The case for knowledge-based reporting
In their day-to-day reporting, journalists are naturally dependent on their sources. A source might be disinterested, but this is rare, and it certainly should not be assumed. The safe bet is that newsmakers will try to arrange the facts in ways suited to their interests. Almost every experienced politician or public relations representative is practiced in this art and will present a compelling picture – the one, as the journalist Walter Lippmann noted, “he wishes the public to see.” A good reporter knows this, and will be properly skeptical, but it is rare when the reporter knows the subject as well as the source does.
To assert that the journalist’s responsibility in such situations is to deliver “truth” assumes, somehow, that the journalist can routinely transcend the limits of his or her information. Even if it were so, the nature of news reduces the likelihood that the journalist will be able to make the most of it. It ordinarily takes a great deal of time — time that a journalist working on deadline does not have — to sort out the factual elements of a complex situation and arrange them properly.
It follows that the news in general will be reliable in rough proportion to society’s systems of record. If the Labor Department has systematically studied the level and length of local unemployment, the number of local families affected by it, and the frequency with which the newly employed hold onto their jobs, the journalist can report accurately on the local unemployment situation. A trip to the local unemployment office to interview its staff and the jobless standing in line will yield anecdotal material for the story but, if that is the story’s sole basis, broad judgments about the local labor situation would be speculative. Although such stories are reported regularly, they are no more precise because of it.
If the news, then, is reliable to the degree that it is grounded in systematic analysis and knowledge, there are two ways to make it more reliable. One is to extend the boundaries of knowledge, which is the everyday work of the scientist, the policy specialist, and uncounted public-sector and private-sector bureaucrats. This work — the uncovering of hidden facts and organizing them into knowledge — occupies the time of hundreds of thousands of individuals and has proceeded at a breathtaking pace in recent decades. It has been estimated that the storehouse of human knowledge is doubling every decade.
The second way to increase the reliability of news is for journalists to make greater use of accumulated knowledge. This recommendation might seem so obvious as to be thought unnecessary. Is not journalism already rooted in knowledge? The answer is no, at least not in a substantial way. Although knowledge is a component of everyday reporting, it is not its mainstay. Journalists are not trained to think first about how systematic knowledge might inform a news story. They look first to the scene of action and then to the statements of involved or interested parties. Typically, the question of whether a particular episode might have a fuller explanation is never asked. Stanford’s Shanto Iyengar has concluded in his studies that news is overwhelmingly “episodic.” Events are usually reported in isolation.
Journalists, as Lippmann argued, have a responsibility to “fight for the extension of reportable truth.” The challenge of modern journalism is not to get everything right but to reduce the frequency of unfounded opinion. Knowledge-based journalism can contribute to that goal.
Thomas E. Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. He is a founder of Journalist’s Resource and serves as research director.