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Voices / Viewpoint

Can smarter journalism save democracy?

A new book makes the case for journalists as essential to an informed public in an increasingly complex world

Randolph T. Holhut, deputy editor of The Commons, has more than three decades of experience in print and broadcast journalism.

Dummerston

After more than three decades in journalism, I know what goes into the sausage that is your daily newspaper or nightly newscast.

The ingredients in that sausage might not always be savory to look at or expertly prepared, but the audience expects its links of newsy goodness every day, and usually doesn’t complain about what it gets.

For those who do complain, those of us in the business can recite the complaints by rote — you’re biased and one-sided, you’re only interested in selling papers, you never get anything right, and why don’t you print more good news?

Like any human enterprise, journalism is only as good as the humans involved in producing it. And, as the world gets more complicated, good journalism is needed more than ever.

That’s the central thesis of Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism, a new book by Thomas E. Patterson.

Patterson is the Bradlee professor of government and the press at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government (and one of my teachers when I attended the Kennedy School during the 1996-97 school year). He has written several books on politics and electoral participation, but this is his first book that focuses on journalism and its role in creating an informed electorate.

It’s not a new topic. Walter Lippmann, one of the great political thinkers and writers of the 20th century, was writing about these issues nearly 100 years ago, and Patterson isn’t shy about relying on Lippmann in his book.

The difference is that we are in the midst of a communications revolution that Lippmann and his contemporaries never foresaw.

The Internet, and the torrent of data it has unleashed, has all but obliterated the existing folkways of journalism. Speed is more important than accuracy. Buzz is more important than substance. Fact-checking and research have become quaint, and misinformation can speed around the globe before the truth can have its say.

“Americans have been ill-served by the intermediaries — the journalists, politicians, talk show hosts, pundits, and bloggers — that claim to be their trusted guides,” writes Patterson.

“Public life is increasingly complex, and we need an ongoing source of timely and relevant information on the issues of the day. That’s why we need journalists.”

* * *

But the game is rigged against good journalism happening.

Today, we find three public relations people for every one journalist in the United States. That ratio keeps growing as newsrooms downsize and reporters succumb to the siren song of better pay and better hours that comes with doing P.R. instead.

With more P.R. people comes more spin, and they ending up writing more of the news each day than the journalists do.

Then there is the problem of objectivity.

The standard reporting model is that person A says something, and person B is brought in to provide an opposing viewpoint. But that model works only when people are speaking truthfully.

“The objective model of American journalism offers a weak defense against factual distortions,” writes Patterson. “Not only does the commitment to fairness invite such distortions, it allows them to pass unchecked.”

That’s because of the other major problem with the press: more concern about “balance” than about factual integrity.

With a legion of press critics and political groups ready to pounce at a moment’s notice, it is safer to stick to the false equivalency of the “he said, she said” model, or to adopt the “both sides do it” narrative, than it is to provide context or call B.S. on a lying public official or corporate chieftain.

And observation and interviewing, the mainstays of newsgathering, can get you only so far, especially when all you get to see and hear is what your source wants you to know.

Unfortunately, the confidence to stand up to sources you know are jiving you comes only with knowledge and experience that takes years to learn. But fewer journalists with that knowledge and experience remain, because so many have left the profession.

Today’s news reporters have to multitask and file multiple short stories each day to feed the ravenous maw of the Internet. They don’t have time to be thorough, and their bosses don’t demand it.

* * *

That’s why context and deeper knowledge of the subject matter can act as an antidote to spin.

The Carnegie Corporation and the Knight Foundation recently launched an initiative, which Patterson was involved in developing, to create a major overhaul of journalism education. The two foundations came up with a list of five competencies that journalists should acquire:

• Awareness of relevant history, current affairs, and analytical thinking.

• Expertise in specific subjects to be reported upon.

• Knowledge of the processes of journalism.

• Awareness of ethical standards.

• Mastery of practical skills.

The problem is that most journalism education takes that list in reverse order, emphasizing practical skills and not developing other needed abilities, such as numerical literacy, or the ability to research a given subject deeply on the fly.

Patterson quotes Mitchell Stephens, the head of New York University’s journalism program and one of the more innovative people in the field, on what is needed from the next generation of journalists.

“Quality journalism should be defined not by the ability to bear witness, to pursue facts, to array the five Ws [who, what, where, when, and why], but by the ability to write stories that are interpretive, informed, intelligent, interesting, and insightful,” Stephens said. “[This standard] will require more of journalists — more education in a subject, probably, more study, more thoughtfulness, fresher thinking. It will require the ambition not to recount, not only to uncover, but to explain, illuminate, and enlighten.”

That’s easier said than done in a media landscape where traditional media has gone through two decades of cutbacks, layoffs, and retrenchment. But there is plenty of data that shows that the newspapers and broadcasters who deliver the best and strongest content have the greatest success in holding on to their audiences.

* * *

Patterson also believes that stronger and more informed reporting is not just good for business. It is also good for democracy.

“Never has so much information been available to us, and never before have we had a greater need for information grounded in facts rather than spin and misinformation,” Patterson writes. “Journalists’ civic contribution will ultimately rest on whether they are able to assert greater control over the facts.”

Without accurate information, we cannot have a functioning democracy.

The question is whether journalism can be rescued from the forces that are preventing it from doing that job.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #236 (Wednesday, January 8, 2014). This story appeared on page C1.

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