Informing The News

Who doesn’t lament the state of the news media? Their preoccupation with celebrities, disasters, scandals, crime, the political horserace, and other such pabulum and infotainment. But Thomas E. Patterson also deplores the state of democracy, and views the two as inextricably linked. Just as ninety years ago Walter Lippmann warned the “crisis in Western Democracy is a crisis in journalism,” Patterson has sought to highlight the deficiencies in modern journalism, how it is affecting our ability to self-govern, and has offered an antidote; knowledge-based journalism.

“It is a short step from misinformation to mischief, as we have seen repeatedly in recent policy.”

Around the world, studies measuring trust and satisfaction consistently put journalists at the bottom of professions. Even below politicians. All the while, the traditional mass media lose audience to the purveyors of satire, punditry and hackery. The financial issues facing the journalism industry are well documented, but as Patterson points out throughout the book, there is a deeper crisis facing the profession. Journalism has become dumbed down. Even name-brand journalism schools have structured their courses to more resemble trade schools than instructors of a vital component in a functioning democracy. Journalists increasingly have little experience or knowledge in the subjects that they cover. While technical expertise may be exemplary, content expertise is often lacking.

“It is nearly impossible to have sensible public deliberation when large numbers of people are out of touch with reality.”

In an age of tight deadlines and slimmed down newsrooms, this is a disaster for creating an informed public. Serious policy is overlooked while much simpler — for the journalist as well as the consumer — political hackery is played up. Minor but easy to understand developments — such as interest and inflation blips — are held under the microscope, while the larger picture — the state of the business cycle for example — is all but lost. Powerful figures — such as those who pushed for the invasion of Iraq – are left unchecked by those ill equipped to do so. All the while, journalists must rely ever more on outsiders to do fundamental aspects of their jobs — providing context and scrutiny in a world bursting with information. Studies show that the public are consistently misinformed on a variety of important subjects, and, as Patterson points out, many of these subjects bear a startling correlation to the innate biases of a profession that is chasing its audience and has lost sight of its intellectual rigour. Is there any doubt of the cumulative effect?

“Informed citizens do not spring forth from birth. The process of informing the public is an ongoing task”

For Patterson, the answer to both conundrums is the injection of “knowledge” back into journalism. Specifically, the “knowledge of how to use knowledge”. Obviously, the variety of subjects that any one journalist will encounter during a career is too much to become intimate with all of it. But similar can be said of a teacher. So, like teachers, Patterson suggests that journalists be trained in the fundamentals of what they need — history, analytical thinking, ethics, data analysis , etc. But also like teachers, they should be trained in communicating across these subjects. Providing context and other information in order that the audience can “make sense of the events”. According to Patterson, this “content knowledge” would take journalism a step closer to fulfilling its duty to democracy, all the while distancing it from the innumerable hacks who operate on the internet for free. Knowledge, Patterson claims, is the solution to more than one of the problems that plagues journalism.

“Knowledge is the starting point as well as the end product of systematic inquiry, guiding the practitioner in what to look for as well as what to make of what is found.”

As a citizen, an avid news consumer, and someone who spends considerable time in a newsroom every week, Pattersons’ book rings horribly true on many levels. The lack of socially beneficial news and a common set of facts, as well as the incursion of infotainment into the “bible of democracy” has undoubtedly harmed the public square. I would be glad to see more informed voices take the stage. But I am sceptical that there is a place for such a development. Recent election coverage in Australia and America was abysmal, topped only by the bush-league reporting of the actual governance after the spectacle. But it is this, along with the blow-by-blow accounts of everything royal and celebrity, beat-ups and other fluff; that really pulls in the ratings. Look at what actually gets shared on social media. Its cat pictures and Upworthy, not the Washington Post or the Financial Times. Patternsons’ book gives a great account of much of what ails the news media. I’m not so sure how much demand there is for his cure.

“Journalists are in the daily business of making the unseen visible, of connecting us to the world beyond our direct experience.”