Journalism can lead us astray, argues Harvard professor Tom Patterson in his book, “Informing the News.” He cites a University of Maryland study on what Americans knew about 11 issues, from health care reform to climate change. For some news consumers, “higher levels of exposure increased misinformation.” On eight of the 11 issues in the study, more than 40 percent of the consumers were misinformed. On six issues, regular news consumers knew only what everyone else knew. On health care, news consumers knew less than what others knew.
Patterson makes a strong case that modern journalism often fails to communicate complexity. The book, an offshoot of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative for the Future of Journalism Education, examines journalism that fails to provide meaningful context, sometimes by giving equal weight to fact and opinion, other times by substituting infotainment for real news, still other times by allowing anecdote to trump trend.
He’s neck-deep in the problems of modern journalism, with chapters titled “The Information Problem,” “The Source Problem,” “The Knowledge Problem,” “The Education Problem,” “The Audience Problem” and “The Democracy Problem.” The problems add up to stories throughout history that have been horribly wrong, from the start of the Spanish-American War (Spain probably didn’t sink the U.S.S. Maine) to escalating crime in the early ’90s (it didn’t happen), from the prevalence of voter fraud (it isn’t a problem) to those Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (they did not exist).
The answer to mass misinformation, Patterson says, is “knowledge-based journalism.” In the 1980s, this was called “specialty reporting.” Before the digital age disrupted this model, journalists at university-based training programs learned everything from nuclear power to brain science. It was a way to try to provide the context the Hutchins Commission called for in the 1950s, the meaning that Walter Lippmann wanted in the 1920s. Yes, journalism should have more knowledge. The question, then and now, is how?
To start with, Patterson frames knowledge-based journalism within the Committee of Concerned Journalists’ definition of “journalistic truth”:
“Journalistic truth” is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. The journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation. Journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information. Even in a world of expanding voices, accuracy is the foundation upon which everything else is built—context, interpretation, comment, criticism, analysis and debate. The truth, over time, emerges from this forum.”
The more journalists know about a given topic, the better they assess facts for validity, content, relevance and timeliness. With knowledge-based journalism, it is easier to strip away “misinformation, disinformation, or self-promoting bias” and let the community react to the news in a meaningful context so “the search becomes a conversation.” Without a basic grounding, however, reporters are not equipped to ask the right questions and are easily manipulated.
Patterson suggests reporters approach stories the way scientists approach investigations. Both journalism and science are acts of inquiry; both observe real occurrences, formulate initial guesses (hypotheses), evaluate the relevance of fact and theory and seek to establish “truths” (paradigms).
Certainly journalism belongs in the same non-fiction family as science. But it is not science. News is unpredictable. It is urgent. Journalism is the act of real-time inquiry, of instant verification and clarification, at any time or place and under any conditions. At times, journalism is more difficult than science.
Patterson offers some help. He serves as research director for The Journalist’s Resource, a Carnegie-Knight Initiative website that interprets newsworthy academic studies for journalists. The tool’s purpose: “think of us as a friend who does close reading and translation of statistics and jargon into clear language.”
The Journalist’s Resource makes a difference, though the case-by-case transfer of knowledge from academia to journalists to the public has limits. It is far better when journalists themselves create knowledge. This is what Ellen Gabler and Allan James Vestal of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did when they showed that babies were dying because hospitals closed labs on weekends, delaying critical blood tests. The journalists created the first database ever assembled of how hospitals nationwide screen newborns, leading to reforms in dozens of states.
Though his resource site is a technological solution, Patterson’s book does not delve deep enough into how reporters using many more digital tools can improve their work. If news embraces knowledge, it will be because journalists become lightning-fast fact-finders and big data miners. Nate Silver and his successful FiveThirtyEight blog are blazing that trail. Digital tools can deliver research in minutes that used to take months.
That said, something bigger is at work here. One factor can’t be ignored. The value of news to society is determined not by professors or journalists but by the people. In a sense, we get the news we deserve. “Informing the News” is right: Democracy needs news of substance; society needs to be grounded in reality; news consumers need to eat their broccoli. But we need to stop insisting that broccoli only works when it is raw. Nutritionists know the futility of this strategy; so should we.
So then, how do we get more knowledge into journalism? We make broccoli soup. Digital successes such as Vice News (“Don’t just watch the news”) and Vox (“Explain the news”) are soup-makers. So is The Atlantic, with its sprinkling of nano-narratives in and around long-form pieces. So is ProPublica, which embeds interactive maps and audio narratives into many of its pieces. They use different recipes, but they all make vegetables taste good; they create new ways to make knowledge attractive.
In the end, “Informing the News” remains a powerful argument against mental malnutrition. What we can use more of, what we’ve needed since the poet, politician and philosopher Cicero complained the news packets did not contain enough serious reporting on the Roman Senate, is a search for solutions. As the old kitchens close and fresh ones open, we need new cookbooks.