What’s Wrong with Journalism?: Fake News and Much More

“The German journalism world is grappling with the implications of a shocking scandal at Der Spiegel,” explains Jeff Jarvis, adding:

But the Germans are digging deeper into the essence of journalism, questioning the perils of the seduction of the narrative form; the misplaced rewards inherent in professional awards; the risk to credibility for the institution in the time of “f*ke news;” the need for investigative self-examination in media; and more.

Amy Orben offers an excellent argument that this recent crisis of journalism has much to reveal about similar problems in academia:

And then Nikole Hannah-Jones unmasks a central problem with the analysis posed by Jarvis:

This recent scandal in Germany, Jarvis notes, has already played out in high-profile cases in the U.S. well before the hand wringing began about fake news in the wake of post-truth Trump.

While recognizing and confronting post-truth politics and media as well as fake news are urgent needs, especially for educators, neither the failures at Der Spiegel nor the pervasive elements of fake news and post-truth politics are really anything new.

What’s wrong with journalism?

The norms and traditions of journalism are at the core of that answer—both-sides journalism as that flawed pursuit of objectivity has intersected with press-release journalism that has evolved due to the corrosive elements of the market.

Not to oversimplify, but due to those market forces, mainstream journalism has moved from one norm of lazy journalism (both-sides faux objectivity) to a new norm of lazy journalism, crossing the Big-Foot line.

As media has contracted, fewer outlets staffed by fewer and fewer journalists, the essential flaws of journalism have been magnified. One of those flaws exposed has been journalists as generalists, not expert in the fields they cover.

Media outlets desperate for traffic push journalists to seek out topics that are compelling, and then those journalists approach topics as they have been trained to do—seeing everything as having both sides that are equally credible (or at least those journalists believe they have no role in determining credibility).

So on balance, Jarvis, as Hannah-Jones confronts, misreads the problem with journalism and wallows in the tired call for traditional norms.

But as Orben notes, the complex picture of what is wrong with journalism can also be placed at the feet of academia where traditional and current norms are essentially as problematic.

Both the flawed norms of objectivity and the corrosive impact of market forces are what’s wrong with journalism. And thus, the solutions are quite complex and include the following:

  • Solutions must resist both the veneer of objectivity as the path to Truth while rejecting the post-truth claim that there is no truth or that truth is driven by a cult of personality (the enormity of who makes the claim driving what is “true”). Humans are incapable of being objective and claims of Universal Truth are mostly lazy depictions of normalization (power portrayed as “normal” or “right” instead of acknowledging that “might makes right”). However, to reject objectivity and to become skeptical of Universal Truth is not abdicating that humans are capable of warranted assertions (a concept found, at least, in William James and John Dewey).
  • Warranted assertions of what is true at any moment in the accumulation of evidence must allow a wide range of different ways of knowing. In other words, privileging only the classic scientific method (in which, for example, controlling variables in order to make causal claims renders the evidence so unlike reality the conclusions are both scientifically true and real-world irrelevant) is no more valuable than lazy and careless uses of narrative. That humans have developed many different disciplines is testament to how complex knowing the world is. This so-called crisis in journalism, then, cannot be resolved by narrowing how we know; but must be a call to expanding how we know the world.
  • Something not examined as fully, I think, as necessary is the role of expertise and then who communicates that expertise to the non-expert and how that expertise is communicated. The who is difficult to resolve, but journalism needs an influx of disciplinary experts also trained in journalism. The generalist approach is defunct. The how is far less complex—although it requires a shift in norms. Neither scientific objectivity nor narrative, for example, are essentially “good” or “bad.” Both can be applied well or flawed. The pursuit of knowledge and truth must have a fidelity sought by the scientific method, but communicating knowledge and truth from expert to non-expert must be compelling and rich in a way that narrative fulfills.

There is a big picture issue here, ultimately.

What’s wrong with journalism is actually a subset of what’s wrong with human understanding.

This may be a chicken-and-egg dilemma in that revolutionizing journalism could change human understanding, but changing journalism may not come until human understanding shifts.

I am not sure how to resolve that but I am certain we cannot see the crisis in journalism as an excuse for nostalgia for a good old days of journalism that never existed or the fatalism of post-truth politics.

Truth is attainable, but to reach it is a complicated journey we have mostly not acknowledged yet.

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