From Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism by Thomas E. Patterson (Kindle Locations 1270-1317):
“If truth were the test, the machinery of news would grind to a halt. Whole areas of public life would be walled off to reporters because judgments about them are speculative. When Woodrow Wilson said he had spent much of his adult life in government and yet had never seen “a government,” he was saying that government is a concept and not an object. 23 How can journalists claim to know “the truth” of something as complex and intangible as government? Political scientists spend their careers studying government without mastering the subject fully. How can journalists with much less time and specialized training somehow accomplish it?”
A very good question. The best journalists know a little bit about many things, but rarely do they know a lot about anything in particular. They aren’t experts in knowledge. Their expertise is simply in communicating, which means they translate and filter the knowledge of other experts. They are middlemen. Most of the time they don’t even understand what they are attempting to communicate, but they must always speak with the authority of the experts they claim to speak for.
“Journalists are asked to make too many judgments under conditions of too little time and too much uncertainty for the news to be the last word. “When we expect [the press] to supply a body of truth,” Lippmann wrote, “we employ a misleading standard of judgment. We misunderstand the limited nature of news [and] the illimitable complexity of society.” 24 3.”
The one thing journalists have little training in is how to communicate complexity. Most of them don’t even try. However, without complexity, there can be no truth.
“Almost alone among the professions, journalism is not rooted in a body of substantive knowledge. 25 The claim is not that journalists lack knowledge or skill, for that is far from true. Nor is the claim an entry into the perennial but ultimately fruitless debate over whether journalism is a craft rather than a profession. 26 The claim instead is a precise one: Journalism is not grounded in a systematic body of substantive knowledge that would protect its practitioners’ autonomy and inform their judgment. 1
“Medicine, law, and the 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. Although there is a theoretical knowledge of journalism, it is not definitive, nor is its mastery a prerequisite for practice. 27 Although a majority of journalists have a college degree in journalism, many have a degree in a different field and some have no degree at all. 28”
I’m constantly shocked that so many news reporters (I’m not sure the fancy word of ‘journalist’ applies to most) are seemingly ignorant about what they report on. Doesn’t curiosity ever get the better of them? You’d think they’d feel some moral compunction to inform themselves first. Instead, it seems like it is just a job to them. They go to the office and someone hands them a script. Or else they wing it and try to appear intelligent.
“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, in which the professional practitioner is the more knowledgeable party. Only rarely do clients know more about the law than do their attorneys , whereas newsmakers normally know more about the issue at hand than the journalists covering them. During the Persian Gulf War, journalists who visited the Pentagon press office were greeted with a sign that read, “Welcome Temporary War Experts.” 29
“The knowledge advantage that newsmakers have over journalists is not simply that they are privy to what’s said in closed-door meetings or contained in briefing papers. 30 They are assisted by experts. The president would never rely on his own instincts across a host of issues without the advice of policy specialists; nor would any congressional committee chair, top bureaucrat, or lobbyist. To be sure, journalists acquire expertise as a result of being on the same news beat for lengthy periods, but this form of expertise does not compare with that of most professionals . Doctors, lawyers, and engineers are masters of their own house in a way that journalists are not.”
In some ways, it isn’t the fault of journalists. They are being asked to do the impossible. No one can know everything or even most things. That is why the author suggests that journalists should specialize and only report on what they are experts on.
“Journalists’ knowledge deficit does not appear to be a major concern within their profession. In 2008, the Knight Foundation created a blue-ribbon commission aimed at strengthening journalism so that it could better serve communities’ “information needs.” None of the panel’s fourteen recommendations spoke to journalism’s knowledge deficit. 31 Yet the public has a sense of it. In a Freedom Forum study, journalist Robert Haiman found that although the public “respects the professional and technical skills [of] journalists,” it feels that journalists “don’t have an authoritative understanding of the complicated world they have to explain to the public.” In the five cities where he held public forums (Nashville; New London, Connecticut; Phoenix; San Francisco; and Portland, Oregon), Haiman heard repeated complaints from local civic and business leaders who questioned reporters’ preparation. “We heard stories,” he writes, “about reporters who did not know the difference between debt and equity, who did not know basic legal terminology used in a trial, and who had little idea of how manufacturing , wholesaling, distributing, and retailing actually work and relate to each other.” 32”
Journalists know little about even the wealthy and powerful they report upon. It isn’t their job to understand because that might mean questioning. If the corporate owners and management of newsrooms wanted informed intelligent journalists, they would hire such people. The point is that news is about business, not knowledge and understanding.
These journalists live in their own media bubble. They know even less about those who aren’t wealthy and powerful. As a college dropout, I know more about many issues, from poverty to racism, than does the average journalist. Having a good looking face and speaking clearly, for the job of journalists, is more important than being informed and insightful.
“If journalists are, as has been claimed, “the custodians of the facts,” 33 their armament is sometimes akin to that of a palace guard. It is difficult to protect the facts in those instances when someone else commands them. 4.”
That is the whole point. Journalists, generally speaking, aren’t independent actors. Most of them are employees. And most of them are employed by big business. They work for corporations that are subsidiaries of a few holders of all of mass media. They are part of a media oligopoly.
“When it comes to a subject of more than average complexity, the truth in news typically comes from outside of journalism. The news media, Lippmann argued, “can normally record only what has been recorded for it by the working of institutions. Everything else is argument and opinion.” 34”
Journalists are just extensions of the organizations and mouthpieces of the institutions they are enmeshed in. Why would we expect anything different from them? Demanding higher standards of the employees of corporations is only meaningful if we demand higher standards of the corporations that employ them. The first higher standard we should demand is a breaking up of the media oligopoly.
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