How Journalism's Changes are Changing Our Ways of Knowing

8 years ago

Something has been missing from our conversations about the changing nature of news and journalism education, and after gnawing on it for months, I think I finally have the words. Of course teaching students to tell stories across platforms is essential, and so is understanding the impact of new technologies on business models. But we also have to research and teach about how these new tools affect the epistemology of journalism.

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with what we know, how we know it, and how we decide what’s worth knowing. Because journalists are concerned with finding, as Bob Woodward put it, “the best available version of the truth,” the processes and tools that we use to establish truth are central concerns to our profession. Truth, of course, is a contested ideal that journalists try to achieve through a discipline of verification.

[Now, I’m not a trained philosopher or scholar of rhetoric, so I’ve been reading someone who is, rhetoric professor Andrew Cline. His 2004 essay,
“Toward a field theory of journalism,”
concisely describes the prevailing journalistic ways of knowing in news reporting:

“Reporters observe events and other physical data and/or speak to those who have. The meaning of events (a concept slipping dangerously close to the subjective) is limited to a narrow range of contemporary issues and relationships.

Because it is empirically verifiable that humans disagree about events (our opinions), reporters collect data from ╘both sides╒ and present these data without comment, allowing readers to apply their own reasoning to discover the incorrect opinion versus the correct representation of events.]

The technologies we use affect our understanding of the fact-patterns that determine whether we have a story, as well as how that story is presented.
Ideally, we only report what we can verify. Increasingly, we really upon computing technologies in order to detect, organize, and present the facts that we offer up as news stories. It seems reasonable to ask how the changing tools of newsgathering, presentation and delivery affect the ways that we define, verify and prioritize verifiable facts.

We’ve seen a version of this problem before. Remember when television news stations got those mobile cameras and helicopters? Suddenly, every city had an AC-tion news van zipping around town and every day, the lead story was a fire, massive car crash, major drug bust, or some other visual spectacle. Television demanded pictures. The problem, , is that producers increasingly sacrificed explanatory journalism, depth and context.

Here are some of the places where I think we can see those changes occurring that are fundamentally affecting longstanding journalistic practices and standards. I am not necessarily asserting that all of these changes are bad. Rather they are worth noting in order to understand the role that changing journalistic practice plays in our public discourse.

Who’s at the table?

Over the last 40 years, there has been an increasing emphasis on broadening participation in all aspects of the newsgathering process. In the 70s, that meant improving the race and gender diversity of newsroom staffs and sources. In the 80s, the advent of USA Today brought greater attention to visual journalists. In the 1990s, Poynter Institute started pushing the ”Writing-Editing-Design” concept – bringing the visual journalists and page designers to the table early in the editorial process, instead of calling them just to illustrate and lay out stories that have already been written.

Megan Taylor has written an invaluable series of essays about the increasing centrality of computing professionals in the newsroom. She traced the evolution of the “programmer-journalist” from the era of the programmers and journogeeks who built databases of public records for investigative reporting to the today’s cadre of game-builders, infographic designers and content management system developers. But according to Taylor, programmers and journalists often struggle with miscommunication:

This problem comes from a common feature of project development in the programming culture -- the requirements document. This tells the programmer exactly what is needed. A programmer without media experience will do just what they've been trained to do -- build a project to meet these specifications.
However, the programmer/journalist often knows the difference between what is needed and what's in the requirements document.

What the programmer/journalist won’t necessarily know, though, is how technology development affects other news values and priorities, such as diversity. That’s why it’s important to have a cadre of tech-savvy editors and managers. I’m not finding much discussion about diversity in discussions about the new business and technology models for news, aside from efforts to make sure websites and apps comply with accessibility standards. I’m all for that, but what about ensuring that the pool and pipeline of programming talent is diverse? Can we think about mobile news apps for people who can’t afford iPhones?

Mashups that pull information from public records can misrepresent facts if the software is buggy.

Last April, Amy Gahran blogged a Los Angeles Times story revealing that a crime map featured on the Los Angeles police department website was producing faulty data because of an error in the software that plotted the locations of specific crime. Thus, crime clusters were showing up in low-crime neighborhoods, and some high-crime areas appeared deceptively safe. The error was particularly vexing for the high-profile news aggregator, Everyblock.com, which relied on the maps and as part of its coverage. In response, Everyblock’s founder, Adrian Holovaty, announced that they were implementing their own software to verify the accuracy of the LAPD data.

Gahran draws a clear lesson for newsrooms from the episode:

“If your news organization is using geodata to create interactive online features, you might want to consider ways to double-check for possible accuracy issues, perhaps by checking the results yielded by a different tool set to see if and how it handled the data differently.”

What all of this means is that we ought to be training the next generation of news managers not only to make editorial decisions, but also as reflective technology managers as well. What do you think?

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