Is It Likely That a Seismic Shift Can Occur in Journalism?

[30 October 2013]

By Scott Elingburg

The state of journalism, and what passes for journalism, is an easy target. Bemoaning the lack of newsworthiness from media outlets, railing against bias, and targeting journalists for shoddy work is an American pastime. It’s a well-documented phenomenon that has disrupted family dinners and caused sleepless nights.

Fitting, then, that as Thomas E. Patterson’s missive, Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism, lands in bookstores we are in the midst of partisan hard lining that resulted in our hallowed institutions of government grinding to a halt. News coverage of the government shutdown no doubt illuminates the most salient points that Patterson outlines—most specifically, the problems of audience and democracy within journalism.

Patterson uses Walter Lippmann, one of the most important journalists and media critics of the 20th century, as his inspiration. Each of the six chapters Patterson outlines begin with a pull quote from Lippmann’s work, where Lippmann has already noted and critiqued the problems facing journalism and its audiences. (Lippmann, sadly, has gone unknown and mostly forgotten by purveyors of the media, a tragic reality that Patterson does well to rectify.) If Lippmann’s critiques are the seed, Patterson’s book is a bloom on the vine. It’s a heavily researched call to action that includes hundreds of resources for journalists and media consumers alike—all designed to rectify the lack of knowledge that is prevalent in modern news.

What Patterson has uncovered through his studies is what most of us could easily guess: readers of the news are uninformed, misinformed, and generally belligerent when confronted with truths that run counter to their beliefs. Watchers of the news are in even worse shape, though that is splitting hairs. Lest we believe that a continual dumbing down is evident for consumers of the media, Patterson points to research that suggests we believe that “quality matters”: “Since the 1980s, a period in which other broadcast news outlets have lost half or more of their audience, NPR’s audience has increased by more that 500 percent.” Patterson notes, correctly, that NPR devotes more time to affecting news stories and “devotes less time to political in-fighting.” A quick, objective comparison will, of course, prove this. First, though, we have to run up against the problem of audience and their unwillingness to compromise their views on certain news outlets.

So, how can we leap that hurdle? Patterson would argue that it is accomplished through a substantive knowledge-based system of journalism:

…Journalism is not grounded in a systematic body of substantive knowledge that would protect its practitioners’ autonomy and inform their judgment… Medicine, law, sciences, even economics and psychology, have disciplinary knowledge that guides practitioners’ decisions, narrowing the choices and reducing the chances of error. Journalists have no such advantage.

While the Internet, as Patterson notes, has brought knowledge-based journalism more within our reach, it is far from a complete and ideal system. In one of the finest sentences written about the Internet, Patterson describes it as “at once a goldmine of solid content and a hellhole of misinformation.” But even with Patterson’s suggestions put into practice, is it likely that a seismic shift in journalism will occur? Will readers, writers, and critics suddenly reevaluate their acceptance of facts and truths?

No, it’s not, and for a number of reasons. Advertisers still drive news cycles along with the deeply entrenched societal need for constant updates. (“Citizens do not study the news. They ‘follow’ it,” Patterson reminds us.) And the same public that bemoans the inner workings of Washington while demanding their current lifestyles not be altered, are highly unlikely to argue for, let along embrace, a knowledge-based journalistic shift. But if we’re assigning blame (and let’s face it, someone has to be blamed for the sorry state of news reporting), then we can return to the source: the news outlets and journalists who control them.

Journalists are not solely to blame for poor news reporting, but they are constantly serving two masters; one, the gatekeepers and editors of their outlets, and second, their advertisers. A distant third are the audiences that look for a modicum of truth from its trusted sources. In theory, it should be difficult to doubt or question professionals that have (hopefully) studied their craft in a school.

However, the rub is twofold; audiences mistrust sources that do not conform to their beliefs, and journalists are held liable for broad-reaching news that can easily be manipulated for maximum gain (i.e., readership). Additionally, these journalists are rarely invested in the their topics to a far-reaching extent. Most are underpaid, beat writers who move ranks and outlets for a bigger paycheck or a better beat. It doesn’t help, either, that papers are eliminating subject-based reporters and photojournalists as the medium shift to a more marketable, image-friendly online base.

If all of Patterson’s evidence and research feels futile and overwhelming, take heart. The fringe areas have come to dominate television news and fact-checking groups have surfaced more readily on the Internet. One can only hide from the facts for so long, and most viewers and readers are wise to the manipulative tricks orchestrated on cable.The hard part is yet to come—a digging out of the hole we’ve fallen into.

It’s not impossible, and Patterson’s book is a tome of good ideas, a well-spring of knowledge for a new crop of journalists and media-savvy citizens. A free press can only work when citizens uphold it and hold it to high standards. Informing the News might just be a pebble thrown against a tidal wave, so to speak, but its aim is true and its arc is executed flawlessly.

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