Know thy news

Published : Nov 27, 2013 12:30 IST

THERE is a peculiar effect familiar to us through the movies, of falling, and falling, in slow motion, motion slow enough to re-render your entire life in flashes of images, and even hint at what could have been. A new book on journalism evokes a somewhat similar sensation. At a time when at least the print part of the news media, at least in the West, is in free fall, and there is all round despair about the future of journalism, Thomas Patterson’s Informing the News recapitulates, in a series of swift discernments, the fatal flaws of the discipline and postulates how it ought to reinvent itself to continue to be relevant. The central revelation is that seeking knowledge and truth, rather than merely purveying fact and information, can make a world of difference, a paradigm change, to the practice of journalism and resynchronise it to the demands of our contexts and times.

But then we had always assumed that fact rather than truth was the remit of journalism. Truth was evasive even for the most dogged historian and belonged, if at all, to the intuitive or epiphanic grasp of the poet. “Poetry”, as Plato put it, “comes closer to vital truth than history”. That is, if we admit to truth being more than a chimera. In the Nietzschean way of the world, “the history of truth is the history of the longest lasting falsehood”. Even Walter Lippmann, who along with Marshall McLuhan made the most meaning of the communication era initiated by the United States, and who is profusely quoted throughout Patterson’s work, had warned that “News and truth are not the same thing, and must be clearly distinguished”.

The truth Patterson grandly characterises as “the holy grail of journalism” is actually far removed from such epistemological concerns and is a practical, limited exercise. It emerges, as he describes it, from the work, in the late 1990s, of the Committee of Concerned Journalists established in the U.S. by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (of The Elements of Journalism fame), which set about to try and arrest the perceived declining standards in journalism and held wide ranging discussions and public deliberations over two years to arrive at a “Statement of Shared Principles” which adapted truth to journalism’s purpose. “‘Journalistic truth’,” read the statement, “is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation. Journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information. Even in a world of expanding voices, accuracy is the foundation upon which everything else is built—context, interpretation, comment, criticism, analysis and debate. The truth, over time, emerges from this forum.”

There may be a bit of the American versus the rest (particularly European) in this approach to a philosophical category like truth. It is not so much a universal objective ideal to be striven for; it is, rather, a journalistic value constantly honed by, as Kovach and Rosenstiel put it, “first stripping information of any misinformation, disinformation, or self-promoting bias and then letting the community react.” This is a construct of truth as a work in progress. It is not a function of facts alone, for, as Patterson points out, “a story can be accurate in its particulars—what was said, when and where it happened, who witnessed it, and so on— and yet falter as a whole. Even if the facts check out, a story would not be true for that reason alone”. He goes on to ask, by way of illustrating this point, whether American journalism has provided the American public a true indication of what the Islamic world thought of the U.S. in the period after 9/11, or reflected the spike in anti-Americanism in parts of the Muslim world following the elimination of Osama bin Laden.

All this is only too obvious. Patterson’s book is of little help in suggesting a way around journalism’s dabble and babble with facts, a way to cut through the clutter of facts to arrive at the “truth”, even if as a modified or diminished idea tailored for journalism by the Committee of Concerned Journalists. If truth be told, we find ourselves concluding, journalism has really little to do with truth and if we thought Patterson was about to change all that with this book, we were mistaken. Having put us on the scent of truth as something distinct from fact, he seems to then use the two terms interchangeably, so that we wonder what the fuss about mistaking fact for truth was in the first place.

He interrogates somewhat more successfully the dubious role of objectivity in journalism. Historically, objective journalism came as a corrective to the rampant practice of yellow journalism at the turn of the 20th century. The principle of insulating news from advertisement and opinion became a means of ensuring its objectivity. It meant going beyond one’s subjectivity to seek out the other, opposing point of view. In actual practice, though, this often lapsed into a fetish for balance and the book cites the senior literary journalist Joan Didion’s characterisation of such balance as “a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring, but as it is presented”. This led to a tame, play-safe, “he said, she said” type of journalism. And yet a Carnegie Corporation Report of 2006 deplores that “diminished objectivity” along with “drive for profit” and “spread of the ‘entertainment virus’”, are driving the profession into decline. Objectivity continues to be touted as a notional journalistic virtue, although in practice it becomes an exercise in what journalist James Fallows calls “false equivalencies”, or what is downright subjective masquerading as, and being legitimised as, objective.

Patterson seems to be on surer ground when he makes the case for “knowledge” providing a new impetus and character to journalism. “Journalism,” he notes, “is not grounded in a systematic body of substantive knowledge that would protect its practitioners’ autonomy and inform their judgment.” This is unlike other professions, such as medicine, law, the sciences and so on where adequate domain knowledge is a prerequisite for practice. As a consequence, “journalists are often in the thankless position of knowing less about the subject at hand than the newsmakers they are covering, a reversal of the typical situation, in which the professional practitioner is the more knowledgeable party. Only rarely do clients know more about the law than do their attorneys whereas newsmakers know more about the issue at hand than the journalists covering them. During the Persian Gulf War, journalists who visited the Pentagon press office were greeted with a sign that read, ‘Welcome Temporary War Experts’.”

That, on the face of it, would seem to make it an impossibly unequal relationship for the journalist who shifts from subject to subject based not necessarily on his own subject expertise, but on the subject’s news value at a given time. As Patterson points out, “Journalism is not a tidy discipline, nor are its subjects narrowly defined. It is one thing to explain the economy, which is difficult enough, and another thing to explain nearly the whole of public life.” But he is unclear about how exactly journalism out there can become more knowledgeable, except to throw broad hints at the vast resources offered up by the Internet to the journalist much like to anyone else, including the citizen journalist.

Even here Patterson makes a distinction between “the injection of knowledge into news stories” that the Internet can help in and the “application of knowledge to reporting” which, he says (citing Cambridge University scientist W.I.B. Beveridge), “enables the investigator to recognise things that would otherwise be misunderstood or go unnoticed. Knowledge can enable reporters to recognise whether they are on the right track with their explanations; whether they are keeping things in proportion; whether they are weighing plausible alternatives; whether they are avoiding attribution errors; whether they are fending off source fabrications; whether they are on target with their trend analyses and comparisons; and whether they are challenging their taken-for-granted assumptions”.

As we continue to be in the dark about where and how the journalist acquires such knowledge, Patterson is convinced that “the world of knowledge and the world of the newsroom are closer together today than ever before”. There is a sense of a departure from the well-worn understanding of the journalist as a hack, his work as inferior journalese and his intellectual ken as dilettantist.

The J-school In the later part of the book we realise that this knowledge track Patterson paves for journalism begins in the journalism school and not in the newsroom and may not really easily accommodate the mid-career journalist already in the race, unless, of course, he is (as journalists often are) an autodidact on the job, or a subject specialist who has chosen to become a hack. The J-school becomes the nodal agency, in Patterson’s scheme (even if by default because he does not point to any other as definitively), which can imbue journalism with the broad reflective knowledge that makes for greater depth of reporting and generally for a more thinking and thought-encouraging professional practice.

Although, even at the turn of the last century, Joseph Pulitzer saw journalism as an intellectual profession and founded the Columbia School of Journalism to, in his words, “elevate and educate in a practical way the… members of that profession, exactly as if it were the profession of law or medicine”, the J-school has for long been the butt of ridicule particularly among hardnosed self-made journalists.

Patterson tells us about a cartoon commonly seen on the walls of newspaper offices through the first half of the 20th century, which depicts an editor asking a candidate appearing for a job, “And what, may I ask, is a school of journalism?” When, in 1935, Columbia University reduced the duration of its journalism programme from two years to one, the New York Daily News commented that it was a “step in the right direction” and added gleefully that “it was still a year too long”.

We have our own version of how the industry viewed university courses such as communications studies (which were supposed to prepare one for a career in journalism) in the anecdote, probably apocryphal, of a former Editor of The Hindu assuring a job applicant proffering his communications degree certificate as proof of his capability, “We won’t hold it against you.” If the J-school with a curriculum focussed on journalism is relatively new in India and the earlier courses on communication had little to do with journalism, the pedagogic issue in American J-schools is whether and how to combine training in core skill sets, which makes one adept at handling the tools of journalism, with knowledge-induced education that broadens one’s intellectual horizons.

We had firsthand experience of this academic tension between garnering knowledge in the broader sense and acquiring the specific journalistic skills when, at the turn of this century, three of us involved with setting up the Asian College of Journalism (senior editor and journalist N. Ram, economist and writer C.P. Chandrasekhar and I) visited, among others, the Columbia J-school and the journalism department at New York University to learn about their respective programmes. The then Chair of the journalism department in New York University, Mitchell Stephens (who also figures fairly prominently in Patterson’s book), told us about how his programme tended to give weightage and preference to the reflective knowledge aspect over skills training.

At the Columbia J-School, Dean Tom Goldstein spoke about his course being more hands-on and skills-driven. Both of them seemed to feel that their course content could have a bit more of the other—more training for skill sets in the case of NYU’s journalism programme and more in terms of education for knowledge enhancement in the case of the Columbia J-school. It was for us a timely input so that when we designed the curriculum of the ACJ, we were able to keep the need for a judicious mix of the two in mind, and get it more or less right—way ahead, as it turns out, of many universities with journalism programmes in the West.

It was not until three or four years later that the need for a better infusion of the knowledge aspect into the journalism course at Columbia University was flagged by its president, Lee Bollinger, who set up a task force to look ahead at “how journalism education in a great university can contribute to the process by which the media adapt to a new world”. The ensuing discussion and debate largely revolved around the skills versus knowledge axis and was informed by Bollinger’s realisation that “one of the most significant needs for journalists today is to have a high level of knowledge about the subject they are reporting and communicating”. The fact that well over a decade later, in his work published this year, Thomas Patterson continues to discuss the need for better integration of knowledge and skills in American journalism education indicates that the issue has not quite been settled.

In-depth in favour What is surprising, however, is that the objective conditions today seem to be working against lowering of standards to the least common denominator and actually favouring a qualitative improvement and sophistication, as against quantitative mass-sell, of journalism. Patterson cites a study correlating audience rating and news content by the Project for Excellence in Journalism spread over five years and covering 154 local TV stations in the U.S., which showed that the longer and more in-depth a story, the better the viewership rating; that newscasts with fewer but longer and well-treated stories were rated better than those with far more, but shorter, stories.

A more recent study this year by the same organisation points to the higher economic brackets ceasing to watch or read news when there is a decline in quality. The market, it seems, churns and segments and remobilises to resist and reverse the dumb-down-to-conquer rule.

So maybe, just maybe, we could, as cinematically as we began, end or break the fall by breaking out of it to discover that it was after all a dream. A new journalism of knowledge hopefully awaits us somewhere in the future.

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