Next month I will have taught journalism at New York University for 25 years, an occasion that has led me to reflect on what I have tried to profess in that time.
Or, to put it another way, what I think I know about journalism.
It comes down to these four ideas.
1. The more people who participate in the press the stronger it will be.
2. The profession of journalism went awry when it began to adopt the View from Nowhere.
3. The news system will improve when it is made more useful to people.
4. Making facts public does not a public make; information alone will not inform us.
Shall we take them in order?
The more people who participate in it the stronger the press will be.
The more people involved in flying the airplane, or moving the surgeon’s scalpel during a brain operation, the worse off we are. But this is not true in journalism. It benefits from participation, as with Investigate your MP’s expenses, also called crowd sourcing, or this invitation from the Los Angeles Times: share public documents. A far simpler example is sources. If sources won’t participate, there often is no story. Witnesses contribute when they pull out their cameras and record what is happening in front of them. The news system is stronger for it.
In 1999, I wrote a whole book on this idea: What Are Journalists For? It’s about what we now call engagement. But that was pre-Web. Today we can do a lot more. According to the internet’s one percent rule, a very small portion of the users will become serious contributors, which is still a lot of people. Let’s say you’re a beat reporter who has a niche blog on the local public schools (like this one) with a loyal user base of 10,000. If the one percent rule is accurate, 100 of those loyal users are likely to become heavy contributors if given the chance. They should be given that chance. It will strengthen the site.
That’s what I believe. But we still don’t know much about how to make these pro-am combinations work, because for a very long time the news system was optimized for low participation. Switching it over is extremely difficult. Even CNN’s i-Report, which claims 750,000 contributors worldwide, is poorly integrated into the main CNN newsroom. In what Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, calls the “mutualization” of journalism, most of the big discoveries lie ahead of us. So we ought to get cracking.
The profession of journalism went awry when it began to adopt the View from Nowhere.
It’s Bill Keller insisting that “torture” is the wrong word for the New York Times to use in describing torture because it involves taking sides in a dispute between the United States Government and its critics. It’s Howard Kurtz suggesting that Anderson Cooper was “taking sides” when he called the lies of the Egyptian government lies. But it’s also the reporter who has to master the routine of “laundering my own views [by] dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader.” And it’s that lame formula known as he said, she said journalism. It’s the way CNN “leaves it there” when two guests give utterly conflicting accounts.
Long ago, something went awry in professional journalism the way the Americans do it, and it left these visible deformations. In my own criticism I have given various names to this pattern: agendalessness, the quest for innocence— most often, the View From Nowhere. The problem is not what it is usually said to be: that the press is supposed to remain “objective” but no one can be totally unbiased. The problem is equating trustworthiness with the prohibition on taking sides, when the actual result may be exasperation with he said, she said, rage at the helplessness that “leaving it there” creates, and mistrust of the formulaic ways in which journalists try to advertise their even-handedness.
“Harsh interrogation” isn’t a more objective term than torture. Rather, it appears to offer more protection against charges of bias. But these stratagems haven’t worked. The View from Nowhere is increasingly mistrusted. Journalists have to go back and fix the wrong turn they took.
The news system will improve when it is made more useful to people.
In the 1970s and ’80s, a number of classics in press scholarship were written by social scientists (like Herbert Gans and Gaye Tuchman) who went into newsrooms to study how decisions were made there. They all observed that routines drive what happens in journalism, and that these routines ultimately served the demands of a particular production cycle: the daily newspaper, the 6 p.m. broadcast, the monthly magazine. Ideas about what journalism is–and even what it can be–get frozen within these routines as they become second nature to the people who have mastered them.
Look at how J-schools organized the curriculum and you can see what I mean: there’s newspaper journalism, magazine journalism, broadcast journalism. Why do we teach it that way? Because the production routine is god. Master that and you’ve learned the business.
But that was during the era of heavy industry. The lighter, cheaper, and less restrictive publishing tools that we have today can free the news system from its production gods. The new gods are the users themselves, and what they find useful for staying informed and participating in public life— you know, getting things done. Which is why I’ve said that the simplest way to add value in journalism is to save the user time.
Making facts public does not a public make; information alone will not inform us.
There’s a reason why the word narrative has been on the rise in journalism, almost to the point of cliche. It’s become obvious to people that good information alone cannot inform us. News stories pushed at us can be defeated by narratives with greater pull. Under conditions of abundance, the arc of attention matters more than the availability of information.
To feel informed, we also need background knowledge, a framework into which the relevant facts can be put. Or, as I put it in 2008, “There are some stories—and the mortgage crisis is a great example—where until I grasp the whole I am unable to make sense of any part. Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of those updates because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop.”
In The Lost Art of Argument, Christopher Lasch said we should invert the usual order of information and debate. “We do not know what we need to know until we ask the right questions, and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy. Information, usually understood as the precondition of debate, is better understood as its by-product. When we get into arguments that focus and fully engage our attention, we become avid seekers of information. Otherwise, we take in information passively– if we take it in at all.”
So that’s what I think I know about journalism, after 25 years of teaching it, studying it, and writing about it.
Of course, I’m still learning.