Posted by: structureofnews | April 17, 2011

The Puzzle of the Mystery

Hmmm.  Watch Tron: Legacy or reread old Malcolm Gladwell columns?  On a 15-hour flight from Hong Kong to New York in some of the most uncomfortable economy seats ever invented, you’ll do anything to pass the time.

The conclusion: Don’t watch the movie.  Or remakes of Hawaii 5-0 and Nikita.  But there’s good stuff in Gladwell’s What The Dog Saw, as there usually is from him.   In a 2007 column, “Open Secrets,”  he cites national security expert Gregory Treverton who made the distinction between “puzzles” and “mysteries,”  and gives it more relevance to future-of-journalism issues.

Puzzles are where you don’t have enough information – and the solution is to get some more.  Did the mayor take money under the table from the property developer to approve the deal?  Find a source who was in the room at the time, or dig up details of the bank transaction, for example.   A mystery, on the other hand, is where you already know enough to solve the crime – you just need to make sense of the information.  It’s like one of those Agatha Christie novels where Hercule Poirot explains to the assembled suspects how the disparate clues dropped throughout the book demonstrate clearly why the butler did it.

I’m not sure if that terminology is obvious to everyone – and there’s clearly overlap in the two categories – but it’s a very useful distinction in terms of thinking about the roles journalism plays and the jobs we’re trying to accomplish.

And Gladwell in fact cites two classic – and very different – journalism examples in the piece.

Enron’s blowup, he notes, is a classic mystery.  It’s not like Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Weil chanced upon a secret trove of Enron documents; what he and other reporters on the story did was pick through minute text in reams of public filings and piece together a picture of a company is trouble.  Everything was hiding in plain sight – it was just buried in an avalanche of information so that few people could make sense of it.  Contrast that to uncovering Watergate:

Watergate was a classic puzzle. Woodward and Bernstein were searching for a buried secret, and Deep Throat was their guide.  Did Jonathan Weil have a Deep Throat? Not really.

In a puzzle, he notes, adding more information moves you closer to the solution.  But with a mystery, too much information can overwhelm.  In fact, that often seems the point of huge releases of information – precisely to hide the good stuff in there.

Journalism, obviously, does both kinds of jobs – getting information to solve puzzles and helping make sense of mysteries.   If we get photos of the mayor taking bribes, that’s great puzzle-solving – and prize-winning journalism.  And if we can explain how systemic problems put Japanese nuclear reactors at risk, that’s great mystery-explaining – and also prize-winning journalism.

But a lot of what we do everyday is getting more information, and throwing it on a pile of ever-growing information – and not necessarily helping readers understand how it all connects or makes sense.  Sure, we do step-back pieces that put events into context; or build topics pages that pull related stories together – but too much of what we do is still focused on telling you what’s new, and more specifically, what’s new that day.

Not that that’s unimportant; it is a crucial role in many situations.  But we’re also entering an age where much more information is freely available, where companies and governments are bypassing the media to get their own stories and data out directly to the public.

And in a world like that, it becomes more and more important for us to focus as much on unraveling mysteries as well as providing the tools for readers to figure out mysteries by themselves as well.

WhoRunsHK is a good example; it doesn’t provide any information that isn’t already public.  And it hasn’t – yet – turned up an Enron-like problem in the ways people and companies in Hong Kong are connected (although give it time).  But it provides a tool for readers to explore and understand how interconnected the territory is, in a way that no ordinary news story could.

The Center for Responsive Politics, with its Open Secrets site, similarly throws up lots of public data on campaign contributions and – through its interface – allows users to explore and understand how money, influence and politics intersect.   More importantly, it lets users choose who they want to dig into; not who the reporter wants to dig into.

I’m not suggesting there isn’t a role for more ferreting out of information; that’s a critical function of journalism.  But only that we should be focusing as much on using that information in the broadest possible way to help people make sense of the world – make sense of the mysteries of the world.



  1. Regarding coverage of Fukushima, I would note the US media (at least) counts heavily on perspective and analysis from their “experts”, who seem mostly to be folks who have never worked in the nuclear industry and have only an academic or advocacy perspective. How well could your job be described by someone who was never a journalist? This doesn’t give me much faith when they cover similar topics.

    Regards, James Aach,

    Author of “Rad Decision: A Novel of Nuclear Power” based on my two decades in the nuclear industry. Rad Decision is currently available free online at . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.) Reader reviews are in the homepage comments – there are plenty of them. Given that the design of the featured reactor in the book is similar to Fukushima, as is the accident described, readers have found it helpful in understanding these events.

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