Walter Lippmann is known for his critique of journalism schools, which teach the basics of news writing but not how to really explain the news. Lippman was well ahead of the Vox’s and Upshots of today — news sites that don’t just regurgitate headlines, but explain them. Lippmann had this to say about wire services and aggregators, which do little to explain the news:

The news columns are common carriers. When those who control them arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable. Public opinion is blockaded. For when a people can no longer confidently repair ‘to the best foundations for their information’, then anyone’s guess and anyone’s rumor, each man’s hope and each man’s whim becomes the basis of government. All that the sharpest critics of democracy have alleged is true, if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news.

Michael Schudson’s journal article served as a more modern take on the future of journalism, which he argues can be found within databases and narratives that fit into proven, numbers-backed research. He says that political observatories — or what we often call nonpartisan think tanks and research institutes — are filling that explanatory role that Lippmann called for. They find the truth behind the numbers and studies in a nonpartisan way, Schudson said, and journalists are increasingly relying on them for the job that some believe they could potentially provide.

I agree with Schudson that media and political observatories should have a collaborative role, but I still see the value in traditional media as a “fourth estate” institution. To Schudson’s point about the power of databases, I agree that journalism schools and news outlets should do more to facilitate this role as a watchdog that uses data, not just narrative, to speak truth to power.

Political observatories vs. media

It can’t be denied that political observatories are important for research and democracy, as Lippmann proposes. They can find the truth behind rhetoric, and back that up with numbers. But still, the mission of these institutions is not to act as the fourth estate of democracy — it’s often to do research and inform legislators, advocacy groups and other stakeholder. Journalists, on the other hand, exist to find some sort of “truth” and look to hold people accountable — their prime audience is readers. They can take a report from the Congressional Budget Office, one of the political observatories lauded by Lippmann, and make it digestible for the average person.  Reports by these political observatories, while they may be in-depth and explanatory, are extremely dense and complicated. For example, I once was assigned a story about an economic mobility report issued by a political observatory known as MDC. It was extremely dense, and delved into dozens of topics. I ended up taking one piece of the report about mobility in Raleigh to build a story. As I’ve written for this blog before, journalists can’t abandon basic news principles. Readers need to know what affects them based on timeliness and proximity, otherwise they won’t read about it or care.

Lippmann seems to suggest that political observatories are fulfilling a role that journalists are near abandoning; while Schudson says journalists rely heavily on political observatories but the observatories aren’t a replacement. I agree with Schudson’s take.  Media outlets can and should collaborate with these observatories, but one is not more integral than the other. Media also can’t be afraid to examine “partisan” or views that are alternative to these think tanks — simply because these views are newsworthy.

In class, we talked about the public sphere under Habermas and other theorists, and how it is often limited to elites. If political observatories were solely relied upon for analysis, less people would participate in these democratic debates. A 1,000 word news report which explains an issue and offers a forum for public debate is much more likely to be consumed than a 4,000 word report that doesn’t examine the debates and politics behind an issue or provide a creative narrative. It’s just not as interesting or concise.

How media can revamp their role

Lippmann worries that media are losing their teeth because they try to be objective rather than be detailed and informative. Schudson offers databases as a potential solution — stories would rely on both narratives and numbers under this proposal.

The problem with this is exactly what Lippmann points to as an issue with journalism now — journalism curriculums aren’t adequately preparing reporters. Journalists have become generalists rather than specialists, which is due both to their education and media organizations’ waning resources. This puts the onus on reporters to report on everything and develop less of a specialty.

Investigative and data-based pieces, though, are much more specific. These journalists are specialists who have specific, data-packed stories, such as Walt Bogdanich beat on sexual assault for The New York Times or Carol Koenig’s beat on the Secret Service for The Washington Post. They produce hard-hitting stories, often backed by public records or data, and are dedicated to stories that might take months rather than short daily stories.  More and more small news organizations are recognizing that this is a way to get ahead, and even online news organizations like BuzzFeed have recently added investigations departments with a focus on data reporting.

This is all very encouraging, but J-Schools haven’t necessarily been part of this change. At UNC, there is one data reporting teacher and one investigative journalism class. We are taught in “specializations” or “tracks” which consist of two courses rather than five or six. Data reporting is something that takes formal training beyond just one class. Personally, I’ve had several experiences where I am forced to stare blankly into a spreadsheet, wonderig how to make a story out of thousands of data points. Though the change seems far off, experts have said that there will soon be an explosion in data reporting classes at J-schools.

Like traditional newspapers, journalism schools are caught in a Catch-22 of wondering whether they should teach young reporters how to be niche or jack of all trades. J-Schools hopefully will choose the former.


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