March 19, 2007
Memo To Journalists: Move From Reporting Ideology to Reporting On Problem Solving
There are many explanations for the flight over the past decade or so of journalists toward reporting about ideology. Among them, of course, is the chicken-and-egg spiral whereby political discourse shifts to 'either/or', 'on/off', 'my way or the highway' presentation and appeal that, in turn, influences journalists to report about the horse race of 'which ideology is winning' that, then, encourages and reinforces the thread bare 'either/or-ism' of the political discourse. In addition, though, are many, many other factors too numerous to list in this post. But, just to illustrate; there's also the incredible, geometric expansion of subject matter, the traumatic shifts in the economic and other realities of journalism and news businesses in this new information/web age of ours, and the rapid drift toward celebrity as a means of competition both for journalists' own careers and for the businesses that employ them. In response to all of these are some clear patterns of how journalists now practice their craft. One, for example, is what I call 'press release' journalism: simply printing the press releases of others and calling it reporting. (My far too subtle intended irony here has to do with the interpretation where journalists 'press the release button --that is, release themselves from their best values and aspirations to actually inform us -- which would take some work -- instead of merely being parrots.)
It's been years now since we've all learned to expect and experience the 'he said, she said' form of what passes for jounalistic balance in this new world of press release journalism. No matter how outrageous any ideological position, the minimal obligation of journalists seems to be met by merely including any comment from anyone who opposes that position. Among the many ways this hollows out journalism, much like termites eat away at a house, is that it eliminates any threshold of accuracy. So long as someone can be quoted, it matters not that the quoted statement is devoid of any fact. We've seen this time and again with regard to Valerie Plame's job status as a covert agent. We see it time and again with regard to creationism, the WMD lies that led to the Iraq disaster, the either/or journalism about No Child Left Behind and more.
Put differently, in a world and culture that spins out of control toward politicizing everything into a black-and-white loyalty test regarding ideology and identity, there becomes no room left for actual problem solving -- for actually trying to do anything about anything. Karl Rove triumphs. All journalists are branded as right v left or, more likely, supporters of Bush and the Republicans versus supporters of the 'left', the 'Democrats, of 'Satan' and of our 'enemies'.
Note again, please, how easy this makes the job of a journalist. The articles basically write themselves. And, the obligation to actually think for one self and to learn about the issues disappears.
None of which is to say that this description matches the best aspirations, the real concerns, the private lives or the truly professional best efforts of most journalists. From my experience, most journalists I know would prefer a better, more constructive way of moving forward into the 21st century. And, I'm guessing, most journalists I don't know would too.
We're dealing with issues of profound change. And, among them, are the challenges of shifting course within the context of jobs and organizations. That's very hard. At a minimum it entails taking risks to do things differently -- risks that affect job security, friendships within the organization, and sense of self. In most organizations, the 'either/or' aspects of our culture can rapidly become 'either/or' loyalty tests or career risks -- perhaps because they really are; or, more likely, perhaps because there is a perception that the "CEO" will come down hard on any risk takers. (Such perceptions, by the way, are as often mistaken as they are correct.)
Changing 'the way we do things around here' within any organization is very difficult. It is one explanation for why new entrants often take market share away from existing players -- at least until the existing players get the message and begin to recast themselves accordingly.
This is now happening in journalism. New players -- blogs, crowdsourcing journalism, citizen journalism, user generated content and more -- are moving quickly and independently toward taking advantage of a core new reality: the essential 'many-to-many' nature of our webbified world.
News organizations that, over the decades stretching from the 1970s to early 2000s, adjusted and grew based on a 'one-to-many' world, today have decades of skills, instincts, processes and economics that don't fit a 'many-to-many' world. This was shocking news to most of these organizations -- and, for the most part, even a year or so ago, most were in denial. Now, across this country, news businesses are rapidly moving from denial to doing something about it.
As they do, I've got a recommendation. Put a stop to 'press release' journalism. Put a stop to reporting about the horse race between a well defined ideology (Rovian Republicanism) and the assumed ideology in opposition (which, by the way, as every single one of us knows is and has also been defined by Rove).
Put a stop to this. And, instead, start to explore and learn journalism oriented to reporting about 'problem solving' -- that is, journalism that seeks to report on and inform people about options worth considering for how to move forward against the many challenges we face as a people.
In this 'problem solving' journalism, there will be no 'totally right answers'. Rather, there will be approaches that 'work sometimes'. And the job of journalists will be to help us figure out when various solutions work and when they don't. (And, yes, also what those promoting any solution have to gain personally -- that is, sources of self-interest that might or might not reach beyond objectivity.)
To take just one example, consider charter schools. Charter schools really do work sometimes. And, at other times they do not work. And, yet still in other situations, charter schools can exacerbate and make worse various ills. In a world where journalists report on education, they'll help us distinguish among the three cases -- unlike today where far too many articles one reads basically present a 'balance' between those who claim, "Charter schools are right!' and "Charter schools are wrong!"