Expert Commentary

Research chat: Nicholas Lemann on journalism, scholarship, and more informed reporting

Interview with Nicholas Lemann of Columbia Journalism School and The New Yorker about using research in reporting.

Nicholas Lemann (

Nicholas Lemann, Dean and Henry R. Luce Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is a veteran national affairs journalist who has spent a career examining issues such as race, inequality and social mobility in America, as well as the dynamics of politics and the press. Many of his articles for The Atlantic and The New Yorker, and his books The Big Test, The Promised Land, and Redemption, have mined the annals of history and often incorporated the findings of social science research.

At Columbia, Lemann has implemented a number of changes, including offering new, discipline-specific master’s degrees, the creation of The New York World site, and pushing for a more research-oriented curriculum. As part of our “Research chat” series, Journalist’s Resource recently sat down with him to talk about, among other things, research methods, political science, and the future of journalism.


Journalist’s Resource: You’ve had this vision of moving the journalism world closer to the world of research. So what would that look like in terms of new habits that would be established among working journalists?

Nicholas Lemann: I can tell you fairly precisely, and I can use myself as an example. Every summer, they let me out of the cage and I can do one reporting story for The New Yorker. The one I did last summer just appeared, on Brazil. I try to put into effect in my own journalism the things I’ve been trying to put into effect at the school. So the very first thing I do when I get an assignment like that is to do what academics call a “literature review,” which is partly done through reading and partly done through meeting leading academic experts on the subject, and just kind of familiarizing myself.

A lot of journalists feel pretty comfortable reviewing the literature — we don’t use the term “literature review” — of works of journalism, but not of works of scholarship and research. You can, with some training, do a literature review, by the way, inside a daily news cycle even. 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, really useful in terms of getting context. Its value is meaningfully beyond the now-ancient idea of going to the newspaper morgue and pulling the clips. That’s how we were trained when I was a kid. You’d go to the morgue and pull the newspaper clips, and you’d — quote — call an expert. But that’s different from actually reading the literature and figuring out who the leading voices are and reading their work in its original academic form, without fear; and then really sitting down and trying to spend time with them, as opposed to just calling them blind and saying, “I need a quote.” So I do this myself, I teach my students how to do it, and they do it. It changes and enriches the way you work.

JR: For working journalists, how do you answer the question of what’s in it for them? What’s the real value in terms of their product?

Nicholas Lemann: Tom Patterson’s phrase is “knowledge-based journalism,” which I like a lot. Many a journalism school course doesn’t have any reading. It’s what they call experiential learning. And many that have reading only have works of journalism. What I’ve tried to do at least in my own courses — and some of my colleagues do this, too — is really introduce non-journalistic works in courses for journalists, by finding things in various places in academic literature that would pertain. For example, I teach a course in the spring now on interviewing. So when I decided to teach it, I did the proverbial literature review. What I discovered is actually literature on questions like: how does the order in which, and the manner in which, you ask questions affect the answers you get? It’s something that’s very useful in journalism, but journalists don’t even know about it — including me before I taught the course, because we only look internally at our own field. So it’s a habit in teaching, as well.

The way all this adds value is in the social mission of journalism sense. So what journalists are is a connection point between the informed general public and the inaccessible. And the inaccessible can be hidden records of official misdeeds, or it can be what people are doing in the mountains of Afghanistan, or it can be expertise. It’s just anything that the public doesn’t have ready access to that’s relevant to the public’s understanding of important things in the world. We’re supposed to make those connections. And knowledge-based journalism is an important part of doing that. So it really does produce journalism that is richer and fuller.

The example that really got me going on this was the war in Iraq. To Bush’s credit, he didn’t surprise us there. He essentially launched a year-and-a-half national discussion of whether we should go to war in Iraq. And there was an immense amount of press coverage. In the aggregate, it’s not really the yellowcake, WMD story that bugs me. What bugs me is how little coverage there was of things like how, after you take out Saddam, there will be three ethno-religious groups and they are going to start fighting. It’s just the most obvious thing in the world, but it was so rare to see any reporter even mentioning that as an issue. That’s sort of the classic example. But once you get to that first-grade level of knowledge, there’s actually a huge literature — and recent — on post-conflict conditions in countries, coming especially out of the Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia countries. It had all been very intensively studied. Almost no journalist ever looked at that, including the most prominent national journalists. And it turned out to be the most important issue.

JR: How does knowledge-based journalism, then, fit in with the changes in the news industry — the rise of digital platforms and the contraction of newsrooms?

Nicholas Lemann: On the economic side, journalism has to move from being a commodity profession to a value-added profession. I sometimes say, half-kidding, that we’ve operated traditionally on the hunter-gatherer model of journalism. And if we are to have a future as a paid profession, we really have to prove in the age of the Internet that an actual paid reporter or editor does something beyond what somebody just writing comments from their house could do. And one of those things is to teach journalists to be truly knowledgeable quickly and to communicate clearly the knowledge. That’s a way we can enhance our economic as well as our social value.

JR: What are the basic skills you think journalists need in order to read academic literature?

Nick Lemann: I think there are three things. One is some kind of basic statistical literacy. A lot of academic literature has at least some statistics in it. The course I teach in the fall, called “Evidence and Inference,” is basically a methodology course to get journalists to do what I’m advocating. It has six classes with a bio-statistician who walks you through the real basics of statistics — not how to do statistics, but how to read statistics. So you know what correlation is, what regression is, what standard deviations are, and things like that. That’s very useful, and if you don’t have that you’re lost.

The second is a kind of sociology of knowledge piece about how this kind of research gets produced and what it is meant to do in the world — what the writer is trying to do and how it gets funded, and how people who produce research relate to other people. A lot of that stuff is a little bit foreign to journalists, and this knowledge can help you decode and understand it.

The third thing I’d add is just some real basics on the scientific method and the thought process that underlies most academic research — things like hypothesis testing. I do think that this kind of literacy is teachable. But though it’s fairly easy to teach, it’s hard to pick up on the fly. A lot of journalists I know just don’t know how to locate material, and if they find it, they don’t know how to read it. But it’s surprising once you learn to read it — it’s like riding a bike.

JR: It seems, too, that once you get a certain level of understanding, you can also produce real critiques of academic work that does enter into the public square. Your piece on Robert Putnam’s influential book Bowling Alone and its thesis stands in this category. You don’t just have to report uncritically on research.

Nicholas Lemann: Yes, you can enter the conversation yourself. A lot of journalists think that either there’s an expert who knows about a subject, or there are two experts, one liberal and one conservative, and you have to quote them both disagreeing with each other. But there’s a richer way to interact with research than that.

JR: Our site has been rolling out a new feature on scholarship that relates to the 2012 election. You have done a lot of in-depth political reporting. What are your thoughts on how political reporters can do deeper, more-informed journalism? What should they be thinking about a little more?

Nicholas Lemann: First of all, there’s the fairly standard but true complaint that politics is covered too much as a horse race story, like a sports story. Coverage of specific candidates and how their campaign is doing just takes up a lot of bandwidth. So there’s way too much election politics and way too little policy. There’s very little spelling out what difference it would make depending on which candidate is elected. The press has gotten somewhat better on this over the years, but it’s still an issue.

I think the press is way too focused on media strategies — both as they say in the business paid media and earned media — and way too little on grassroots organizing and the so-called “ground game” of politics. Interest groups get under-covered tremendously. There’s also kind of moralism in political journalism; that there are good guys and bad guys; that people are being tested on character; that they are being caught doing bad things or are innocent of doing bad things. There’s a tendency not to understand larger forces — to use a kind of “great man theory” of history — and not to understand politics in the way that political scientists generally do: as a realm where interests come to contend and try to run societies either peacefully or not. Interest groups tend to be treated as illegitimate actors. Compromise tends to be undervalued. Legislation tends to be undervalued. Within political coverage, there tends to be too much focus on the executive branch and not enough on the legislative branch.

There’s not enough cost-benefit analysis applied. A good example is the Arab Spring, where a lot of the press coverage — as with Iraq — had a degree of personalization. It’s the equivalent of horse race coverage, in the sense of, well, “If so-and-so is the dictator of a country and he’s a bad guy, when we take him out then good guys will reign.” It has a sort of narrative logic. There was a rejoicing over people like Gaddafi and Mubarak leaving their jobs and not a lot of analysis of what, if that happens, what will happen next. Will things be better? Will things be worse? What are the contending elements? There’s a tendency to understand things — countries — too much in the form of individuals and to fail to see any action inevitably as having both good and bad consequences, rather than only good consequences.

JR: Specifically on campaigns, what are some of the directions you’d like to see political journalists head over the next year?

Nicholas Lemann: Campaigns are very, very tough to cover well because you’re operating in a very restricted environment where it’s hard to get access to information. As a profile writer, like me, you can ignore the daily news cycle. But as a daily reporter, you can’t. So I don’t want to be too facile here. I would say even developed life stories of leading candidates, which don’t take specialized expertise to do, are not done frequently enough. I didn’t know until December the fascinating detail that Herman Cain’s father was the chauffeur of the CEO of Coca-Cola. Why did it take me so long to learn that? So I’d like to see more biographical stuff, information about whom the candidate represents, who their backers are — not just who their rich donors are, but what interests they represent and what they would do if they were elected. Getting candidates’ views on subjects other than the few soundbite topics du jour that they get asked about in the debates is good. Anything that is off the bubble. The discourse of campaigns tends to take place inside a tiny box. For example, all we care about this week is Newt’s bump in the polls and what it means for Romney. So there’s always a lot of stuff that doesn’t get talked about.

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