J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

The Things That Tell Us What’s True (a Little Research Manifesto)

Posted by chanders on March 11, 2011

In late February, I had the chance to present the results of nearly a decade’s worth of research on local news at Phiji, the Philadelphia Initiative for Journalistic Innovation, at Temple University. Of all the talks I’ve given, this was probably the one that was the most rewarding. Despite its national implications, the story I tell in Networking the News is ultimately a local story about a particular place, at a particular time. So there was nothing more gratifying than getting a chance to share what I found, with the folks who knew and cared about it the most.

I also feel like the talk at Phiji represented something of an ending, for me. During my time researching local journalism in the digital age, I’ve produced two published papers (with a third on the way), a stack of paper that is roughly book-shaped, and a bunch of more or less understandable blog posts. And I think that I’ve said more or less what I have to say about how local newswork is changing in the web era. Now, life isn’t quite that simple, of course. For one thing, there’s still that outstanding book manuscript that hopefully will grow up to be a book someday (and if you know anything about academic publishing, you know that the process takes a long time). So there will be revisions to make, and probably talks to give, on Networking the News. Plus, let’s face it, I know a lot about local news and a lot about Philadelphia, and I doubt I’ll ever completely be able to stop myself from babbling about this stuff when people ask me about it. Nor would I want to stop thinking about it completely, even if it was possible.  There’s a chance I may get to write a future book on journalism and politics, which will certainly involve me going back and thinking about the ideas on Networking the News. And if I ever get the chance to do any funded research, I’m sure that I’ll be bringing a lot of the lessons I learned in Philadelphia back into the picture.

But, in the past year or so, I have felt my brain being drawn more and more to other research topics and areas, and I think it’s time to start making room in my head for them.

So what the heck might those topics and areas be, besides the stuff on politics and journalism discussed above?

The two big conclusions from my Philadelphia research have become increasingly easy to summarize as I’ve written and rewritten them over the past few years. They are not earth-shakingly profound, though I do think they have the advantage of both (a) being true and (b) being grounded in real empirical research.

I’ve concluded that journalism as an occupation has rested its institutional authority on:

  1. The fact that it does “original reporting.”
  2. The fact that it justifies this original reporting in the name of the unified public.

Obviously, both the act of reporting and the notion of the unitary public have changed significantly over the past decade. The web has deeply problematized the notion of the unitary public.  Reporting not only faces an onslaught of business-model related economic pressures, but the methodological options for conducting original reporting have broadened significantly. Links are only one of many “uncertain objects of evidence” that journalists can either choose to use, or not use, or not use, as they craft their stories. And the notion of the news story itself is changing as well. Algorithms, massive datasets, variables, hyperlinks, and aggregators are only some of the “news objects” now affecting the core journalistic process of reporting.

So I think that when we ask “what’s the future of journalism?” what we’re really asking is this: reporting is a particular (and actually rather odd) form of empirical social investigation. So what is the relationship between news reporting and other forms of empirical social investigation, both historically and today? How are the relationships between different forms of empirical social investigation changing in the current era of digitization?

Here’s what I mean. For the journalist, a stack of leaked documents carries a certain ontological weight. It is a particular socio-technical “assemblage” that, subject to proper verification, has become a conventional object of journalistic evidence. Why? How did leaked documents become accepted as a common currency of journalistic truth? What were the technological, social, cultural, professional, occupational, and political circumstances that created a universe of leaked documents in the first place, and why did journalists start to use them as the “particles” out of which they built their stories? And does a cache of digital documents (a la Wikileaks) mean something different than an analog file stored in a desk drawer somewhere? Why? Or perhaps even more interestingly, why not?

Here’s what I mean: why are interviewing, observing, and reading documents so easy for journalists, while linking is so “hard?”

So basically, I’m interested in the manner that different practices of empirical social investigation are illuminated (1) through an analysis of the shifting ontological status of journalistic objects, and (2) by comparing reporting to other empirical research practices in their historical, cultural, and technological contexts.

That’s a small topic, for sure (hah!). I figure this will take a while. But there are a lot of different ways to cut into a big idea like this. Here’s a running list of a few of them, and I’d love to hear other ideas you might have for how to approach the topic in the comments.

All this is a long way of saying that I’ll be giving 10 minute talk at NYU tomorrow about the 1907-08 Pittsburgh Survey and the original intersection between investigative journalism, sociology, and social reform. I’ve never spoken to historians before, I don’t have a presentation yet, and I am fairly worried I am going to make a fool of myself. Like my colleague Jay Rosen, who is down at South by Southwest, I too plan on starting my talk with a quote from the famous muckraker Lincoln Steffens. This is the quote I’ll be using:

“What reporters know and don’t report is news– not from the newspaper point of view, but from the sociologists and novelists.” (Lincoln Steffens, 1931)

2 Responses to “The Things That Tell Us What’s True (a Little Research Manifesto)”

  1. […] and assistant professor of media culture at the College of Staten Island is working on a new research project to examine the cultural history of computational journalism and understand how reporters in this […]

  2. […] Reporters' Lab … on The Things That Tell Us What… […]

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