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Nov. 4, 2013, 12:03 p.m.

Monday Q&A: Thomas Patterson on why journalists need to up their knowledge game

“The news media have two bottom lines. One’s the fiscal bottom line — they have to make money to stay in business. The other one’s the civic bottom line.”

informing the newsAt the Harvard Kennedy School, Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press, teaches two classes on policy, politics, institutions, and democracy. He’s written many books on the subject, from general texts like We the People to media-specific books including Out of Order and Mass Media Election. He knows his stuff about how the production of news by journalists impacts the citizens they ostensibly serve.

Unfortunately, Patterson isn’t sure the journalists themselves have as firm a grasp on that relationship. In his new book, Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism, Patterson argues that journalists must do a better job of bringing subject-area knowledge into their reporting. That’s the same concern that led to the foundation of Journalist’s Resource, the project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center to provide journalists’ with easy-to-reference studies on important public policy issues, where Patterson is the director of research. (You may know JR from the monthly lit summary they write for us.) Acknowledging the many challenges that journalists today face — the voracious news cycle, the lack of funds, the flood of information — Patterson says journalists must strive above all to provide context for the reader.

Patterson has enormous respect for what journalists do, and even greater respect for what they’re capable of doing for their audiences. Here’s an edited version of a conversation in which we talked about the journalist as sensemaker, the demands of broadcast, President Obama’s relationship with the press, the academy’s relationship with the public, “so-called experts,” footnotes, and more.

Caroline O’Donovan: This is obviously something you’ve been thinking about for a long time. When did you realize that it was becoming a book, and how did you take the composite of all this knowledge and information and make it into what this is?
Thomas Patterson: Well, the book is not about a new topic. It’s really an old issue. It was an argument that Walter Lippmann made in Public Opinion nearly a century ago. It’s an argument that the greatest journalists over the decades have made. The New York Times’ Tom Wicker remarked often that he thought insufficient subject matter knowledge was a major weakness of journalism because it really made journalists vulnerable to their sources.

This new information environment in which we live, it’s so vastly different from what it was a few decades ago. It’s noisier; it’s more confusing; there are a lot of sources of information that are not trustworthy. Many talk shows and many blogs are in that category, just the sheer noise of all the media messages that are coming at us. I think what we need journalists to do is help us find some clarity amidst that noise and confusion, and not add to it. So I think there’s some real urgency around this particular issue in journalism.

O’Donovan: You lay it out in the book in terms of six different problems: information, source, knowledge, audience, education, and democracy. Is there one of those things that you think is the most important to tackle off the bat?
Patterson: Well, I think the education problem is the most challenging in a way, when we’re talking about journalists. I think we can identify some things that could be done.

I think journalists need to have a better understanding of their audience. Traditionally, they’ve had a pretty good understanding of the news process and the gathering of news — the production of news and the dissemination of news — but not a real, deep understanding of their audience: how people learn, what it is about news stories that leave an impact, and what’s the cumulative effect of news coverage.

We get a lot of what some people call game coverage or horse race or strategy coverage of politics. That makes a lot of sense in certain contexts, because that’s kind of what’s front and center about a particular situation. But in terms of the audience, the cumulative effect of that is for them to think that politics is largely a game. That it’s not about them, meaning citizens — that it’s about those at the top.

There’s a lot of evidence that, in fact, that’s where the journalism is centered. I’ll cite you one study that looked at election reporting, looked at the campaign and how it was talked about in terms of the candidates, and the campaign in terms of how it talked about implications for the voters. There were seven times as many news stories about the implication for the candidates as for the voters.

O’Donovan: I don’t know if you happened to read last week an article published in The Atlantic, in which the author was pushing back against the idea that journalists need to learn how to code and build websites and web platforms and apps in journalism school. She was saying, in essence, not everyone is going to have those skill sets or have that interest, that’s not why I went to journalism school, and I’m not sure that’s entirely applicable to the career that I wanted to build.

Where would you weigh in on that? You’re saying we’ve moved away from this knowledge-based education in journalism in favor of focusing on the newsgathering, but there’s this whole other side of technology. Is that pushing out some of the grounding in academics that journalism school used to be?

Patterson: I think the history of journalism has been training students primarily in how to gather information, how to package it, how to disseminate it. Now we have other media, and I do think journalists have to understand how they operate. One of the limitations to that, of course, is this is a constantly changing part of the industry. Today’s hot platform might well be, 10 or 15 years from now, something that’s little used and thought to be of fairly low value.

We put a lot of demands on journalism students, that they know how to do stories, that they know the platforms. What we tried to do in the Carnegie-Knight initiative, where we worked with 11 journalism schools over a period of six years, was to kind of figure out how also to work knowledge into that training.

What we found, actually, is that it works together with things like new platforms. Digital platforms really do allow you to bring information and knowledge to news stories in a fuller way. This also could be a way to access knowledge and information that can inform a story. Rather than being the choice between either you learn the platforms or you acquire an understanding of how to use knowledge in reporting situations, when they come together, when students are doing both of those things, they’re actually more effective on both of those dimensions than if they do just one of them alone.

The business schools went through this half a century ago. They operated much as do many of the journalism programs, where their faculty were heavily people who had been in business and brought to the classroom the lessons they’d learned in their firms. But the business schools said that wasn’t good enough, that they really wanted reflective practices, that their students really needed to have a deeper understanding of what the practice was all about. So they started to bring economics into the curriculum, management theory into the curriculum, organizational principles, negotiation principles into the curriculum. Today, no one in business school would go back to the old model.

Another piece of it, of course, is numerical literacy. Many journalism programs don’t require their students to understand numbers, statistics, government reports, and the like. I find it hard to think how a reporter can operate in this increasingly complex, number-driven world without the ability, not to do the numbers or collect the data, but once looking at it to understand it and be able to interpret it in a way that enables the audience to see its significance.

O’Donovan: At the Online News Association conference last month, Nate Silver made the point, and he was speaking specifically about election coverage, that what we’ve long considered to be news — someone is up in a poll where they’ve been down, down, down — that’s an outlier. Outliers are what we’ve considered to be news, but from a broader perspective, especially in statistics but also in the broader knowledge landscape, that information is not usually pointing you towards truth.
Patterson: Look, the news is a lot of things. It needs to serve a lot of purposes. On some level, it needs to keep us interested. There has to be a sort of entertainment dimension to what the news is all about.

And then we need to be informed. We want the news to do all of those things. Too often, I think, the tilt has been to the entertainment side of it, and certainly the horserace coverage in elections is mostly about entertainment.

To a certain extent, journalism has always faced this question of balance and judgment. Alexander Hamilton said of the Supreme Court, when thinking of its power, its power really rests on judgment. I think you could make the same argument about journalism. In my view, it’s out of balance.

I mean, we still do have some local television affiliates that operate on the mantra of If it bleeds, it leads. We know the consequence of that. People who watch that kind of news have an exaggerated sense of the dangers lurking in their community. It’s not that it brings them closer to reality, it takes them further away from reality, and I think what we need the news to do is to help ground us, so that we understand better what our choices are, and also so that we can talk to each other.

O’Donovan: So we’re kind of dancing around money. I don’t want to oversimplify things by saying, How do we get people to read and therefore how do we pay for this kind of news? But that is a question that’s part of that balance and judgment, right? Because this is expensive stuff.
Patterson: The news media have two bottom lines. One’s the fiscal bottom line — they have to make money to stay in business. The other one’s the civic bottom line. They’re protected under the First Amendment and have other privileges on the expectation that they will contribute to an informed public. I think they have both of those obligations, and they need to figure out how to make them work in what is an increasingly challenging fiscal and economic environment for news organizations.

Let me give you the example of sports, because it’s a little clearer. What’s the sports fan want? What the sports fan wants to be able to do is know the score. Whether it’s in the third quarter, the fifth inning or whatever, they want the updates. But when this is over, they want to understand what went on. There, they look for the deep piece, the informed piece, that kind of puts what happened during the game into perspective and also illuminates what might happen in the next one.

I think when you look at the web, and you look at those two different kinds of information, the quick feed and the deeper piece, that’s where the audiences are moving. I think journalism and journalists are particularly equipped to do the second piece well. It’s not all that hard to do the first piece well — we can all call the game. But really, to get into the interpretation and the analysis of what’s going on in our public life, that’s for people who really make this their life’s work and work hard at it. Again, I come back to: Who else if not the journalist can we look to for that particular part?

O’Donovan: An element of the two-way relationship [between the academy and journalism] is the academic or expert turned blogger. In economics, you can think of Freakonomics; in political science, we’ve written about The Monkey Cage, which just became a blog with The Washington Post. I’d be curious to know where you think that’s going. Does that accomplish the goals that you have for more informed news?
Patterson: Well, I think it helps — it can help. I do think that increasingly people in the academy want to have a public voice. There were, in the past, some disincentives to that; colleagues who thought that anyone who went to the public wasn’t all that serious a scientist. Carl Sagan suffered that knock, as he tried to help the general public understand what was going on in the universe. That, I think, was a bigger risk 20 or 30 years ago. I think increasingly people in the academy understand the need to get knowledge out there in a form where it’s not only understandable by the public, but also accurate in its particulars.

On the other hand, I think any kind of automatic deference to expertise is a problem. Whether that’s in the academy, or from journalists to experts, I think journalists are properly on guard when they’re talking to politicians, but sometimes they treat experts as real experts, and some are and some are not. I think this is a good development — I think it’s going to improve the quality of information in the long run — but also I think journalists are going to need to figure out how to sift through among the so-called experts, which ones really are reliable sources and which ones are not.

O’Donovan: Are there unique challenges in this realm for broadcast that don’t face what we would have called print, once upon a time?
Patterson: The challenge of broadcasting to some degree has always been the challenge of too little time. It’s a less efficient way of communicating than print. It can be more vivid, and therefore more powerful under some circumstances, than print communication, but depth has always been a problem for broadcasting.

They’re in the business of attracting audience, and I think some times we forget that news organizations as news organizations are in the audience pleasing business more than they are in the informing the public business. Journalists are the informing-the-public people; the management are on the economics side of things. If yelling at each other on the set is what it takes to get eyeballs, some people will do that. And they are doing that. So I think there are some special challenges around broadcast, partly because it’s just very expensive to do real reporting.

O’Donovan: One recent historical example from the book that I was intrigued by was the second Iraq War. You write about a study on the percentage of quotations directly from George W. Bush and the way the media, because they were getting so much access to the president, just accepted that narrative. Because, you know, it’s fun and gratifying to get access to the President of the United States.

I couldn’t help but think about our situation now, when we talk about having unusually limited access to President Obama and how he’s always going around the press, be it on YouTube or Google Hangouts or Twitter — he doesn’t need the press as much anymore, so he ignores them. And people are frustrated about that, generally. I’m curious what you think about that. Is it okay, because we don’t need the access to do the most important kind of reporting? What would the implications be for that change in dynamic?

Patterson: I think journalists traditionally have been overly dependent on their sources, and it starts at the top. If you look at the Iraq War, and you’re fawning over the White House, and all your attention is directed at the White House, you’re going to get the White House’s version of what’s happening. And there are going to be a lot of other competing versions. Sometimes, the best version is the one coming from the White House — but sometimes not.

I think there are lots of ways to think about a “source,” as opposed to thinking about some person in a position. Knowledge is a source for understanding. A deeper understanding of the Middle East could have helped strengthen the reporting pre-Iraq. In almost every case, including the current situation with the Obama White House, there are other ways to think about, How do we really understand this situation? How do we report on it in informed ways that help the public to understand what’s going on?

The simple fact of the matter is, at one point, people in power in these top positions needed the journalists to reach the public. Increasingly, there are other ways to do it. A lot of this direct communication, there’s no intermediary to tell the story that they think they can only tell by listening to President Obama or, back then, President Bush. What’s the issue on the table, what do we know about it, how can we find out more about it, where’s the public interest here in that particular development? Oftentimes, I think the best stories are the ones that come up from the bottom.

But the problem, traditionally, with journalism, you don’t think to look to the bottom for some of those stories. It’s one reason why we get so much inside-the-Beltway coverage, as if somehow that’s what the country was all about, the infighting that’s going on inside that 10-mile-square district.

O’Donovan: This last question is sort of a pet topic of mine. Josh handed me your book and I flipped through it to see how long I thought it would take me to read it — and I noticed right off the bat that like a third of it is indexes and footnotes and bibliographies. There’s really a lot of metadata in there. And it reminded me of people I’ve talked to who are really interested in this question of annotation for the web, which we sometimes talk about as a format of commenting, and sometimes that is what it is.

But the really diehard annotation people, they believe in adding this conversational layer but also this layer of information. You read a news article, it’s very simple, news of the day, but you can think about an Internet in which there’s a link that takes you to whatever knowledge you would need to get a broader context for that story.

Patterson: The data on how many people actually go to some of those other places — it’s not a big number. But I do think there’s some value to it. One, I think — and journalists have to exercise judgment on this — sometimes they’re so flat out that they don’t have time to do this. And that’s understandable, right? It’s better to get the story that they’re doing right than to chase the tangents to it in a way that would be helpful to the audience. So, I think the first obligation is to get the story right.

Then, if you can kind of deepen the audiences experience by making the connections, I think that’s valuable because there are some people that will pursue additional information on the topic.

And then, to me, there’s another value to it, and it’s really one that if the journalist has the time, it’s also kind of a self-check. I think one of the things that’s happening with the speed that news is disseminated is that a lot of it goes out the door awfully quickly without the opportunity to have it checked. When news organizations are hard pressed for staff resources, one of the first places to cut is that backup group that’s there to make sure that the journalists got it right.

I do think that when you annotate, in some ways, you’re kind of footnoting. For me as an author, there’s hundreds and hundreds of footnotes here. I wanted to show where my claims are coming from. I thought that was really important, to be able to do that. But that also serves as a check on me. If I footnote someone, I need to take a good look at that sentence, and that paragraph, and make sure it matches up with what that source said.

We don’t all have the luxury, of course — scholars have the luxury of taking time to footnote. I’m not talking about the exacting methodologies and checks and peer reviews or anything like what the best of the academy goes through. But within what we can reasonably expect of journalists. Bump the game up a notch. Subject matter knowledge has to be part of that bump up. It’s essential.

POSTED     Nov. 4, 2013, 12:03 p.m.
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