Book review: Informing the News – The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism

A new book argues for an ambitious rethinking of how journalists are trained, arguing universities should aim to create ‘knowledge journalists’ with deep specialist areas of expertise. Sean Savage

Journalists and their editors can be rude about schools of journalism. When Columbia University cut its journalism program from two years to one year, the New York Daily News called it “a step in the right direction” while suggesting the program was “still one year too long”.

Such hostility is understandable. Journalists are proud of what they do, and dislike the implication that tertiary training is necessary for better reporting. Hence the barbs about J-school teachers with no practical experience, about over-reliance on textbook theories by people out of touch with the realities of contemporary journalism.

Yet the research now informing J-school programs is voluminous and growing rapidly. Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism by Thomas Patterson contains 18 pages of references and 44 pages of notes, almost all American. The book cites numerous detailed studies of media content, construction and reception. Little in the world of American journalism has not been measured, weighed and evaluated.

As the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, Patterson argues for an ambitious rethinking of how journalists are trained. His tone is measured and reasonable, but the underlying premise is tough-minded: those keen to dismiss J-schools have delivered America a deficient standard of contemporary journalism.

Here Patterson brings to bear that array of detailed studies. He tracks the changes in audiences over 60 years, as television displaced newspaper circulation, only to see cable in turn overtake the news services of free-to-air broadcasters. Patterson reports how commercial media responded in ways that undermine the mission of journalism to bring impartial information to citizens.

Patterson notes, for example, content studies tracking the rise in negativity in coverage since the late 1960s, as newspapers in particular sought to stem the drift of readers. By the 1990s editors had discovered the attraction of crime as content – sensational, local and cheap to cover.

Content studies show a sustained rise in crime stories even as overall crime statistics fell across America. The shift in coverage in turn encouraged anxiety and fed political campaigns for tougher penalties. Within a decade the United States had locked up more of its citizens than any country in the world.

From trends to process, Patterson reports numerous studies that trace the acceleration of news cycles and the consequent costs to journalism accuracy. He notes too the rise of more inexpensive forms of news gathering, in which the story does no more than report conflicting statements – “she said, he said” journalism – that makes no attempt to verify claims but instead gives equal weight to viewpoints.

Such journalism allows “reporters to transmit false claims without identifying them as such”.

Random House

Above all, Patterson is concerned by the misinformation prevalent among Americans who must rely on the media as their primary source of information. He cites a study that finds 40% of regular newspaper readers misjudge the facts on eight out of 11 issues. The implication is clear: this is not the fault of citizens. Those who claim the role of a trusted source of information fail to meet the standards claimed.

Though the book has few extended case studies, several examples recur often in the text. These include the shift in public opinion about climate change, as media coverage shifted from reporting science to framing the issue as a controversy.

More attention goes to media coverage leading to the 2003 “coalition of the willing” invasion of Iraq. In Patterson’s account, journalists accepted at face value the briefings they received from the White House, and failed to question their highly placed government sources. Media transmitted to America – and the wider world – a misleading picture of Iraq’s weapons and of the likely consequences of an invasion.

So convincing was the coverage that years later millions of Americans continue to believe that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was linked in some way to the events of September 11, 2001.

The New York Times and the Washington Post later apologised for reporting “unsubstantiated claims” before the war. However, once a message is distributed and opinions are formed, evidence becomes secondary.

Patterson sees the failure of the media to hold power to truth as allowing a wider deterioration of the political culture. Who bothers to present a reasoned case when no-one will press hard questions? As Romney campaign pollster Neil Newhouse said during the 2012 Republican National Convention:

We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.

Why this corrosive cycle? Patterson draws on the literature about journalism practice to identify an over-reliance on officials as the source of news. This puts journalists in a deeply subservient position, tied to their sources and unable to exercise critical judgement. Yet perhaps this is for the good: one study Patterson cites shows that journalists are “repeatedly, wildly wrong” when predicting how events will unfold.

As a result, reports Patterson, the American public is less well informed today:

News exposure once served as protection against faulty beliefs. Citizens who followed the news regularly were more likely than other citizens to hold realistic views. It’s still true, but less so.

If the critique is stinging and wide-ranging, many will argue about the solutions proposed in Informing the News. In essence, Patterson seeks to reform journalism, turning a trade into a profession. He begins by noting the absence of agreed minimum training and standards among journalists:

Almost alone among the professions, journalism is not…grounded in a body of systematic body of substantive knowledge that would protect its practitioners’ autonomy and inform their judgement.

The systemic biases and gaps Patterson has identified can be addressed, he believes, by ensuring journalists possess the same standard of training as other professions. They should be “knowledge journalists” with deep specialist areas of expertise, trained and accredited through a recognised curriculum working to a set of reflective practices. He says nothing about the standards bodies associated with other professions, and it is not clear if these form part of his vision for a new generation of journalists.

Unfortunately, Informing the News sketches only lightly the new curriculum Patterson believes is required. His substantive chapter on the topic is focused on undergraduate programs at American universities, though his more compelling examples are graduate programs. At the University of Toronto, only graduates with substantial subject expertise are enrolled in the J-school. As the program director notes:

We recruit real specialists, instead of trying to teach a speciality to generalists.

Columbia has adopted a similar approach, creating an extended program that combines the skills of journalism with subject area courses. In both cases, journalism is treated in the same way as other professions: as a graduate entry program that must build on undergraduate knowledge. This is the approach of some programs in Australia, including the Masters of Journalism at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne.

But what will the media do with these new subject experts? Here Patterson offers an intriguing argument. We have ample evidence, he suggests, that media misread their audience. One source is Pew survey data on audience news preferences, collected for over 20 years from more than 200,000 interviews. These show a significant gap between media offerings and what Americans want.

In order of preference, report Pew, US audiences seek information about war and terrorism, followed by bad weather, disasters, finance, crime and social issues, health, and other areas of domestic policy.

Only then, way down the list, are Americans keen to hear about politics, campaigns and elections. This is not surprising. People want to know first about things that affect their lives. Politics is a long way down this list. Celebrities are even lower in priority – the very bottom of the Pew list in fact, fascinating for journalists and their editors alone.

For Patterson, this is evidence the media is “overproducing” some stories while missing many others. Journalists know a lot about politics and, on average, not much about policy. They therefore frame every policy story as a political contest. This suits outlets as well: a single politics bureau in Washington is more economic than covering policy across a range of fields.

And yet, Patterson is an optimist. Give audiences access to knowledge journalists, expert in explaining complex areas of policy with real consequences for how we live, he believes, and a new form of journalism becomes possible.

Columbia University’s journalism school has created an extended program that combines the skills of journalism with subject area courses. Tom Thai

Patterson’s book will likely provoke much discussion within J-schools. Here is a lively proposal to rethink how journalism is understood and taught. It contains an implicit rejection of journalism as a subject matter in its own right. Rather, it should be understood as a set of skills applied to existing bodies of knowledge.

The Toronto and Columbia examples argue for training specialists as journalists, in the same way graduate education programs train graduates in science, arts or other disciplines how to teach their subject matter in school.

There are likely to be hesitations about the analysis as well. Patterson rarely touches on the economic forces shaping media. He notes the audience interest in long-form journalism but not the significant costs in producing better quality reporting.

The absence of a detailed alternative curriculum is likely to disappoint. If Patterson’s argument holds, what follows? How can the skills of journalism be imparted best to those moving from content areas to media reporting? Nor is there any discussion of what happens when a new generation of professionals seeks to join newsrooms run by those shaped by current journalists.

It is not easy to be a critic and a practitioner, particularly one committed to challenging long-established conventions about how news is defined, gathered and disseminated. It may be that knowledge journalists find happier homes in new forms of journalism – citizen publications and blogs, or vehicles such as The Conversation seeking a point of difference with traditional outlets.

Thomas Patterson writes in measured prose and with careful, cautious judgement. He says little about individual media outlets or proprietors. There is only one entry for Rupert Murdoch in the index, a passing mention of his decision to start Fox News in 1996.

Patterson does not blame corporations, or even impersonal economics, for the present deficiencies of the media. His focus instead is squarely on those who produce the media.

It seems unlikely Informing the News will win Patterson many new friends in the media. But then, his audience is not current journalists but those who will train the next generation. At stake, he suggests, is the democratic project: how can democracy flourish without shared facts and informed commentary?

This is a challenge, he concludes, beyond the understanding or capability of the contemporary American media.