The danger of journalism that moves too quickly beyond fact

The best thinking about journalism’s future benefits from its being in touch with technology’s potential. But it can get in its own way when it simplifies and repudiates the intelligence of journalism’s past.

That is happening, to a degree, in a discussion gaining momentum lately that journalism should now largely move beyond fact gathering and toward synthesis and interpretation.

The NSA story is just the latest case that shows the importance, and the elusiveness, of simply knowing what has really happened.

In a Nieman Journalism Lab post, Jonathan Stray made the case recently for moving beyond facts, or what might be called The Displacement Theory of Journalism. “The Internet has solved the basic distribution of event-based facts in a variety of ways; no one needs a news organization to know what the White House is saying when all press briefings are posted on YouTube. What we do need is someone to tell us what it means.”

In their manifesto on Post Industrial Journalism, C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky argued something similar, though more inclusively. “The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation, bringing sense to the streams of text, audio, photos and video produced by the public.”

We need to be careful with our language. Technology has not “solved” the problem of knowing the essential facts of public events. We need journalists to do more than bring sense to the streams produced by the public. The act of monitoring powerful institutions is messier and more complex than that.

The fact that the White House has a YouTube channel, Twitter feed and Tumblr account should not be mistaken for it being open or transparent. Nor is journalism enhanced if journalists begin to limit themselves largely to material officially released rather than going out and digging. That puts far too much control of the flow of information in the hands of powerful institutions.

The real process of journalistic discovery

Knowing the facts of an event is a multi-dimensional process of discovery — an official action, an event, followed by inquiry, reaction and observation, new questions, then more inquiry. It’s a process that repeats itself and involves shoe-leather reporting and the ability to make sense of the streams produced by officials and the public.

The NSA story is an example: the initial leak by Edward Snowden was only the beginning of the journalistic and public process. Consider how we come to understand events in Afghanistan, or how the Affordable Health Care Act will play out in the delivery of medical services, or the effects of a breaking news event such as Hurricane Sandy.

Even many of the decisions revealed at public meetings are actually made away from public view. If more of our civic proceedings were on YouTube — and they should be — we also should realize more of the decision making will move further behind closed doors. It is the nature of how powerful institutions behave: C-Span did not magically make Congress more transparent or efficient.

More inclusive coverage

The discussion about factual reporting also tends to focus on a limited range of topics, often national affairs. “Not all journalism matters,” Anderson, Bell and Shirky wrote, indicating a broad range of arts, sports, lifestyle reporting and more in the lesser category. “Much of what is produced today is simply entertainment or diversion. … Hard news is what matters in the current crisis.”

This leaves too much out. We need our journalism to portray the whole community, and do so in proportion, including culture, social, trends, sports, etc. This is how we come to understand ourselves and navigate our lives. Journalism that narrows itself to accountability of government agencies will limit its value, its engagement and its chance to sustain itself.

It is equally a mistake to be overly suspicious of the contribution made by technology and citizens, or to romanticize old methods. “The civic labor performed by journalists on the ground cannot be replicated by legions of bloggers sitting hunched over their computer screens,” The New York Times’ Bill Keller famously told a public lecture in London. (Keller might not say it today as he put it in 2007, but the worry about the wisdom of the crowd has hardly disappeared).

Collaborative intelligence, not displacement

The future of journalism, I believe, resides in the middle between both the skeptics and the utopians. Journalism’s future must be a collaboration in which citizens, technology and professional journalists work together to create a public intelligence that is deeper and wider than any of these could produce alone.

Machines bring the capacity to count. Citizens bring expertise, experience and an expanded capacity to observe events from more vantage points. Journalists bring access, the ability to interrogate people in power, to dig, to translate and triangulate incoming information, and a traditional discipline of an open-minded pursuit of truth. They work best in concert.

We need journalists, in other words, to embrace the potential of the network and vet and organize its input, while also providing the elements that skilled journalists at any given moment are best disposed to offer. This is the way to a deeper and wider foundation of facts and community understanding.

In this sense, journalists are not displaced, replicated or elevated to synthesizers of meaning. This view does not denigrate what journalism historically has offered, or the importance of finding out what has happened. Nor does it relegate the public to be a passive audience, or new technology as a threat to the old way of doing things. It calls for the embrace of all of these tools.

It calls on journalism to perform many functions. At the center is the pursuit of what my colleague Bill Kovach and I called in the “Elements of Journalism” functional or practical truth. The means of pursuit, however, have expanded tremendously — which is an opportunity that must be seized as traditional newsroom resources have shrunk.

History’s useful path

None of this is as new as it might seem. Nieman’s Stray dates the move toward analysis and beyond straight reporting to the 1960s (the beginning of modern TV news). In reality, it has been the core of much of journalism’s evolution since the advent of radio.

The Wall Street Journal was reinvented in the late 1940s on the idea that its financial audience already knew the basic news of the day earlier from the ticker. The Hutchins Commission on a free and responsible press declared in 1947: “It is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact.”

Seen in context, in other words, journalism is not being toppled by the Web — though certainly the financial model has been profoundly disrupted. Instead, technology is deepening journalism’s potential to do what it always has: find out what is really happening that we cannot see directly, and help make our lives better by connecting us to one another.

Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, is an author, journalist, media researcher, and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. You can follow him on Twitter at tbr1.

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  • Jonathan Stray

    I agree completely that the first duty of journalism is to nail down the facts. However,

    - in many cases, the facts are not in dispute, and are ably disseminated by others.
    - we also need things beyond facts: analysis and interpretation. In a word, meaning.

    The NSA case is a wonderful example of a situation where the facts are difficult to find. A case of journalism at its best. However, this seems to me to be an atypical case. Watching the wire day after day, my sense is that in most stories, the facts are very much simpler to get. In many cases, the facts are public before journalists get to them.

  • Robert Knilands

    That last paragraph kicks ass. I especially like the part about “technology evangelists.”

  • Brian Haas

    I see a lot of buzzwords and I don’t see a single practical application of what is being proposed here. In fact, I can’t even tell what is being proposed. This variety of navel-gazing, TEDx-thinkification is meaningless.

    “In this sense, journalists are not displaced, replicated or elevated to synthesizers of meaning.”

    What does that even mean? Honestly. Give me the practical implications of that sentence. Heck, pick any of these ideas and give me the practical implication.

    What journalism needs are more important, meaningful stories. More resources needed to be given to improve the variety and quality of storytelling. More time needs to be devoted to going beyond the “what” and getting more to the “why should I care?” (which is my best attempt to guess at what that quote above means).

    This is not sorcery. And it’s not going to be solved by people in this pseudo-industry of “thought leaders” and “technology evangelists”. It’s going to be solved by giving people kick-ass content that they not only SHOULD read/view, but WANT to as well.

  • JHamer

    Excellent column, Tom. This sentence is especially good: “Journalism’s future must be a collaboration in which citizens, technology and professional journalists work together to create a public intelligence that is deeper and wider than any of these could produce alone.” That’s precisely what we tried to do in our recent hearing on a complaint against The Seattle Times, by offering an online Public Ballot for citizens to weigh in on the accuracy, fairness and ethics of the stories at issue. Journalists should be as transparent, accountable and open themselves as they ask of everyone they cover, and invite citizens into the increasingly possible dialogue. Public intelligence about the news media must be deeper and wider as well. Actually, it already is, but too many journalists don’t realize that or tend to resist it, thinking they still know best about how to discern and reveal “the truth.”