Truth is the holy grail of journalism. But ‘truth’ as we might understand it in the academic or scientific sense is quite different from its journalistic sense. It is not something we test in the lab or subject to peer review or double-blind studies.
Rather, it emerges out of a complex world of personal bias, information sorting, debate and analysis, fact checking and demanding time constraints. The problem, however, is that many if not most journalists fail to apply the kind of rigorous standards to their work as do scientists and academics.
While stories are often correct in their particulars, “what was said, when and where it happened, who witnessed it, and so on,” whether or not the story is true is usually ignored by the average journalist.
What he or she really hopes to achieve is not to establish the truth of a particular matter but to write a ‘story.’ This might seem like a trivial point to make but there is a noticeable trend in the growing criticism of journalism as a profession: it tends to argue that journalists either don’t know what they are talking about or are uninterested in the truth.
While I largely agree with this analysis, I don’t think this is the fault of individual journalists per se. Rather, it has much more to do with the nature of the profession itself.
As Professor Thomas E. Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, argues in his 2013 book Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism, “journalism is not rooted in a body of substantive knowledge” as the hard sciences are. What Patterson argues is that if this question is going to be properly addressed, we have to recognize that journalism suffers from a “knowledge deficit.”
This is especially problematic when journalists are reporting on complex subjects and where the news-makers often understand the subject better than the news reporters do.
Not only does the public feel this way but people in other professions such as business or the law, will often state that journalists seem to lack even basic knowledge of their fields. The central question then is how can journalism as a profession address this knowledge problem?
According to Patterson, what is missing from the craft is a knowledge base. What he means by this is that there is an absence not only of specialists in the field but an absence of specialists in journalists’ reporting too.
“Roughly a fifth of the sources cited in their news stories are scholars, professionals, former officials, and the like,” says Patterson.
Although “the number of reporters with advanced degrees in fields such as science, health, economics and laws has steadily increased,” journalists with specialized knowledge in specific fields still make up a relatively small proportion of reporters and writers.
The vast majority of journalists are trained at journalism schools. In other words, they receive technical skills and technical training. Yet, these same journalists are then expected to explain and critique for an eager public fields as messy and complicated as international relations or commerce.
What journalists are taught and trained to do is to collect and present information. They are taught the skills of the trade — how to write a feature piece, conducting an interview, copy-editing and so on. Journalists are not trained to be specialists or professionals who apply knowledge to specific problems or phenomenon.
However, this ultimately begs the question: who is a knowledge journalist? According to Matthew Nisbet, an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, the knowledge journalist or the ‘specialist’ is someone who applies “deductive, specialized understanding to problems.”
Some journalists are of this type but they are a minority when compared to the journalistic standard. What we have to ask ourselves is how this problem can be solved. This issue will only get worse as the Internet increasingly overtakes newspapers and magazines. The standards are much lower and anyone can do it. One does not even have to be a trained journalist to write articles or feature pieces for many of the most popular websites or blogs on the Internet.
Moreover, the sites themselves are driving a particularly worrying trend. For example, in order to increase revenues and attract more visitors, sites such as Salon are reposting previously published articles. With the decline of newsprint, is this where we truly want people going for their news?
Some argue that if the culture and standards of journalism change, the profession can not only rebuild its image but a loyal and dedicated readership. For people like Patterson and Nisbet, addressing the problem has to start at the schools, in particular at the college and university level. What Patterson argues is that journalism schools as well as universities that offer journalism courses, have to figure out “how to align practice with scholarship.”
While this sounds like a relatively easy idea, it is anything but. How exactly would a school construct a program around reporting ‘overseas’ or ‘business reporting’?
It is also a question of how schools can balance the technical training that all journalists need while preparing them to specialize in a particular field. We want journalists to be able to craft high quality, well-written stories, however, we also need them to understand and be able to critique the fields they are reporting on.
Without such knowledge and without the methods and skills to apply it, journalists can easily succumb to manipulation, misreading of sources and flat out inaccuracies when they do not understand or fully comprehend what they are writing about. What we also tend to get from this kind of reporting is journalists, especially on websites and blogs, relying on subjective and idiosyncratic rather than objective methods of reporting.
As Patterson argues, “knowledge is the starting point as well as the end product of systematic inquiry, guiding the practitioner in what to look for as well as what to make of what is found.”
This desire to base journalism on specialized knowledge, principles of objective reporting, academic studies and hard data, to make journalism into an intellectual pursuit, in other words, has its detractors. The argument to make journalism more rigorous and more of a profession that resembles the sciences simply does not reflect the world that journalists are operating in.
Journalists must deal with intense and demanding deadlines, strict space limitations and the ever present demand to impress and please an audience. Academia, for the most part, does not have to worry about this. However, I think the similarities outweigh the differences. Both seek to explain phenomena, establish facts, and both aim to establish the truth.
Unfortunately, as long as journalists continue to suffer from a ‘knowledge deficit’ and a lack of specialized training, people will continue to feel that news stories are riddled with assumptions, unreliable sources and basic misunderstandings. Moreover, this perception that there are better and altogether more reliable sources for information will only worsen and deepen the mistrust between us and our readers.