, completeness, accuracy, verification, and coherence. These are not a definition of quality, but a listing of contributors to or elements of quality practices. Each attribute alone is not sufficient for good journalism and degree to which each contributes is unclear.
In practice, most of us settle on identifying journalistic quality by its absence or by its comparison to poor or average quality journalism. Thus we know it when we don’t see it or we describe by giving examples of excellent journalism.
Other industries are far better in establishing their definitions of quality. If you ask what is quality in washing machines, the answer is that it quality machines clean clothing more effectively, operate quietly, are safe, and are durable and reliable. All of those can be measured by specific indicators of dirt and stain removal, water and energy use, noise decibels generate, user injury rates, and breakdown rates. A quality manufacturer strives for better performance on those measures, provides effective support and service, handles feedback and complaints well, and strives for high customer satisfaction.
The reason quality journalism is difficult to describe is because it involves a body of practices and the mental activity that goes into those practices. Good journalism results from the information gathering and processing activities, PLUS the knowledge and mental processes applied to it.
It is thus labor intensive; it involves collecting, analysing, structuring and presenting information. The best journalism comes from knowledgeable and critical individuals determining what information is significant, backgrounding and contextualizing it, and thinking about and explaining its meaning. It is a creative and cognitive activity. It is difficult to articulate what makes good creative and cognitive activity and nearly impossible to measure these mental processes. Thus, we are forced to use surrogate measures of quality journalism.
Good journalism involves engaging language and fluid prose, but it is not merely a well written and good story; it is not necessarily evident in stories that make the most popular list of stories or are most shared on social media. Good journalism involves stories that have import, impact, and elements of exclusivity and uniqueness; it wrestles with issues of the day, elucidates social conditions, facilitates society in finding solutions to challenges, and is independent of all forms of power. Good journalism is rational and critical; it is infused with scepticism, but not cynicism.
Although it is difficult to effectively measure such attributes of quality journalism, it should be much easier to define and identify quality journalism providers. There are some surrogate and attribute measures available to rate them, such as the percentage of total costs devoted to editorial costs, the amount of serious news content, the percentage of content originated rather than acquired, the amount and handling of errors, levels of reader satisfaction, and brand reputation.
In the end, however, the question of what makes good journalism has to be answered by answering the queries: Good or valuable to WHOM? Good or valuable for WHAT? Only then can one begin to establish direct measures that determine the effectiveness of journalism in achieving those objectives.