Lesson 02: Knowledge and Journalism
“It does not matter that the news is not susceptible of mathematical statement. In fact, just because news is complex and slippery, good reporting requires the exercise of scientific virtues.” Walter Lippman, Liberty and the News (originally published in 1920)
What do you think?
Unlike other professions (ie. medicine, law), journalism is not rooted in a body of substantive knowledge. We’ll debate whether that’s any more or less necessary in international reporting; be prepared to argue different perspectives. What does Hansen’s chapter tell us about her own experiences as a foreign correspondent (of sorts) and how they were shaped by her knowledge or lack of knowledge about Turkey? What does she have to say about the role bias plays in filtering knowledge?
Similarly, in today’s age of “fake news,” what role can substantive knowledge play in your own process as journalists? And if you were to acquire substantive knowledge to best cover your beat, what would be required?
- Suzy Hansen, Notes on a Foreign Country, Introduction (pp. 3-28)
- Thomas E. Patterson, Informing the news: The need for knowledge-based reporting
- Research chat: Nicholas Lemann on journalism, scholarship, and more informed reporting
- On the shared assignments spreadsheet, please write-in your proposed beat.
- Read the articles below. Analyzing each sentence, highlight in yellow what the journalist observed personally. In blue, highlight what the journalist learned by interviewing someone identified in the story whether or not it’s presented as a quote. Use green for what is an easily substantiated fact or assertion. Lastly, with pink, highlight words/sentences/paragraphs that offer context and/or analysis/interpretation that isn’t attributed to a specific source but is presented as an uncontested given. Circle any word choices that are not necessarily neutral terms. Have these printed out so we can discuss together in class.
- REVIEW OF LESSON 1
- STUDENT LED DISCUSSION OF HANSEN CHAPTER 1
- DISCUSSION OF OTHER READINGS
- IN CLASS EXERCISE
- ANY LEFTOVER STUDENT PRESENTATIONS OF SELECTED JOURNALISM (FROM LESSON 1)
- EXPLAIN ASSIGNMENT FOR NEXT CLASS
Review of Previous Lesson
- Ask students what their main takeaways were from the previous lesson
- Emphasize that there are 2 central themes in Hansen’s book: first, excavating the history and current story of US involvement in the affairs of everyone else. This is important to know. But second, she’s also examining what she calls the “resilience of her own innocence.” This is a part of US nationalism, which blinds so many Americans to what is painfully obvious to the rest of the world.
- This takes on an added urgency here, for you as journalists because you inform the world, you create knowledge.
Student Led Discussion of Hansen Chapter 1
Turn over discussion to the two students who have signed up to lead the class through this chapter. They must summarize the main points and then frame the discussion.
Discussion of Other Readings
Relate Hansen reading to this week’s reading on knowledge-based journalism
- Chapter 1 was meant to show the way a foreigner initially processes a foreign country and how their prejudices and lack of knowledge may be distorting that understanding.
- Discussion questions:
- What does Hansen’s chapter tell us about her own experiences as a foreign correspondent (of sorts) and how they were shaped by her knowledge or lack of knowledge about Turkey?
- What does she have to say about the role bias plays in filtering knowledge?
- What are some presumptions she had about Turkey and where did they come from?
- How could she have corrected these presumptions?
- Time factor p. 40, took her 2 years before she felt she could write anything about Turkey. Why?
- What do you think it took to write those pages on Turkey? Esp. about Ataturk?
Discuss specifics of other readings
Thomas E. Patterson, Informing the news: The need for knowledge-based reporting
- p. 5 “Almost alone among leading professions, journalism is not rooted in a body of substantive knowledge.” WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? HOW IS THAT DIFFERENT FOR LAW/MEDICINE ETC?
- p. 3 “A story can be accurate in its particulars ie what was said when and where it happened, who witnessed it and so on and yet falter as a whole WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? WHAT EXAMPLE IS GIVEN?
- ie early coverage of the afghan war was often accurate in its particulars but way off the mark in its assessments of Afghan society and the likely course of the war
- CAN ANYONE SHARE AN EXAMPLE FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE?
- WHAT’S BEST DEFENSE TO THIS?
- p. 5 knowledge is key to devising accurate interpretations of what is observed or factually recorded
- YET WHAT IS OFTEN THE SITUATION JOURNALISTS FIND THEMSELVES IN?
- 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 where the professional practitioner is the knowledgeable party
- thus, they are not masters of their own houses in a way that doctors lawyers and engineers are
- AND WHAT ARE THE DANGER OF THAT KNOWLEDGE DEFICIENCY FOR JOURNALISTS?
- being nothing more than “common carriers, transmitters of other people’s ideas and thoughts, irrespective of import, relevance, and at times even accuracy” Walter Pincus
- vulnerable to manipulation by their sources
- also vulnerable to the experts from whom they seek information, quotes, and story leads (“Reporters must be capable of dealing with experts from a position of strength”)
- “journalists’ knowledge deficit is a reason that contextual information has never been their strong suit”
- HOW HAS JOURNALISM BEEN TAUGHT? FOR MORE THAN A CENTURY, WHAT TWO BASIC TOOLS DID JOURNALISTS RELY ON?
- observation and interviewing
- US journalists are trained in gathering and presenting information which are substantial skills but not ones that require subject proficiency
- few J schools systematically train students how to access, gain command of, and apply subject matter knowledge
- HOW DOES THAT COMPARE TO OTHER PROFESSIONAL SCHOOLS?
- J-schools lag far behind business and public policy schools in the application of knowledge
- AND WHAT ARE PITFALLS OF JUST OBSERVATION AND INTERVIEWING?
- they require judgment and experience if they are to be used properly
- the interview is not foolproof. Who is interviewed, what is asked, and even the time and place of the interview can affect the answers
- as for observation, its usefulness is limited by the fact that it occurs at a particular time and from a particular perspective.
- SOLUTION/ARGUMENT ACCORDING TO WRITER?
- “Knowledge is a key to strengthening story context. For almost any development of even modest complexity, journalists cannot be counted upon to construct “a comprehensive and intelligent account” unless they are knowledgeable of the underlying factors”
- BUT: p.13, there’s a difference btw injection of knowledge into news stories rather than the application of knowledge to reporting WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
- knowledge enables the investigator to notice things that would otherwise go unnoticed or be misinterpreted
- NB: p. 14 Knowledge does not always yield precise answers. It can complicate reporters’ task by alerting them to what’s not known as well as to what’s known → effect can be to unearth new questions or uncertainties
- WHAT’S WRITER’S ARGUMENT HAS TO HOW JOURNOS CAN REMAIN COMPETITIVE AND RELEVANT?
- Js will have to change from “the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation”
- IS THIS ONLY RELEVANT TO LONGFORM WORK?
- While speed can be an obstacle to reflective reporting, it is a mistake to see knowledge as informing only slower paced and longer form reporting
- In virtually every reporting situation, the J who knows more about the subject at hand has an advantage over the journalist who knows less.
- When reporters must file quickly, w/o the opportunity to observe or conduct interviews, they have no place to turn except to what they already know.
- WHAT’S THE FIRST THING HE DOES WHEN HE GETS AN ASSIGNMENT?
- literature review – partly done through reading and partly done through meeting leading academic experts on the subject, and just kind of familiarizing myself
- IN HIS EXPERIENCE WHAT DO JOURNALISTS LOOK AT? WHAT DO THEY NOT LOOK AT?
- a lot of journos feel comfortable reviewing works of journalism, but not works of scholarship and research
- WHY DOES HE ADVOCATE FOR JOURNALISTS USING ACADEMIC RESEARCH?
- but to break down that barrier and show journalists how to get to and understand and use quickly the body of academic research is really useful in terms of getting context
- its value is meaningfully beyond pulling the clips
- he says, what journalists are is a connection point between the informed general public and the inaccessible, moving journalism from a commodity profession to a value added profession
- CAN’T WE JUST CALL THE EXPERTS?
- calling the expert is one thing but it’s different from actually reading the literature and figuring out who the leading voices are and reading their work in its original academic form, w/o fear, and then really sitting down and trying to spend time w them
Concluding question to tie all the readings together
- SIMILARLY, IN TODAY’S AGE OF “FAKE NEWS,” WHAT ROLE CAN SUBSTANTIVE KNOWLEDGE PLAY IN YOUR OWN PROCESS AS JOURNALISTS?
In Class Exercise
Turning to the highlighting exercise, ask students, WHAT COLOR DO YOU HAVE THE MOST OF?
Now do one together. Project a selected article, unmarked. Ask a student to volunteer to mark it up as class moves through it together. Read the article out loud together, deciding after each sentence, what color to highlight it with.
This should get an interesting discussion going as to how did the reporter learn/know what she has written.
Explain Assignment for Next Week
And if you were to acquire substantive knowledge to best cover your beat, what would be required?
Assignment for next class:
Since most of us don’t have doctorates in the regions that we want to cover (or their diasporas), it’s important we give ourselves a crash course on the scholarly work that is already out there. Begin to put together a reading list for each of your beats. You’ll be adding to this as the semester goes. Start by identifying the academic disciplines that you think would be relevant to understanding what is happening today in your region (hint, “history” is the most obvious one) and then, under each discipline, list works that you find and that seem relevant in those disciplines. Include a complete citation, which means publisher and year (DO NOT hyperlink to an Amazon page.) Keep in mind that academic work is published by an academic publisher. You should of course read trade books, and can include them, but the focus here is scholarly work. This can include identifying scholars who you might want to reach out to for their input. Make sure you are also seeking scholars from those places. Note any story ideas this list sparks. Please bring these to class with you, printed out.