Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism

Nov 26, 2013

TV Show


Journalists sorely need more expertise in the topics they report on, such as business, education and geopolitics, says Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard. For unless they know their subject area well, they are vulnerable to their sources and their reporting may be skewed or incomplete.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning, and welcome to the Carnegie Council. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and it is my pleasure to introduce our speaker today.

Tom Patterson is the Benjamin C. Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He is also the founder of the Journalist's Resource project and serves as its research director.

His book, Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism, is the result of a multi-year study on the future of journalism, which involved 11 journalism schools across the nation. This initiative looked at ways journalism could be transformed to meet the needs of a complex digital age. Their findings speak not only to journalists, but to all who are concerned about receiving reliable information that contains accurate facts. The project was supported by the Carnegie Corporation and the Knight Foundation.

The media frontier has changed. Whether we are talking about cable television, the Internet, or new forms of social media, the profusion of unfiltered communications coming to us every hour, every day is on the increase, while more often than not, the quality of the information we are receiving is on the decline. While one could argue that all this knowledge is good for society, as it makes us more aware of various social, political, and economic activities happening around the world, what is more to the point is that increasingly the lines between news, entertainment, and politics are being blurred. Added to this are impossibly shrinking deadlines, which result in news coverage that is often shallow and repetitive rather than substantive and truly informative.

For these reasons and more, we hear that journalism is in crisis. It's no accident, then, that Informing the News is framed around a set of problems and sets forth a convincing case that Americans are currently ill-served by the intermediaries—the journalists, talk show hosts, pundits, and bloggers that claim to be our trusted guides.

So what does Professor Patterson recommend to change this downward spiral, to ensure that journalists, who are so vital to our democracy, provide us with trustworthy and relevant information? I'll give you a hint: The way forward cannot be found in practices of the past.

Please join me in welcoming our guest today, Tom Patterson. Thank you so much for joining us.


THOMAS PATTERSON: Joanne, thank you.

It's a delight to be at the Carnegie Council. I think you're coming up on a century of service in areas such as education, peace. To walk in the steps of a couple of my colleagues—Joe Nye has spoken here, Michael Ignatieff, and Marvin Kalb was here within the last within the last couple of months.

There's kind of a rule about breakfast talks: Keep it light. The difficulty is, if you're talking about journalism today, it's almost impossible to have that kind of talk. At least it's a pretty nice day out there today.

What I want to do is make an argument that journalists need to know more than they do now if they are to provide the kind of news that we need for our democracy. This is not a new argument. Many of you are familiar, I'm sure, with Walter Lippmann's classic, Public Opinion, now nearly a century old. It was a major theme of his book. And it's an argument that journalists have made over the decades. Tom Wicker of The New York Times said a lack of expertise is one of the things most seriously wrong in journalism. What he was referring to was the fact that, unless journalists know their subject area, they are very vulnerable to their sources, the people on whom they depend for information.

Underlying these criticisms, I think, is a rather unique feature of journalism as a profession. If you think about professions, for the most part they are defined by a body of knowledge. To be a physician is to know medical science. To be a lawyer is to know a body of law. To be an economist means that you know macroeconomic theory and microeconomic theory. There is no equivalent for the journalist. There is no body of knowledge that underlies the practice of journalism. It's primarily about the ability—and it's a substantial skill; I'm not saying that—it's the ability to gather, put together, disseminate news. That puts journalists, to some degree, at a vulnerability in what they do.

During the First Gulf War, there was a sign in the Pentagon press office that greeted journalists. It said, "Welcome, temporary war experts." That pretty much sums up how journalists interface with their sources. In almost every case, the source knows more about the subject matter than they do. It would be as if somehow you went in your doctor's office and you knew more about medicine than your doctor. You probably wouldn't go back, under those circumstances.

So it's a longstanding problem, but I think it has a new urgency. For one thing, sources are increasingly less trustworthy. Our politics is full of spin, is full of PR [public relations]. Ben Bradlee, to whom I owe my chair at Harvard, said that politicians have become a bunch of liars. I think that's an overstatement on Ben's part, but I think he has the trend right. Increasingly, our politics is a politics of spin.

That doesn't work well for journalists. By tradition, journalists get most of their information from official sources. Most of the information that we get through the news kind of filters down. That explains why so many journalists hang out at the White House waiting for what the White House is going to say that day to shape their news. By tradition, they fulfill their responsibility to us as a public by reporting accurately what their sources are saying—not reporting the accuracy of what the sources are saying, but by reporting accurately what the sources are saying.

When politics becomes full of spin, then we have what the journalist James Fallows calls false equivalencies, where truths, half-truths, outright lies sit kind of in the same place in the mix of news.

You can see that. You've seen that quite frequently over the last decade. When the allegation broke during the 2009-2010 health care reform debate that the legislation contained death panels, that went around the news pretty rapidly. It was not until several days into that coverage that basically journalists kind of figured out that there were no death panels in that legislation. And a lot of that, of course, was fed by talk shows and not by the news. But there was a point in the debate where about half the American public thought that the legislation contained these death panels, these commissions that would determine at the end of life whether elderly would be entitled to more medical care. It's still the case in polls that about 20 percent of Americans think that that's part of the legislation.

A second reason why I think there's a new urgency is that policy problems are increasingly complex. There are large areas of public life that are difficult to report on and, in fact, go underreported because journalists don't understand those policy areas well enough. The Washington Post's Walter Pincus said recently that he was hard-pressed to think of a single journalist who understood education policy really well. Again, that may be an overstatement on Walter Pincus's part, but if you look at education reporting, we get reporting on testing and where we sit nationally and internationally in testing, we get reporting on the rising costs of higher education, but then there are large areas of education—as important as that issue is to American life—that simply go underreported.

An example of that is the mismatch between the way that we train our next generation of students and what the workplace looks like. There's a big mismatch between what we're producing in terms of educated people and where the demand is in the marketplace.

Another example of that, I think, is in the business reporting. We're in New York City. You get a lot of reporting on business in New York City. There's a lot of reporting on the financial sector. If there's a new IPO [initial public offering] and it's Twitter, it gets an enormous amount of coverage. What you're hard-pressed to find is good coverage of small business. This is an area that journalists do not know very well. Yet it's the sector of our economy that produces most of our jobs. It's seriously underreported.

I think insufficient knowledge also stunts the reporting of things that are pretty much right in front of journalists. One of my favorite examples is a study that was done at our center by a journalist, not a scholar. Matt Storin, who had been editor of The Boston Globe, came to our center the semester after 9/11. He had watched the coverage on 9/11 and the days immediately after. He was surprised that journalists seemed almost at a loss to tell the American public what was going on, or what might be going on, with 9/11.

So he went back and he looked at the reporting before 9/11. He looked at the coverage of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He looked at the coverage of the 1998 bombing of the two U.S. embassies in Africa, the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen Harbor in 2000. What he found was that the reporting was very good on the what, the where, the when; pretty good about the damage that was done, how many people were injured, how many people were killed, what was used in those attacks, but very little attempt to kind of connect the dots, whether there was some kind of pattern that was going on here.

He looked also at several dozen other less major terrorist attacks that had occurred in that decade before 9/11. The journalists almost always ignored the possibility that something larger than single instances, episodes, was taking place. There was very little reporting on the political, cultural, religious underpinnings of this growing transnational terrorism that was coming out of the Middle East.

Then he looked at when Clinton fired the cruise missiles. That became a "wag the dog" story rather than that there might be something here that we ought to be paying attention to.

Then in the year before 9/11, the Hart-Rudman Commission that warned of a catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil went unreported in the American press. When the CIA director appeared in an open hearing in the Senate and said that al-Qaeda is basically the major enemy, the major threat to the United States, The Washington Post didn't carry a story on that. The New York Times had it, but it was stuck in the middle of a story in the middle of the A section.

In the year before 9/11, on ABC, NBC, and CBS, there was one reference to al-Qaeda during that entire year.

Journalists were not covering that story, were not thinking about that particular development, and then, of course, on 9/11, were pretty much at a loss to tell us what might be going on.

We had very bad reporting going into Afghanistan. You would have thought that Pakistan was an old friend of ours, and entirely reliable and all of that, from that early reporting—just an understudied, underreported development that was extremely important to our national life.

A third reason I think we need better journalism is to offset the noise and the nonsense in our information system. When cable came along, we were all pretty enthusiastic about it—24-hour news, this idea that you could get news around the clock. The Internet comes along, and we're enormously enthusiastic about that. The barriers to entry had been lowered in terms of getting voices into the information system.

But these haven't tuned out quite the way that we thought they would. Cable is largely talk shows, and the influence of cable is primarily in that particular area. On the Internet, what seems to work politically is outrage. Most of the blogs that can get traffic are those that kind of traffic left or traffic right.

I think the best evidence that we have that this new information system isn't quite working the way we want it to—it may, in fact, be working against what we're trying to do in terms of informing the public—is that levels of misinformation in the public are rising pretty substantially. For example, before the Iraq invasion, when half the American public thought that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were allied against the United States in the war on terrorism, or currently on global warming. There was a poll about two months ago where almost half of Americans either say that global warming isn't happening or, if it is happening, it's due to natural causes rather than to human activity.

It's very difficult, I think, to have meaningful public debate, public discussion, if you can't even get agreement on the facts. Increasingly, what we find in the American public is confusion and misinformation around the facts.

We need a type of journalism, in my view, that can anchor public opinion, that can serve as a trustworthy and reliable source of relevant information about public affairs. But, increasingly, we don't get it. We get a lot of "infotainment," which Joanne made reference to. Infotainment is not innocent in the sense of having no effect on the public. For people who live in a community where they have a television affiliate that really pumps up crime, where they start the news show with one crime story and it's followed by another crime story and so on, the viewers of those channels have an exaggerated sense of crime in their community.

So these things are not simply nice things in terms of affecting the marketplace and attracting viewers and the like, but they do, in fact, shape part of what we think is going on out there in the world.

Then, increasingly, I think our news has become Washington-centric. It's very much about the power game—who's up, who's down, who's getting the better of whom. There are a lot of reasons, I think, for that. This is easy journalism to do. It's also the case that this is the spillover of cable talk shows. Most of those are anchored out of Washington. Their guests are, disproportionately, people who are in the power game. So that flows over into the news system, and we get more and more of the political game and less and less of the substance of politics and less reporting on what's happening in the lives of ordinary Americans.

A good example of that, I think—there was a study that was done of the 2009-2010 health-care coverage. It was pretty good. When the announcement was made that the president was going to go for comprehensive health care reform, pretty substantive coverage for about a week, 10 days, something like that. For the next year, it was primarily about the political game—who's winning, who's losing.

What's interesting about the polls during this course of time is that the public became increasingly confused about the legislation rather than increasingly informed about what it contained.

And I don't think it's just D.C. I think if you look at the coverage and you see the application of that model, it's applied in a lot of other settings as well. What's the nature of the Euro crisis? I think if you ask most Americans who are moderately attentive to the news, this is a problem of the frugal Germans against the spendthrift Greeks, somehow that that summarizes what's happening with the Euro crisis. Well, you all know that that's not the story of the Euro crisis. There's a fundamental structural problem there. The banking system is not adequate for the needs of that particular union.

That's a story that seldom gets told by the American press. That's a more difficult story to tell. It's a story that requires knowledge of the journalists. To play the political game, a country against a country or the Republicans against the Democrats—that's easy. But it's also shallow.

So what would it take to put a firmer foundation under journalism? First of all, I think it would require journalists to give up the fiction that somehow interviews and observation are adequate to reporting. That has been the tradition. When something breaks, if you're near the scene, you go and observe what happened. You get on the phone or you go see people. You interview them. Those are important devices. They are important tools for the journalist. But I don't think they go far enough. I think the journalists need to know more.

We're seeing some changes in that direction. If you look at newsrooms and the composition of newsrooms, it's still the case that only about 5 percent of American journalists have an advanced degree in a substantive area that's related to their reporting, but that's much better than it was 20 years ago. And that's the direction that many newsrooms are going, particularly the larger ones, where they are looking for journalists who have advanced training in the areas that they are reporting on—that you have some training in business before you report on business, you have training in economics before you report on economics, and so on.

But I think where we really need to look for change is the journalism schools. This was what we did with the Carnegie-Knight initiative that we had. This was an initiative that was funded partly by the Carnegie Corporation, partly by the Knight Foundation, where our center at Harvard worked with 11 of the top journalism schools in the country to see whether, in the training of journalists, you couldn't bring knowledge more fully into that training, to make knowledge secondhand to the journalist when they think about a reporting situation, as is thinking about "I've got to go interview somebody" or "I've got to go see what happened with this particular situation."

I won't go into the details of that particular program, but it did, in fact, show that it can be done. It's not easy. It's always hard to change the way that things are customarily done in an institution. But it is possible to bring knowledge to bear in the training of journalists.

Then they take it with them. It becomes kind of secondhand for them. That is not part of the tradition of the American journalism school training. Many of them do not even require statistical literacy. It's very difficult today, in my judgment, to report accurately, in many areas of public life, if you don't know the numbers. It doesn't mean that journalists have to be able to create the numbers, but they have to be able to interpret them accurately in order to tell us precisely what developments mean.

Now, if those things take hold and continue—and certainly this book is just a piece of the effort. There are many others who are kind of thinking along the same lines and have been pushing this particular argument. I think it's going to take a long time for this to take hold. This kind of institutional change does not take place overnight.

It was in New York City where yellow journalism, a century ago, was in its heyday. It was the kind of journalism by almost any means—if you need sex to sell something, you use sex; if you need outrage to do it, you use outrage. It took about two or three decades for that model to change and to get what we call objective journalism, which is a more sober, more fact-based, more fairly balanced kind of journalism. It took about that long for that kind of journalism to take hold. I think this kind of change would also take a similarly long period of time.

But I think if journalists don't begin to change, they're going to find further erosion of their audience and further erosion of their status. The public's trust in journalists is now at about the level of their trust in Congress. Which one is at the bottom depends a little bit on how people are feeling at the moment about Congress. But sometimes it's journalists who are at the bottom.

But there are some real dangers out there, to me. I think journalists are fundamentally important to the functioning of democracy, that we need this intermediary, we need these people who can kind of interpret for us what's going on. Some of that interpretive function, some of that sense-making function is now moving in other directions.

Last Friday I met in my office with an individual from Australia. He runs a site that is now up to 1.4 million visitors a day. Who are the reporters? The reporters are experts. There's not a single reporter on staff in that organization. They have 20 editors and they have about 25,000 experts. As things develop, as events come up in the news, the people who are writing about them are not the reporters, but they are scholars, policy experts, and the like. And they have 20 editors to put those reports in shape.

They have gone from zero five years ago, 400,000 one year ago, to 1.4 million today. This is in a country of 25 million. Right now it's one of the largest news sources in that country.

It's not unthinkable that you could see similar developments here and elsewhere. That leaves the journalists out of the equation. But in my own view, there's real value in having professionals who are in the business of thinking about what's going on out there, trying to make sense of it, and then telling us what's important about those developments. That's the kind of journalism and journalists that we need. I think that's where we have to move, along with the other aspects of the business model, if we're to really put a firm foundation under this area of our democracy.

Thank you.


QUESTION: James Starkman, amateur news junkie.

I get five newspapers delivered to my door every day and I watch a tremendous amount of television journalism. I guess you can't extrapolate that on to the general absorber of the news. But I sort of synthesize all the spin from both sides, in both the print press and the television press, and come up with my own consensus of what is real and what is spin.

I think that a few individuals are really furthering the trend that you have elucidated here. Fareed Zakaria, particularly, I think, presents the facts, has top-notch interviewers, and then presents his own interpretation of those events. So I'm not quite as pessimistic as I think you are. I just wanted your comments on that particular aspect.

THOMAS PATTERSON: I will say that Rush Limbaugh has a much bigger audience, and he also looks at the facts and provides his interpretation.

What we're seeing with the news audience—and this has been going on for some time—is it's sorting itself out. There are still many, like you, who tap into traditional news sources and then also pay attention to talk shows and other sources of information, and, in some ways, kind of self-test through that process where the facts might reside.

But increasingly we have a pretty large portion of the public that's paying no appreciable attention to the news. That's disproportionally young people. They get very little in the way of news. Not surprisingly, they tend to be either uninformed or misinformed about a lot of what's happening out there.

Then—it's small, but it's growing—we're creating these niche audiences of people who go to places that pretty much tell them what they would like to hear. We all have a will to believe that we're right. Increasingly, we can find places that will tell us that we're right. And the studies show that when you basically rely on those particular sources, you get into this self-fulfilling situation where you confirm beliefs that you have; in some ways, you reinforce them. For some, they become more extreme, because oftentimes in those situations the other side is being demonized, so that you're creating distance between what you think and what you think others think.

That's still a fairly small percentage of the public, but it is the growing section of the public.

What you describe, I think, is accurate for some people, but, unfortunately, people like yourself are the shrinking piece of the news audience, and some of the other developments that are taking place are less positive.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

In your very clear and succinct presentation, you did not have a chance to deal with the major phenomenon these days of the transition from print journalism to digital journalism. You gave a most encouraging example of Australia, where experts are being used to comment on the news. But the more general situation is that anybody can write a blog and make comments and so forth. How do you deal with this? How do you steer people to the more informed opinions?

The other point is that we are now globalized. News comes from Al Jazeera and other parts of the world, and not only locally.

THOMAS PATTERSON: That's a good question, Susan. Some of what has happened, I think, is irretrievable. There was a longitudinal study done recently that looked at reasons why people have kind of abandoned traditional news sources. One of the reasons has been this really concerted attack on one side of the political spectrum to undermine traditional media by accusing them of bias, partisan bias. The perception of bias on the part of a citizen decreases their trust in the traditional media and makes them more likely to go find an alternative source that, in fact, supports their own bias. So that's one.

But the other thing that has undermined people's trust in the media and has led to some movement away from exposure to news is infotainment and this idea that somehow the news has to include celebrity and all of these other dimensions to it. What that was, was a pretty deliberate strategy on the part of news organizations to hold on to the marginal news consumer. You've got the core news audience and then you have people kind of on the edge of that. How do you hold those people on the edge, or at least some of them, when all of a sudden you're competing on cable with movies and ESPN and all of those other forms of information? Well, soften the news. Make it a little more entertaining.

That did work, to some degree, in the short run, in terms of holding on to some of those marginal viewers. But it did alienate, as well, some in the core audience, and they have moved out.

I like experts—I obviously think that I'm somewhat of an expert in some kind of narrow area—but I think experts, too, have their blinders. One reason I like to have journalists in the mix is, if they are doing it well, they act as correctives for us as well. Michael Schudson and I have both reviewed a lot of journal articles. I'm going to tell you, they are coming from experts, but there's a lot of bad stuff that goes to academic journalism. Hopefully, in peer review they get caught and they never make it in. But there's a lot of stuff that's in print and a lot of would-be experts. They know something, but they don't know as much as they think they do. I'm sure that's true of me, too.

So in all of these systems, it seems to me, you need a corrective. You need someone looking over the shoulder of whoever is making the claim. You need some verification process, and journalists need to be part of that. That's the trouble that I have with the Australian model. I think it's quite an extraordinary and very interesting development. But 25,000 experts in that country? I doubt it. I begin to think that there are some non-experts who have slipped into that mix, and the information that they are providing probably isn't very reliable. How do you sort that process out?

QUESTION: My name is Bob Frye.

Fifty years ago, on the 22nd of November, I was in the flash studio at NBC as Frank McGee's researcher. The first words I heard from Dallas were Robert MacNeil saying, "Kennedy is dead." Obviously, times have changed over the last 50 years.

I also went on to produce television news programs, and I, for the last 25 years, have been an independent documentary producer.

I think the changes you describe are accurate. I think the challenge for journalists, whether as a writer or a producer, is that they are working against forces of speed and also profit. I think that's really what has occurred, and all the different channels of outlets of information today are obviously fracturing the audience.

The question I ask is, as you look at this and you describe what a journalist needs to know, how do they work against that?

Another example of that: I was at Syracuse University many years ago as a visiting professor for a day. After describing the need for ethics in journalism, out of the audience came, "Okay, that's all good. What do I do when I get to New York?" So I ask the question of you.

THOMAS PATTERSON: Thanks, Bob. You spent a day there. I spent 20 years at Syracuse.

I think what you identify are real threats to journalism. Again, some of this is in the past. I think mistakes—the effects have been registered. They cannot be recovered. In the second half of the 20th century, the news business was just about the most profitable business in America. Many news organizations were returning 40 percent on capital annually. That was enormously profitable. When the audiences began to decline, with cable, they didn't think that 25 percent would be good enough or 15 percent might be good enough. They tried to say, "Well, we need 40 percent," and then they started to cut the quality of news.

I do think that the way that they responded to competition did a lot to diminish both the quality of news and the reputation of the news business. Both of those things do affect how people respond to the possibility of connecting to news.

The other thing, the speed thing—I think there's some evidence there that's a little more encouraging. If you're a journalist and your news organization wants you to constantly update, you have to do it. There are a lot of pressures on the day-to-day lives of working journalists. That's one of them. And there's real demand for it. The studies that are done on the Internet show there is real demand for the updates. It's more easily seen, I think, with a sports analogy than when talking about news. If it's Sunday and you're not near your television set and your favorite NFL team is playing, you're very likely to go to your computer maybe every 15, 20 minutes to see what the score is or go to your cell phone, just to keep up with the score. That kind of update there's real demand for.

But what they're finding in the studies is that the other type of content where there's real demand is the deep content, the content that really goes into a situation, an issue. That's what usually gets pushed around on Twitter and on Facebook and the like. It's evergreen. It's more likely to be referred to two, three months down the road. The short stuff never does. It has a very short half-life.

In the sports analogy, the equivalent of that is, after the game, you want to go and hear some informed source tell you about what really went on beyond what I saw during the game, to dig into.

I think both of those types of journalism work. What seems not to work is journalism that kind of straddles that, that tries to be everything to all people. You were in network television. At one time, if you were in network, you could be all things to all people. There were only three of you. People loved television. They loved television news. So that seemed to work.

But today what doesn't work is to try to do all of those things, meet all of those audience demands at once. There was a really interesting study that was done by Tom Rosenstiel and others, by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, where they tracked over a five-year period local television affiliates. They tracked all their ratings. They tracked their content. Which television affiliates did best in terms of retaining audience? The ones that did the best news and the ones that did the most infotainment. The ones in the middle were the ones that struggled, that tried, essentially, to appeal to both the audience that's interested in infotainment and the audience that's interested in news.

I think that's what's happening with the web. Increasingly, because we have so many choices, we go to the place that reliably delivers the content that we're looking for all the time, as opposed to just part of the time. I do think there is a place in that mix for this deeper high-quality journalism. The difference between now and the old media system, the low-choice media system of the broadcast era, is that we're just going to have a lot of this public that's going to be out of that audience, and these higher levels of misinformation, lack of information—I think those are going to be persistent, chronic problems that we're going to have to figure out, as a democracy, how to deal with.

QUESTION: My name is Eduardo Ulibarri. For two years, I have been ambassador of Costa Rica to the United Nations, but for 31 years, a journalist and journalism educator, and I'm asking you with this kind of personality.

You mentioned some of the impacts of your approach to journalism education. Hearing you, I was thinking whether it might be time to forget about journalism schools and create, rather, journalism programs in a multidisciplinary approach that teaches some basic parts of the craft of journalism, but then guides different students to go in other schools of the respective universities and get their training there as experts.

THOMAS PATTERSON: I think that model is a possibility. What we learned, though, from the Carnegie-Knight initiative was that if the journalism student learns journalism in one place and gets the subject matter expertise in another place, what they don't learn is the knowledge of how to integrate those skills. The idea of the initiative, for at least part of the coursework of the students who were affected by it, was that they would do the journalism, but they would do it in the context of a subject area.

For instance, in this long, six-year thing, the first semester that this was done at Northwestern, they did a news-writing course. It had two instructors in the room. One was the journalism professor and the other was a national security expert from the politics department. All of the assignments were journalism assignments. It wasn't as if they were being tested on the subject matter. But they were being taught the subject matter as they were being taught the skills of journalism. All of the practical assignments required them to integrate the two, so that they acquired a knowledge of how to use knowledge, which is a very important skill, and an undervalued one.

We didn't do really sophisticated testing of the alternative models as to how that compares with, essentially, the kind of parallel education tracks that you're talking about. Impressionistically, that's a better model. Michael Schudson is from Columbia, and they have done some of that, where sometimes you go off to another department and study a subject. But to some degree, they have also tried to integrate them in some of their courses.

I don't know, Michael, whether you have an impression of whether the integrated version is better than the parallel approach.

PARTICIPANT: Michael Schudson, Columbia Journalism School. I also don't have a comparative perspective on that.

This will lead me toward a related question. The new master's program, as you know, that began some years ago now, tried to do exactly that and have the students take a good number of their courses in business, politics, arts, or science journalism outside the journalism school and bring that back and find a way to integrate it. I don't know how it compares, but it seems to be working quite well.

A piece of that, though, that affected me personally—I teach a journalism history course for that program. Originally, it was a semester. Then it became ten weeks of a semester. Then it became seven weeks of a semester. Why? Because the students, who are mostly experienced journalists returning for more specialized training, wanted more time for digital skills training.

I objected. I thought they needed 14 weeks for history. Only later did I figure out that I get the same paycheck for half as much teaching. I've grown accustomed to that now.

The question is, that seems to be a pressure. On the one hand, more subject matter expertise is needed, but it conflicts with this related need: How do I gear up, as a young journalist, with the new digital skills?

THOMAS PATTERSON: We did a little bit of looking at that particular issue. In part, it was because the Carnegie-Knight initiative was about—and Vartan Gregorian said that he would like to make journalism the new knowledge profession. That actually was Pulitzer's initial idea about what journalism schools would be. He wanted to elevate them to an intellectual profession at the same level as schools of medicine and law. Of course, that was not the direction that they took. They went in a craft direction instead.

But the Knight Foundation had a real interest in digital journalism and encouraging the teaching and the learning of digital platforms in journalism schools. They were a little bit worried that there was competition between these two objectives of the foundation. What they found was that when you integrated them, just as when you integrate the news writing and the substance, it actually works better.

Now, the problem of this kind of thorough integration, where you're learning substance, form, platform all at the same time—that's a superior model of education, but it's also one that's a more demanding one in terms of the burdens that it places on faculty and the integration across courses and getting faculty members to work as teams and cooperate and the like.

Universities are very conservative in terms of change and responding to new options. I think the difficulty is not with thinking about what the best way of doing it is, but in terms of how you put that into practice in a way that you get buy-in in the program, so that, in fact, they make a concerted effort to move forward in these directions.

I don't have the data on the after-effects of the Carnegie-Knight initiative, but my sense is that, at least at some of the places, it's flourishing, and at some of the other places, it probably has fallen off the table. There has been no real follow-up, no attempt to take that idea that was part of that six-year initiative and then really suffuse it through the entire program.

QUESTION: David Musher.

I wonder if you might comment on the relationship between sources and reporters. It's not unheard of for sources to use, if not to abuse, reporters. How might reporters protect themselves from this?

THOMAS PATTERSON: One of the arguments that I have for knowledge-based journalism is that you can't protect yourself if you don't know the subject matter. If you are interviewing someone and you don't have some understanding of the subject area, you're pretty much defenseless in that situation.

Now, it doesn't mean that you have to go out and simply report verbatim what you were told. But you can't simply suspect something might be wrong with what you were told. If you can't essentially say what the problem is with the argument, where the facts actually lie, you're pretty much in trouble. Then you're going to do the easy thing, especially if your editor is pushing you for the story: You're going to put that quote into the story and you're going to use that framing.

You may balance it out by calling someone on the other side of the fence and getting their take on the same situation and let that be kind of the corrective, although quite frequently in that situation you've got two falsehoods side by side, letting the audience decide which of the two falsehoods they like better. And we know what they do in those situations. Republicans and Democrats tend to choose different falsehoods when they have the choice between two of them.

I think journalists increasingly have to know the subject area well enough to basically act as a corrective in those kinds of situations, and then they have to have the courage—and it's very difficult in a profession where jobs are scarce and tenuous—to play it straight, to call their sources to account for the half-truths and sometimes outright lies that they get from their sources.

Once in a while they will do that, but at some cost. An example of that is Dana Milbank from The Washington Post, who was the Post's White House correspondent and, somewhere about 2008—I don't remember the exact date—said that the White House was pretty good at manufacturing facts in a front page story in the Post. Guess what? For months, he would raise his hand at the White House press conference and they would never call on him. When the president would take a trip and the plane would trail along with journalists, he was never invited to be one of the journalists that was on the trailing aircraft.

So there's a cost to be paid by calling public figures to account for what they say.

What's the alternative in this world of spin and PR? You can't simply pass that along to the American public. We're seeing the effects of that. We've got Americans, Democrats and Republicans, in a lot of policy areas now living in two different worlds. They have a different set of facts. It's one of the reasons you can't close that gap. If you can't get people on a somewhat firm foundation, some agreement about what the facts are, it's really hard to move to the next stage in the debate and in the argument.

QUESTION: Richard Valcourt, International Journal of Intelligence.

I began my professional career in August of 1961 as a journalist. I went through the ranks, in so many different ways. Some of the things you've talked about—and I was familiar with your book, the first one, The Unseeing Eye, when it first came out, and also some of Michael's work—we have something in the intelligence business that is similar to that in journalism, in that so many of the analysts who are doing the reports for the intelligence business don't have enough experience in the field. So we have a lot of people who are writing reports who may have had some educational experience, but they can't put it all together by practical experience. Those reports come on down the line, so they end up to be very skewed.

In the same way, you have reporters who may go to journalism schools and may learn a little bit about politics from their academic work, but they don't really understand American politics. So when they get out there, they're looking to make the politicians or the intelligence people look stupid, because they don't really understand the way the American political system works. Similarly, they don't understand how the American intelligence system works.

So you've got a real problem here in terms of what they are getting in universities before they get into the professional schools. We do have now Mercyhurst College and others teaching people how to write reports, but that doesn't mean anything when it comes down to really what those reports are all about. Our journal tries to point that out in many different ways.

THOMAS PATTERSON: Richard, I think you identify a real problem. There is an element of experience to journalism. It's like every profession in that way. Regardless of the nature of that initial professional training, time on the job matters.

One of the difficulties that journalists have—I don't know how the intelligence services operate; in the military, you rotate every two or three years. To some degree, if you're an officer, you never quite become a specialist. You are trained to become a generalist. Many journalists kind of live that life through their careers, where they go from one beat to the next or they're a general assignment reporter and they are covering this subject today and another subject tomorrow. That's a really challenging part of it.

That's why the argument centers so much about the knowledge of how to use knowledge—not simply what you know, but how you can use the information. How do you use knowledge?

There, I think the simplest and most obvious example is the statistical literacy example. It's too much to expect the journalist to be the person who goes and collects the data, puts it together, does the original analysis. But they need to be able to interpret it properly. Or if they get a government report, they have to be able to understand it and know what those numbers mean. If they can't interpret it properly—and you see lots of errors of that kind in reporting—some of the poll reporting, for example. Polls give you numbers. They give you percentages. That's what they do. The skill is in interpreting those numbers. That's what distinguishes the really good kind of analyst from the not so good analyst.

That kind of training actually is pretty sparse. There are certain places where the university is much better than the job for acquiring certain skills. That's one of those skills.

The job also has its place as far as a superior learning environment. But for the most part, if you don't acquire those kinds of skills in a university setting or in a mid-career setting or some other kind of concentrated, focused period where you're really getting the kind of help you need to be able to do that well, then it's very hard to kind of learn on the fly, on the job.

QUESTION: Philip Schlussel.

If you met a college student studying journalism, which courses that are not usually in the curriculum would you suggest that he or she study in order to make them a better knowledge-based journalist?

THOMAS PATTERSON: I have a real-life example. I have a niece who's a sophomore at Harvard. She's on The Crimson. We don't have a journalism program at Harvard. We have three kids, none of whom are interested in journalism. But our niece is. She's my surrogate child, I suppose, when it comes to this. She wants to be a journalist. I keep pushing her. I say, "Look, you're getting really good journalism training at The Crimson. Now what you need to do is to acquire the kinds of knowledge skills, the practical skills, to go along with that that can deepen your journalism." I try to push her into economics and into stats and those kinds of areas, where she really learns to do some disciplined thinking and acquires some frameworks.

Part of that is what knowledge gives you. Knowledge really expands the way you look at the world. If you understand international relations, if you have studied international relations as a student, you see that world differently than if you were studying sociology. By the same token, if you studied sociology, you see that subject differently than someone who has not. That, I think, is one of the great values of information or knowledge to the journalist. They just see the world differently.

To go to Walter Pincus's example about education, if you've studied education policy, you're going to think about story possibilities very differently than someone who has not. So the one who has not is going to catch the education story when it surfaces in really visible form, like bad test results where the United States is ranked 18th worldwide on math skills or something. That's going to be the story you are going to be able to tell. Or you get the horror stories about college loans and what the average student is walking away from the university with in terms of a loan obligation. You'll do that story. But are you going to do those other stories, those deeper stories about education? Probably not. They're not going to occur to you. You're not going to think about them.

That's what I'm trying to get her to think, get her to expand her—and that's what we hope everyone gets out of four years of college. We hope that the main effect of that is to broaden their sense of what the world looks like and what we need to pay attention to and think about.

QUESTION: Daniel Soto, from NYU.

It seems that knowledge-based journalism assumes lots of agency from the journalists. They should educate themselves to report better. It seems to me there are bigger forces affecting the journalists—the owners, the business model, political forces. How do those forces affect in the end what a journalist can do in his profession?

THOMAS PATTERSON: You're absolutely right, and it goes to some of the other questions that have been asked. Those are huge forces out there. It depends on how you count, but by one accounting, there are a third fewer journalists today than there were 10 or 15 years ago. That gives you a sense of the amount of attrition that has occurred in traditional news organizations. So there are a lot of pressures, I think.

In part, that's, I think, the reason why we place so much emphasis on the education process. That's the point where these kinds of pressures are less intense. The minute you graduate, of course, you get into that world of quite intense pressures—and, obviously, whether there's anything out there for you after you have spent four years of your life doing this. But I think that's where we think the real change is going to take place. It's much harder to learn these things on the job.

In some ways, that was the part of the answer to the old problem of yellow journalism. The Columbia Journalism School, the School of Journalism at Missouri—those were founded, in part, in response to or in reaction to this runaway journalism that you could see on the streets of New York during the great newspaper wars of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Those are undeniable forces, and they are big ones.

Other schools have done this. It's not like you can't make the change. About a half-century ago, business schools faced pretty much the same kind of challenge. The business school model was largely a faculty that had been out in the business world and came back into the university and basically talked about their lessons learned. If you look at business schools today, that's still much of what they teach. And they should—just as if, if you look at a journalism school faculty, a lot of the faculty members are former journalists who have come into the classroom to pass on the lessons that they learned while they were active in the news industry.

But what the business schools did was to say, "That's not enough. We've got to also bring economics into our curriculum. We have to bring organization and management theory into our curriculum." They fundamentally redid what a business school education looks like.

It wasn't easy. It's never easy to bridge those divides, make those connections. If you look at the studies—and they're still studying it 50 years later or so—there are still some problems with it. It's not easy.

But there's no one today in a journalism school who would say we have to go back to where we were 50 years ago. That's unthinkable. What would be nice is if, 50 years hence, looking back on journalism education, you make pretty much the same kind of claim—no, we would never go back to that model. That was not sufficient. It was not up to the challenges that journalists face in today's environment. It's not only that they need how to go gather the story and tell the story and disseminate the story, but they have to understand more deeply what they're reporting on if their stories are to be relevant, trustworthy, providing the kind of information that citizens need.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you for being so relevant, trustworthy, and informative. Thank you, Tom. It was really great.

You may also like

Still from Origin. Credit: Neon/IMDB

JUL 15, 2024 Article

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "Origin"

This review explores global issues around race and oppression in Ava DuVernay's "Origin," based on Isabel Wilkerson's book "Caste." How can we start this discussion?

JUL 9, 2024 Article

The Rise of Preemptive Bans on Human Microchip Implants

As the impact and influence of chip implants increases in the U.S., it's time to raise ethical and legal questions about this technology.

JUL 2, 2024 Podcast

Cybernetics, Digital Surveillance, & the Role of Unions in Tech Governance, with Elisabet Haugsbø

Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen speaks with Elisabet Haugsbø, president of tech union Tekna, about her engineering journey, resiliency in the AI era, and much more.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation