J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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

Archive for January, 2013

“The Documents Book”: First Stab at Some First Lines

Posted by chanders on January 4, 2013

I’ve had a little time over the break to get some drafts of the first pages of what I’m calling the “documents book” down on paper. I have no idea if this will stick, and indeed, I feel like I’ve written up more “first pages” of this project than I can count. Nevertheless, I last looked at it two days ago, and looked at it again this morning, and it seemed good enough to put out there. 

Fragments of this project can be currently found: posted here in March 2011 as a little research manifesto, on my first post at the Culture Digitally blog, titled “The Materiality of Algorithms,”  in a talk at the Mary Junck research colloquium  at UNC this past spring, in this call for an ICA preconference on the “Objects of Journalism,” (coming to an ICA near you!), and scattered across some Nieman Lab blog posts (like this one on Wikileaks). I also think the new book will be deeply indebted to, and in dialog with, the forthcoming (and now untitled) volume on the intersection between science and technology studies & media studies, edited by Pablo Boczkowski, Kristen Foot, and Tarleton Gillespie.  

I am hoping the new year will allow me to concentrate my energies on this a little more, and start to move this project forward in both theoretical and empirical directions.

Journalism is an epistemology with a particular, and highly unusual, embedded ontology. In slightly less portentous language, journalism is a method of assembling and analyzing evidence, a method with particular notions about what kinds of evidence are legitimate, and whose evidentiary analyses are affected by the larger social and technical systems in which these evidentiary forms are embedded. Or finally: journalism is a social system with a particular and peculiar relationship to things. In this sense, it is not reducible to organizational procedures, political and economic systems, or ideological power games. It is a particular culture (or rather, cultures) of truth building, a culture with both symbolic and material dimensions, a culture that both grapples with things themselves, as well as with its own internal beliefs what particular things matter, and why.

It is the contention of this book that the universe of evidentiary objects with with journalism interacts is now experiencing its own “big bang.” The relatively stable system of sources from which journalism had had to draw over the past five decades is, like all digitally grounded communicative forms, experiencing a massive influx of  new participants: crowds, social media systems, dig data sets, algorithms, hyperlinks, user metrics, and countless others. In the pages that follow I want to historicize these contemporary developments by tracing the cultural history of three deeply interrelated journalistic objects: documents, data, and algorithmic processes. How have journalists thought about documentary evidence— literally, about paper— and what role have documents played in their reporting practices? In what ways do these documents become data, and how does the transmutation of documents to data affect the manner by which these paper forms are assessed? What role, finally, do emerging algorithmic processes play in the analysis of documents and data, and how does the very materiality of algorithmic evidence affect journalistic fact-building?

This book argues, in short, that we can only understand 21st century journalism by looking at the objects with which it interacts, that this interaction is necessarily both cultural and material, and that these shifting paradigms of interactivity must be analyzed as taking place within history, that is, over time. Theoretically, it tries to integrate several decades of research in science and technology studies with both the cultural history of journalistic reporting and the sociology of journalistic source procedures, and draws inspiration from the emerging field of paperwork studies. Methodologically it is both historical and ethnographic. The early chapters, dealing with journalistic work in and before the early 20th century, are necessarily based on archival research, while the later chapters draw on independently gathered oral histories and the ethnographic analysis of recent journalistic software projects, including Document Cloud and the Overview Project. Given this diverse range of methodologies and theoretical sources of inspiration, this project is necessarily, and appropriately, unified by its object– the journalistic document and the role it has played in the construction of reportorial truth.

In the remainder of this introductory chapter, I want to further elaborate some of the thoughts only telegraphically sketched above. Our entry into the subject begins by stepping through the portal of journalism studies, looking at the literature on both journalistic evidence and journalistic objects, particularly the holy trinity of sources, documents, and direct observations. I also briefly examine the literature on the sociology of journalistic sourcing, arguing that there is a gap between the more historical and cultural analyses of journalistic evidence and the more finely grained discussions of the procedures through which journalists establish a hierarchy, routinized pattern of sources. I argue in the second section that both science and technology studies (particularly the early, empirical work of Bruno Latour) and the emerging field of paperwork studies might help us fill this gap between history and sociology, and indeed, I propose such a procedure in this book. The introduction concludes with an outline of both the structure of the argument and the actual narrative breakdown of the empirical chapters that follow.

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