August 22, 2009

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are four key parts to news stories, and we typically only get one of them, even though journalists possess all four, and the other three are arguably more important.

Note that when I say “news stories,” I mean an ongoing news topic, such as “health reform,” not a particular article. In fact, health reform’s been on my mind a lot recently, so perhaps it’s a good subject to help illustrate what I mean. I’ll start with the part of most news stories we get in spades.

WHAT WE GET: What just happened

Take a look at this Washington Post topic page on health reform. As I write, it includes a list of headlines signaling recent events in the health-care debate: several Democrats called the public plan essential, key senators are pushing cooperatives as an alternative, patients want more transparency on doctors’ links to Pharma, etc.

This stuff is what most news organizations consider the foundation of journalism: the news. To the extent that any of the other parts of a news story get traction, they must fit into a structure where the news is the main attraction.

Of course, this is also the most ephemeral piece of a news story. The reality that these headlines reflect today will likely be completely changed tomorrow. The lead article, about Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats calling the public plan essential, encapsulates an isolated moment of political posturing in a never-ending storm of signals sent in press releases, conferences, and interviews, through spokespeople and Twitter accounts, during appearances on Sunday talk shows. By October, this story will lose most of its present meaning.

We often theorize that over time, the accumulated weight of all this news compresses into a sort of understanding, but I remain unconvinced. At any rate, this might be the worst foundation on which to rest journalism, especially considering that it’s merely a component of the next, more important part.

WHAT WE MISS (1): The longstanding facts

At the scale of news, almost every story looks complicated. Health reform is an impossible-to-follow morass of Congressional committees, policy proposals, industry talking points, and think tank reports. Pull back the lens a bit, however, and you see a fairly straightforward story whose basic contours haven’t changed all that much since 1994.

There is a universe of facts that stay essentially fixed from day to day. Tomorrow, we can be virtually certain that the three basic problems health reform seeks to solve will remain the same as they were last year: effectiveness, cost, and access to care. The same individuals will be heading the same committees they were in the spring. Lobbying groups on different sides of the equation have staked out slightly different positions than they did 15 years ago, but these shifts have been telegraphed over years, and everyone was well-nestled into their respective corners by June. Understanding the forces that combined to defeat health-care reform in 1945 and 1994 will give you a solid vantage point from which to understand the battle in 2009.

The story is much more manageable at this level. Everything that’s changing day-to-day — the news — is the hardest-to-understand component of this picture.

And this is key: To follow the news, you have to grasp the longstanding facts. Without this, headlines about “the public option” and “employer pay-or-play” and “MedPAC” are just noise. Having this basic understanding creates the desire for news.

In reality, these longstanding facts provide the true foundation of journalism. But in practice, they play second-fiddle to the news, condensed beyond all meaning into a paragraph halfway down in a news story, tucked away in a remote corner of our news sites. Take a look at that Post page again. Currently, a link sits on the far right side of the page, a third of the way down, labeled “What you need to know.” Click on that link, and you’re taken to a linkless, five-paragraph blog post from May. This blog post basically captures our approach to providing the necessary background to follow the news.

WHAT WE MISS (2): How journalists know what they know

This is a component of every news story that journalists tend not to provide for two reasons:

  1. explaining how we get information disrupts our institutional authority and
  2. we think it makes stories less interesting.

I think both assumptions are wrongheaded. Understanding how a news story came together is often a vital part of both understanding and enjoying that story.

Once again, let’s use a health reform article as a proxy for this point. On August 5, The New York Times dropped a bombshell on followers of the health reform debate. The paper reported that the White House had cut a behind-the-scenes deal with PhRMA to prevent Congress from bargaining down drug prices in exchange for $80 billion in savings from the industry. The article that contained these revelations is a whirlwind of posturing — it’s filled with various parties backing away from things or “privately acknowledging” them or floating trial balloons. We know almost nothing about how the reporters got this story. The article feels like a pure flurry of spin. Weeks later, other reporters are still trying to trace back the story of who said what when, and why — the “real story,” in other words, hidden between the lines that appeared in the Times that day.

What undermined the Times‘ institutional authority in this case isn’t the revelation of a reporter’s perspective or methods. It’s the perception that the Times is being used as a tool by various interests. The Times‘ lack of transparency about its process helps further this perception.

As for the narrative argument, the undisputed most effective piece of journalism on health reform this year was a piece in the New Yorker by Dr. Atul Gawande. Washington Post columnist and health reform wonk Ezra Klein called it “the best article you’ll see this year on American health care.” Kaiser Health News ran an article about its impact, asking a panel of health experts to comment on why it was so powerful. Almost as soon as Gawande’s piece was published, references to it began appearing in President Obama’s speeches. Trust me, it was big.

Read that story, and you might be surprised by how much Gawande focuses on his reporting process. At every turn, Gawande walks you through exactly what he sees, who he’s talked to, and how he comes to his conclusions. In one vignette, he gathers six doctors for dinner, and reproduces highlights of their conversation on the costs of medical care. It’s extraordinarily effective, both as a narrative and as a piece of journalism.

What Gawande did was to structure his search for truth as a quest narrative. Instead of hiding the details about how he comes by his information, he makes that the very focus. Along the way, he makes us apprentices in his quest for truth. We finish the article with a highly refined sense of how Gawande has acquired and verified the information he presents, as well as a framework for further inquiry of our own.

We get a lot more out of this type of reporting, in other words, than the vast majority of news stories, which leave out these details.

WHAT WE MISS (3): The things we don’t know

We often think of journalism as encompassing what we know. But a key part of journalism that usually goes unreported is what we don’t know.

This much is uncontroversial: Every news story is a blend of facts and uncertainties. This should be as uncontroversial, but isn’t: It’s just as important for journalists to enumerate the latter as the former.

This excellent article by Politifact’s Angie Holan takes the rare step of explaining “What we still don’t know.” Beneath that header, Holan lists a few key questions that no journalist covering health reform can answer: Will it have a public option or a variant of it? If so, what will that include? Will it hold down costs over the long term? How will Congress pay for it? Follow the debate over time, and you’ll find that these are the questions that drive our reporting on health reform. Pursuing the answers to these questions is how journalists find the news.

But rarely do we acknowledge what we’re pursuing. When our questions make it into the coverage at all, they have to appear in the mouths of our sources, resulting in paltry, contorted pieces like this one, from the AP.  Or they’re attributed to no one, weaseled into a headline that says only, “[Such-and-such] raises questions.” Whose questions? Not ours, certainly.

When Holan lists the uncertainties around health reform, she’s providing a sort of cliffhanger: Will the Congressional health reform bill include a public option? Stay tuned to find out! Not only does it give us a framework for anticipating (and thereby managing) the information that will come next, it also stokes our interest in that information.

Changing the model

As long as the news is structured solely around what just happened, journalists are going to be fighting a rough battle. With a latest-news-only approach, we stoke demand for journalism by trying to snag people’s attention with each new development.

There’s another way, one that leads to a more informed and more loyal public, and allows us to do better work. It involves:

  • Enlarging the market for journalism by making it easier for more people to understand the longstanding facts behind each story.
  • Increasing the appeal of journalism by letting folks in on the details of our quest to uncover the truth.
  • Expanding the appetite for journalism by explaining what we don’t know, and what we’re working to find out.

As news consumers, we should be demanding these things as well. After all, right now we’re only getting the lamest part of the story.

This piece originally appeared in a slightly different form on Author Matt Thompson is a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board and former Naughton fellow at the Institute. Politifact is a publication of the St. Petersburg Times, which is owned by The Poynter Institute.

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I serve as an Editorial Product Manager at NPR, where I work with member stations to develop niche websites. Before coming to NPR, I worked…
Matt Thompson

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