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A spotlight, not a truth machine

“The answer will be what it has been since Walter Lippmann got it right 90 years ago.”

Of the ten biggest news stories of 2014, seven will be broken by newspapers or wire services with editorial staffs of more than 100; one by a smaller “legacy” newspaper; one by a radio or TV news organization; and one by an online-only news operation founded in 2004 or after. In discussions about journalism and its future, that tenth story will be the focal point of discussion and most of the nine other stories will barely be mentioned.

michael-schudsonAnother prominent topic in discussions about journalism will concern a tremendously important issue — Issue X — that explodes upon the scene and generates endless commentary about “why the media failed to cover Issue X.” The answer will be what it has been since Walter Lippmann got it right 90 years ago: Journalism is not a truth machine but a searchlight that picks up aspects of reality that obtrude upon the world at a moment when the searchlight hits upon that location. If, by chance, the searchlight passes by that part of the globe before the big moment, and an astute reporter writes about disturbing trends that might lead to an Issue X disaster, few will notice at the time or recall the story later.

People like me will remind data enthusiasts that journalism is about stories, not data. Data are vital resources, but someone has to apply intelligence, art, and ardor to them to make them a matter of public interest. And then, I hope, someone will also notice that journalism is neither all about data nor all about stories. It is also “Heavy rain expected tomorrow” or “Mandela dead at 95” — the former related to data but not data, the latter implying a story (as every obituary does, as every life does) but not a story. It is a news “item,” and very useful to millions of people as advice, as notice, as guidance, as admonition, as recipe — but not a story. And it is also essential to what we mean by news.

Michael Schudson is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and author of a number of books, including Discovering The News: A Social History Of American Newspapers, The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life, and Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20