To paraphrase Desi Arnaz, American journalists “have a lot of esplainin’ to do.”
How is it that in this media-marinated era, where more information is more available to more people than ever before in history, so many can be so massively misinformed? How is it that so many can ignore the cold science of global warming? Or confuse Saddam Hussein with Al Qaeda? Or buy into the swiftboating of John Kerry? The “birther” myth of Obama?
Harvard’s Thomas Patterson confronts these questions in Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism. Patterson raises an alarm that poor information, especially in abundance, erodes the very essence of democracy. The citizenry finds itself “ill-served by the intermediaries—the journalists … talk show hosts, pundits, and bloggers—that claim to be their trusted guides.” He flatly rules: “Information corruption is deeply rooted in contemporary America.”
Patterson warns about the rise of soft news, the ginning up of minor conflicts, beltway gotcha sniping, celebrity obsession, superficial and episodic reporting, cable news chatter, and one-sided “partisan media.”
Heaping scorn on the 2001 four-month “reporting” marathon that tried to link former Congressman Gary Condit to the death of Chandra Levy, interrupted only by the downing of the Twin Towers, Patterson says: “if journalists had not been preoccupied with the life of a backbench congressman, they might have acquired a better understanding of who was behind the terrorist attacks.” Only a few months before, a report predicting a “catastrophic attack” penned by former senators on the U.S. Commission on National Security was roundly ignored by the major media.
The root of the corruption of the American news media, Patterson argues, is that most journalists just don’t know that much about the subject matters they report on. Journalism schools, furthermore, have aggravated the problem by focusing far too much on how to write, broadcast and present information rather than how to understand it, acquire the necessary knowledge and apply it.
Media organizations must start getting serious about getting serious. Budding journalists must master the knowledge of the subjects under their purview and journalism schools can no longer be thinly disguised “trade schools.”
Only a handful of pages are dedicated to the impact of the web while the reader is drenched in wise-man quotes about integrity journalism from deceased former bottomless fonts of conventional wisdom such as David Broder and Jack Germond.
All that is indisputable, but it isn’t enough.
What disappoints is Patterson’s failure to give any notion of what this new, revived journalism would look like—though he does point to the Knight-Carnegie News21 Initiative that began mid-decade and ran through 2012. I co-directed the News21 program and while immersing 10 grad students in a semester-long class on a specific subject area better prepared them to report on the subject, I found this neither surprising nor game-changing.
Ironically, a big part of the solution that Patterson seeks is to be found in something he mostly ignores except to rather openly disdain: the truly revolutionary emergence of new media. Only a handful of pages are dedicated to the impact of the web while the reader is drenched in wise-man quotes about integrity journalism from deceased former bottomless fonts of conventional wisdom such as David Broder and Jack Germond.
Completely overlooked are two key points about the new media ecology. Journalism schools, no matter how they may be reformed or modernized, are hardly destined to be the primary incubators of—yes—“content providers” in the near future. Indeed, it’s an open question how many of them will survive the next decade. Secondly, many of the blogs, citizen journalists, and user-generated content sites functioning today and shrugged off by Patterson are quite often precisely the sort of deep knowledge-based outlets he argues that “old-fashioned journalism” can be enriched by.
Need we go much farther than the work of gambling blogger Nate Silver, whose profound knowledge of numbers and polling eclipsed all the beltway pundits and hacks during the 2008 and 2012 election cycles? Do you think you would have been better informed about Obama’s rise in 2008 by reading Broder rather than Silver? Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog provides the most profound and nuanced knowledge of Middle Eastern affairs to be found anywhere. And then there was that unprofessional advocacy-oriented “blogger” for Salon (then for The Guardian and now for the startup FirstLook) named Glenn Greenwald who blew The New York Times and The Washington Post out of the water on national security reporting before anybody heard of Edward Snowden.
I give Patterson credit for boldly denying what many of us believe are the self-evident benefits of deeper citizen engagement, in not just the consumption but also the production of news, by declaring that the “relationship between the public and the journalist is naturally one-sided.” Patterson winds up with a verbal punch from Yale Law School’s Bruce Ackerman saying, “Serious reporting on national and international affairs isn’t for amateurs.”
OK. It depends on what he and Patterson mean by amateurs. But journalists, by the author’s own thesis, hardly hold a monopoly on knowledge. Knowledge-based journalism is a great idea. But in a historical moment in which the costs of publishing have dropped to zero and the legacy gatekeepers are being pushed aside, why should we still be smugly erecting artificial walls between reporters and citizens and so-called professionals and amateurs.
If knowledge is the golden coin of the realm, then, please, let the truly knowledgeable rise up and be heard.
Marc Cooper is Associate Professor of Journalism and Director of Annenberg Digital News at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.