Friday, July 04, 2014

Context is good in journalism, and so is repetition

Here's another insight from the de Botton book I mentioned in my last post, drawing on a dubious Hegelian argument that mass information was replacing religion in societal influence:
Hegel's argument that the news now occupies the same prestigious position in society as religion once did misses out an important difference between the two fields of knowledge: religions have traditionally been particularly sensitive to how bad we are at focusing on anything. Exactly like the news, religions want to tell us important things every day. But unlike the news, they know that if they tell us too much, in one go, and only once, then we will remember -- and do -- nothing
They therefore take care to serve up only a little of their fare each day, taking us patiently through a few issues and then returning to them again and again. Repetition and rehearsal are key to the pedagogical methods of the major faiths. (p. 31)
The ideas of repetition and rehearsal, of course, are anathema to journalistic tradition, which assumes that once a fact has been reported it is universally known, and that audiences everywhere will use today's facts as a contextual foundation for the facts that come tomorrow.

That's why, even in a book highly sympathetic to my views called "Informing the News," Thomas E. Patterson accepts that the following "depiction of what a news story might look like if written through the long-range lens of political science" would take journalism in the wrong direction:
A powerful thunderstorm forced President Obama to cancel his Memorial Day speech near Chicago on Monday -- an arbitrary event that had no effect on the trajectory of American politics. Obama now faces some of the most difficult challenges of his young presidency: the ongoing oil spill, the Gaza flotilla disaster, and revelations about possibly inappropriate conversations between the White House and candidates for public office. But while these narratives may affect fleeting public perceptions, Americans will ultimately judge Obama on the fundamentals of jobs numbers and the GDP. (p. 82-83)
Patterson writes that "News reports of this ilk" -- written tongue-in-cheek by journalist Christopher Beam -- "would soon send people scurrying to find better ways to spend their time." He goes on, but I'd like to stop him there for a second, because:
  • First, news reports written about the president and politics already send people scurrying for better ways to spend their time. That's the point of Patterson's book, my book, and dozens of other lamentations about the lack of attention to public affairs news in America.
  • Second, I think fewer people would scurry away from news reporting that really told it like it is -- not too far from what Beam does as a joke above -- than reporting that embraces and amplifies the artifice of politics and treats everyone outside politics like a bunch of dummies.
  • And third, if journalists reported and wrote from this perspective, they'd write fewer stupid inconsequential kinds of stories that led to these kinds of observations and could begin to focus on the difficult challenges our leaders face and their performance on the issues by which Americans will ultimately judge them.
That would be a significant improvement over what we have now.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

The News as Pedagogy

Just started reading a new book I came across at the library, "The News: A User's Manual," by Alain de Botton. He makes a point that I think is central to the way we should view journalism: "Once our formal education has finished, the news is the teacher."

Thinking of journalism this way, as the predominant tool of social pedagogy for adults, throws nearly all of our traditional news values into disarray. If we think of journalism as teaching, a lot of the stuff that factors into news judgment -- prominence, urgency, conflict, unusualness -- becomes subordinate to a couple of key values: significance and impact. The realization has crept upon me that news' obsession with what is out of the ordinary or unique does a disservice to individuals and societies by steering attention away from what is endemic and persistent, which are the things we really need to pay attention to.

There's a lot of stuff I should link to later about things like cultivation theory, which suggests that regular reporting on violent crime leads people to think there's more violent crime than there really is, or exemplification theory, which suggests that zeroing in on vivid but unrepresentative examples skew the way we understand underlying statistical information. In essence, by focusing on superlatives and anomalies, journalism creates a wholly unrealistic picture of what the world is really like.

If news is how post-school individuals learn about the world, teaching in this way is irresponsible and destructive. As counter-intuitive as this sounds, what journalism really needs to be doing is describing the normal, the everyday and the average in compelling ways -- and I do mean compelling. It strikes me that one of the most important things journalism should do is inspire curiosity in the general public about how things work, why things are, and how things change. This, in part, is what Ezra Klein seems to be doing with Vox Media. I think that's the right direction.

Also, not quite on topic, is this passage from de Botton about the episodic nature of news (which he illustrates by quoting a snippet from the middle of "Anna Karenina" as though it were the top of a news story) that echoes many points in my own book:

... [T]he habit of randomly dipping readers into a brief moment in a lengthy narrative, then rapidly pulling them out again, while failing to provide any explanation of the wider context in which events have been unfolding, is precisely what occurs in the telling of many of the most important stories that run through our societies, whether an election, a budget negotiation, a foreign policy initiative or a change to the state benefit system. No wonder we get bored.
 If we think of journalism as pedagogy, we're much less likely to forget the context.