Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Missouri Method: Journalism With Skepticism

The clipping of my commentary on "Missourian"- type journalism, published this Saturday (Dec 30/06) in The Kathmandu Post newspaper out of Nepal.

Missouri method: Journalism with skepticism
By Dharma AdhikariA few weeks ago, James F Moriarty, the American ambassador, lamented that Nepali journalists are not skeptical enough about the peace process. He suggested that Missouri, a Midwestern state in America, is known as the "Show-Me" state for a reason. And that should intrigue any journalist.

Legend has it that a noted politician from rural Missouri, circa 1890s, demanded of his erudite colleagues in Washington DC: "I am from Missouri, you have to show me!" In other words, rather than justfocusing on the joys of the recent historic accord, journalists needed to "show" how and why the new deal would hold when agreements in the past failed. Words and promises are not enough.

I don't have to disagree with the ambassador on that account. "Show, not just tell" is a basic precept of journalism. Journalists need informed, not shallow eloquence. The public deserves little more than an undoubting and temporal press, especially because our press freedom today owes much to yesterday's struggle against political censorship and control. The point of this essay, however, is that despite tracing its roots in a legend, and irrespective of its relevance to Nepal, the Missouri approach to journalism is real.

For six years until 2004, I lived in Missouri. As a student at the Missouri School of Journalism at Columbia, one of America's leading schools for news professionals, I was exposed to what they call the "Missouri Method." Simply put, preaching and practicing go hand in hand in Missouri. Students balance rigors of theory from their class rooms with their practice at school-owned commercial media outlets.

In essence, the Missouri method emphasizes there is no one method: the values of journalism, such as verification, skepticism, clarity, fairness, independence, and public conversation are culturally varied.

Yet, Missouri's hallmark is its involved journalism where students get to show creativity and imagination in covering real-life stories, including those routinely ignored by the mainstream press.

Missouri's method goes beyond refining your flair for writing. It defines your attitude that like all professionals, journalists are imperfect. Hence, the constant need for self-criticism, learning and collaboration, as well as diversity in style, thoughts and skills.

This is not to ignore a growing crisis of public credibility faced by mainstream American journalism in recent years. But Missouri has held on to its no-nonsense skepticism even during testing times. The school's NBC-affiliate was among the first channels to boldly reject jingoist displays of flags and ribbons on air after 9/11.

In Nepal, as a struggling journalist in the 1980s and 1990s, I often practiced journalism without studying it. Conversely, I often studied journalism without practicing it. The disjuncture between principle and practice was obvious. Following cues of elders, it was not unusual to claim complete objectivity, even when one knew that was impossible. The shared journalistic credo in the newsroom owed more to the whims of an editor or publisher and little to a collectively articulated code of ethics.

True, the press has emerged as a viable industry in the post-1990 era. It has helped further refine our understanding of idealism and realism of the profession. The basic standards of the profession such as accuracy, sourcing, and fact-checking, as well persistence and follow-ups are being internalized by our press. But the residues of the past continue. For instance, in recent months, media spotlight has already dimmed in the hinterlands, where the drama of conflict has subsided but the peace process hangs in the balance.

We also continue to ask for more when we have not even been able to utilize what we have achieved. Press freedom continues to be an absolute concept to many, as in the widely publicized slogan "complete press freedom" for peace and democracy.

Ain't it time to get real? Is complete press freedom even possible?

Recently, I posed that question to none other than John Merrill, Missouri's professor-emeritus, and arguably the world's foremost expert on global journalism philosophies. Merrill says there is nowhere in the world what Nepalis call a "complete press freedom."

Elite interference of the press -- political, commercial, theocratic or cultural-- is inevitable in any system, republican or monarchical. What Merrill says should mean something to us especially because he is frequently quoted in our journalism textbooks.

But Merrill agreed that even (incomplete) press freedom is a corollary of an open political set up. "Press freedom follows," he said, "It does not determine the politico-economic system of a country, so a third world country will have to determine its political system before it can do much about its press freedom."

There is, however, no "Missouri Method" that can fix the problem, Merrill maintains. It is up to individual journalists what to do and how to do it or why. To talk about my own individual perspective, in Missouri my idealism met with realism. There I learned to doubt absolutist generalizations, and to strip slogans of their abstractions.

But skepticism does not mean an end of democratic allegiance, or a withdrawal from common sense. "Good journalism," reads the credo of Walter Williams, who founded the Missouri School in 1908, is "quickly indignant at injustice; is unswayed by the appeal of the privilege or the clamor of the mob." But he cautions: "No one should write as a journalist what he would not say as a gentleman."

(The writer, who obtained his doctorate from Missouri, teaches journalism at Georgia Southern University)

Citation: “Missouri Method: Journalism with Skepticism,” op-ed article in the Kathmandu Post, December 29, 2006, p. 4. URL: