Knowing Whereof One Speaks (or Not)
Long-time readers of this blog will recall that, back in late 2011, Natalie Arriola, a participant in an online photography forum that I joined briefly, asked, in all seriousness, “What makes the opinion of a certain highly informed person more valid than that of someone who is not informed?” As I rephrased her query, “What makes the opinion of a person who’s knowledgeable about a given subject more valid than that of someone who doesn’t know shit from Shinola about it?”
I’m reminded of Republican Senator Roman Hruska of Nebraska coming to the defense of Richard Nixon’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Court of Appeals Judge G. Harrold Carswell of Florida, derided by many as mediocre and thus unqualified. “Even if he were mediocre,” Hruska argued in 1970, “there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.” (Carswell’s nomination was defeated.)
Hruska apparently lacked familiarity with what in literary criticism they call “the fallacy of imitative form” ― the errneous belief that to convey the boring character of a protagonist you should write about him in a boring way. I find Hruska’s question laughable, as I do Arriola’s, in that (for me, at least) they both answer themselves. I consider the very act of posing them as demonstrations of the Dunning-Kruger effect, “a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.” (Click here for “John Cleese Explaining Stupidity,” a YouTube video summarizing this research.)
Thomas E. Patterson takes these questions seriously enough to devote an entire book to them: Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism (Vintage Books, 2013), which I read over the holidays.
Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the Harvard Kennedy School and the founder of the Journalist’s Resource website. Based on the research and analysis resulting from a multi-year initiative of the Carnegie Corporation and the Knight Foundation, his book constitutes a harsh critique of current journalistic tendencies as evidenced on all platforms: print, broadcast, internet. To reverse this state of affairs, Patterson urges a massive rethinking and reconfiguration of current journalism education and practice.
His premise (pace Arriola) goes back to the Founding Fathers’ belief that the health of a democracy depends on an informed citizenry, not merely an opinionated one. He identifies with surgical precision the flaw in that process: “Journalism is not grounded in a systematic body of substantive knowledge that would protect its practitioners’ autonomy and inform their judgment.”
Contrary to Arriola, who asserts that “I do believe that all opinions hold equal weight until someone comes along and says otherwise,” Patterson values informed opinion above uninformed opinion, as do I and a dwindling number of other people. Which means that, for example, David D. Kirkpatrick’s carefully researched December 28, 2013 New York Times report on the 2011 consulate attack, “A Deadly Mix in Benghazi,” trumps all of the blather of the Fox News recta and Rush Limbaugh and his dittoheads combined.
According to Patterson, a report prepared for the Carnegie-Knight Initiative by Wolfgang Donsbach and Thomas Fielder “identified five competencies that journalists need to acquire: (1) awareness of relevant history, current affairs, and analytical thinking; (2) expertise in the specific subjects to be reported upon; (2) knowledge of the processes of journalism; (4) awareness of ethical standards; and (5) mastery of practical skills.” All of which, I should add, pertain equally to photojournalism, though Patterson does not specifically discuss that subset of the discipline.
Amateurs vs. Professionals
It may seem preposterous to have to advocate for and even defend “knowledge-based journalism” against ignorant or dumb attitudination. But we live amidst a growing faith in the reliability of what Jaron Lanier and others refer to as “hive mind,” the collective wisdom (and lack thereof) of whatever amorphous and usually anonymous aggregate one might encounter in an online forum or the listener base for a call-in talk show or the habitués of your neighborhood sports bar.
Hive mind has created little of note in hard reportage beyond its augmentation of professional eyes on the ground with myriad citizen journalists distributing raw material ― especially still photos and videos ― through social media and the internet. If the amateur video of the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan during a 2009 street demonstration in Tehran and waitstaff bartender Scott Prouty’s surreptitious 2012 video of Mitt Romney dissing the “47 percent” represent the apogee of citizen journalism, then we saw its down side, if not its nadir, in the false accusations and misinformation spread irresponsibly on Reddit, 4chan, and other social-media sites during the hunt for the bombers who perpetrated the 2013 attack on the Boston Marathon. The unprofessional excesses of the online volunteers actually infected the serious journalistic investigation into the crimes.
That demonstrates the need for professionals trained to separate rumor from fact, skilled at verifying and sourcing facts, writing under bylines with their own names rather than anonymously, which makes them accountable for their sins of omission and commission, and doing so in print or at websites that keep published material archived online and correct errors on the record.
Unlike the myriad nameless cowards who populate forums, the comments sections of various websites, and social media, and simply delete their problematic comments when challenged or impeached, professional journalists don’t hide behind pseudonyms, and they own up to their failings. I distrust and generally disregard print or online material that doesn’t come with the verifiable name of a human being attached; in my experience, most such stuff emanates from trolls, ranking just a half-step above spam from the Mugu Guymen of Lagos.
The Road Not (Yet) Taken
Patterson’s book offers some cause for hope that the condition of journalism could improve dramatically. First, the studies he summarizes and draws on therein, commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation and the Knight Foundation, indicate that Gresham’s Law doesn’t operate as dependably in this situation as it does in economics; bad journalism inevitably doesn’t drive out good journalism. The news stories that people follow and spend time on are issue-oriented, not celebrity-driven; substantive investigative journalism and news analysis ― what some call “long-form journalism” ―has much greater stickiness, and gets forwarded more frequently, than trash talk and scandal-mongering.
On that basis, Patterson argues plausibly that media investment in soft news, celebrity gossip, and general chatter delivered by amiable but otherwise vapid personalities wastes resources that, thinking strictly of the bottom line, they would expend more profitably on serious investigative journalism by people with susbtantial journalistic chops combined with in-depth knowledge of the subjects they cover, who would attract more attentive and loyal readers and viewers.
And Patterson calls on journalism schools to go beyond merely teaching the basic craft skills of the profession (journalistic writing styles, interviewing, fact-checking, meeting deadlines, and such). He recommends that these schools draw on the specialized expertise their faculty members developed in domestic politics, foreign policy, economics, science, cultural affairs, and other areas during their professional careers in the field, embedding those formally in their curricula.
For j-schools positioned within colleges and universities he suggests pursuing interdisciplinary possibilities, building relationships with other departments and encouraging, perhaps even requiring j-students to consider split or double majors, so that they graduate with enhanced skill sets and backgrounds that will increase their chances of employment and enhance their reportage.
That would constitute knowledge-based journalism, reversing the tendency to train journalists as generalists who call on experts for opinions that they’re unqualified to challenge or corroborate themselves. Such informed professionals, Patterson believes, would attract readers and viewers in numbers that would more than justify their employment.
Though definitely an optimist, Patterson doesn’t strike me as a Pollyanna. He sees this as win-win, and I agree. But what he envisions would require, at the very least, a significant change of direction in print, broadcast, and online journalism, as well as a radical overhaul of journalism-school pedagogy. So I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but I won’t hold my breath.
This post supported by a donation from the Estate of Lyle Bongé.