January 28, 2004

Good Work

I have been traveling as part of a project on newsroom training and staff development and during a long flight back to San Francisco last night from Georgia I had the chance to read a good part of William Damon's book, "Good Work, When Excellence and Ethics Meet."

Damon, an educational psychologist, and his co-authors examine the concept of good work - "work of expert quality that benefits the broader society" -the obstacles that prevent it from occurring and the conditions that encourage it in two professional fields: genetics and journalism.

"Good Work" should be required journalism school reading along with Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel's "The Elements of Journalism." I'd like to write a length about "Good Work" later when I dig out from some work - and the 150-plus copies of the latest virus that showed up in email (People, people, people! Don't open those attachments!) - but here is an appetizer to chew on.

Damon et al offer a three-point value matrix that a journalists - or any other professional - can use when faced with an ethical dilemma, when confronted with a choice between excellence and mediocrity, or good work and bad work. They are

 Mission: What is the central mission of the profession? What is the "basic societal need the practitioner should feel committed to realizing." A good question to ask yourself: "Why should society reward the kind of work that I do with status and certain privileges?"

 Standards: What are the acceptable "standards of performance, some permanent, some changing with time and place?" To help determine these standards, ask this question: "Which workers in the profession best realize the calling and why? A list of admired workers, along with their virtues, should reveal the standards embodied in the profession."

 Identity: The "background, traits and values," when compiled and considered holistically, form an individual's identity - "who she is, and what matters most to her existence as a worker, a citizen and a human being." When faced with a difficult decision, when considering if a line is worth crossing, ask this question: "What would it be like to live in a world if everyone were to behave in the way that I have?"

Or, as one person interviewed in the book put it: "I refuse to see a pimp in the mirror in the morning when I shave."

How do these questions apply to journalism and to newspapers?

What is the central mission of journalism? "The Elements of Journalism" offers one definition: "The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing." How would you define it? Does it differ on small newspapers vs. large newspapers? Has it changed in recent decades?

What are the standards of journalism? Do they differ from place to place, from medium to medium? How flexible are they? Are some permanent? Are some transient?

What is the identity of a journalist today? Does self-identity differ from public identity and, if so, how does that affect your mission to do good work?

Posted by Tim Porter at January 28, 2004 08:51 AM