Posted by: structureofnews | April 17, 2013


My last post – on how well (or not) stories communicated information – got a little more response than usual (thanks, Mom!). Including this insightful – and provocative – tweet from Jonathan Stray:

For me, journalism is not about telling stories.  Stories are a means to an end.  But, a beautiful and effective means.

That makes sense:  After all, if journalism is here to serve the public interest, then what it does – stories, visualizations, games, curation, tweets – is really just a means to that end.  Right?

That depends.  It depends on what you think the end is.  And for a lot of journalists, the goal is writing a great story rather than dwelling on whether or how it advances the cause of a well-informed citizenry and facilitates the practice of democracy.  That’s not necessarily a bad or shortsighted view – most doctors are more concerned about the patient in front of them than about the state of public health in general, and there are virtues in that approach.  (Weaknesses, too.)

In any case, it does point to an interesting divide in how we think about journalism and why we’re here. (Or on what basis we claim privileges for our profession.)

In many ways, Jonathan stands out in this debate – not just because he’s articulate and smart, but also because he comes to journalism in a non-traditional manner.  A computer scientist by training and experience, he enrolled in the journalism program at Hong Kong University – where I met him back in 2010 – to learn, he told me, the ways of “the tribe of journalism.”

Since then he’s moved on, first to the AP, and now building out the Overview project, a Knight Challenge winner, while continuing to write at Nieman Labs. (His personal blog is here.)

In his writing, Jonathan brings a different – and fresh – perspective to what we do: Among other things, he’s asked what journalism’s “theory of change” should be, talked about the many roles we fulfill in society, questioned how well we actually inform the public, or even whether that’s a goal we even embrace at all.

It’s been said that the role of journalism is to inform, but informing seems like a means, not an end, and I believe that a better world is the ultimate goal for journalism.

In other words, he casts a skeptical eye on journalism’s broader claims to serve the broader public interest and help the democratic process.

While newsrooms typically see themselves in the business of story creation, an organization committed to informing, not just publishing, would have to operate somewhat differently.

It’s true that most journalists, like doctors who focus mostly on saving one patient at time, are concentrating on one story, one beat or one publication at a time; we mostly hope that the sum total of our efforts will improve the knowledge of the world, just as doctors believe individual acts of medicine will improve public health outcomes overall.

But clearly that’s not a given.  Even our definition of “news” can get in the way of informing people, as Jonathan notes (and I’ve argued here regularly as well):

There is a deeply ingrained newsroom emphasis on reporting only what’s “new.” A budget report only gets to be news once, even if what it says is relevant for years. But there are no “editions” online; the same headline can float on the hot topics list for as long as it’s relevant.

(Hence my pitch for structured journalism.  But I digress.)

Jonathan’s not the only voice in this area, of course, and increasingly non-profit journalism organizations are being asked by their funders to demonstrate impact from the work they do.  Dick Tofel, Propublica’s president, came up with a smart white paper on the subject recently, dissecting the various metrics that have surfaced.  (Well worth reading.) And there’s clearly a great deal of academic work that’s been done here as well, the details of which I’m sure I wouldn’t do justice to.

But more broadly, there’s a slippery slope here, on a number of fronts.  Is journalism really only, or mainly, here to serve the purpose of informing the citizenry?  (Or provide a forum for discussion, or help set the national agenda, or the various other roles it’s been credited with.)  If we can prove empirically that it doesn’t do that well, should we kill it off?

There was a spirited online discussion the other day after David Kaplan wrote a post at the Global Investigative Journalism Network arguing that we should make a better case for the impact of investigative journalism in deterring corruption; Sheila Coronel commented on her own blog that, much as we should defend the need for investigative journalism, we should be careful how effective we claim it is.

The truth is, it’s hard to prove the real impact of journalism. We can track if people are better informed over time, but there are multiple variables at play here; how much can we credit – or blame – journalism for?

And then there’s the question of the many forms of journalism – including the “watchdog” and “scarecrow” kind, the latter which keeps an eye on the day-to-day functioning of institutions.  Who’s to say how much wrongdoing the scarecrow might have deterred?  It’s hard to measure what didn’t happen.

Even more complex is the question of what journalism is, and who journalists are, in a digital world; the media landscape has many more players now, and trying to figure out who fulfills the functions of journalism is a tricky one.

But Jonathan tries – and it’s certainly a worthwhile topic to explore.  If we’re going to make claims that we as a profession should have special rights, or receive public funding (or subsidies), we should be willing to delve into the issue. Not all journalists will care – as not all doctors care about public health policy – but these are important questions for us overall.

Of course, some might ultimately argue – as I would – that freedom of the press is as much a basic need as freedom of expression, regardless of impact. That’s not dissimilar to that argument that Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen made in Development as Freedom, where he made the case that development required the provision of a number of key rights, whether or not they helped alleviate poverty.

In other words, good journalism is in itself the end, not simply the means.  Perhaps. Certainly, as Jonathan notes, a great story – or a great visualization – is simply beautiful.  And maybe that’s as good a reason as any to do it.

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