Lessons for journalists from a physics teacher

After no shortage of mental floundering and existential groping, I’ve distilled the “problem” I set out to take on here at Stanford to a single question: Just what is it we journalists are trying to do?

It’s a deceptively complicated question, and at least in me, one that creates great uneasiness. Ask a doctor the same question and they’ll say, very simply, “save lives” or “cure sickness” or some such. Ask a lawyer, and you might hear some version of “seek justice” or “be a zealous advocate for my client.”

But ask a journalist this question and you might hear “enable democratic life,” “speak truth to power,” or “write the first draft of history.” But any or all of these needs some heavy duty unpacking to get to a point where you can arrive at some goal or mission for journalism that can actually be measured. So, as a journalist do you wait with bated breath for voter participation stats to be released (as good of a measure of citizen engagement as any)? Or how might you measure whether or not you’re speaking truth to power?

For my purposes, and understanding that the word “journalism” is a mushy, all-encompassing term that lumps together disparate forms, from Steve Coll’s in-depth journalism for the New Yorker to Anderson Cooper‘s commentaries on CNN. Each of these has vastly different goals, do they not? They might be on opposite ends of a sort of Maslow’s hierarchy of journalism (which I’ll put more thought to later).

Say what he will about holding politicians feet to the fire, Cooper is more than anything interested in inflaming passions, or warning of dangers lurking in our midst. Kind of a Pleistocene journalism, meant to alert the tribe to approaching woolly mammoths. Coll on the other hand is equally interested in warning of danger (in his case, of terrorist threats), but he does so with an added goal of creating understanding or sensemaking that transcends current threats and gives us tools for navigating our day-to-day lives. It’s journalism that informs and warns, but also seeks to enable a sort of Maslowian self-actualization through nuanced and dispassionate analysis and elegant writing.

For my purposes, then, the highest and best goal of journalism tends more toward the New Yorker side of the spectrum: To create understanding that enables people to make enlightened decisions. But what journalists among us have the wherewithal to gauge whether or not we’re doing our job according to this measure? We send stories out into the void, and what comes back? In most cases, we have no idea if what we’re telling people is having any impact whatsoever, except for perhaps the occasional and inevitably cranky letter to the editor.

Such were my thoughts today as I listened to a wonderful talk by renowned Harvard physics instructor Eric Mazur. Mazur told about an epiphany he came to after realizing that his students, Harvard students no less, understood few of the fundamental principles of physics, despite being able to solve the most complicated of problems. But his students tested well, and rated him highly. So what was the problem?

He tested kids as they came into class on basic physics principles (a test I would fail) and then retested them after the class, and found that there was shockingly little progress in their understanding. That forced a very serious question on him: What, exactly, was he trying to accomplish as a teacher? Was it to memorize and then later spit out formulas and equations? Was it to train future professors?

No, his goal was to create understanding of the principles of physics as well as the problems and how to solve them. As he says, understanding the concepts makes for better problem solving. But better problem solving doesn’t necessarily enable an understanding of the concepts.

With that goal in mind, he tried something different. He asked students in class to consider a problem (after having handed out the lecture notes before class so he wouldn’t need to reference them during class) and then select the best answer using an electronic voting device. He’d instantly see where the class was distributed in relation to the right answer.

That’s when things got interesting. Prof. Mazur would then ask his students to turn to one another and try to convince their classmates that their answer was the right one. If the group agreed on the answer, they would then seek someone with a different answer and try to convince that person. Then Mazur would re-ask the question. If the class was mostly getting the answer right, he’d move on. If not, he’d ask another similar question.

The result of this seemingly subtle shift in teaching tactics? A dramatic increase in his students’ understanding of basic physics concepts.

So what, if any, relevance does this have for journalism? I would imagine stories about candidate health plans or credit default swaps are journalism’s equivalents to a Harvard physics lecture. Not easy concepts to grasp. But if, as a journalist, you’re not satisfied with just transmitting information to a passive audience, but really truly hoping that they’ll take it, work with it and understand it, what do you do?

Here are two ideas, neither of which I have tried, but would like to:

– FOR RADIO OR TV: Invite 10 people from different background and ages into your studio and play the piece before you air it. Record the group listening to it, and then ask them to convince each other what the main point of the piece is. Air salient bits of that  conversation after the piece in question. To make it worth watching, see to it that it’s lively. Capture the life and the texture of the conversation.

– ONLINE: Before you run a story, create and administer a quiz to a random group of people about their attitudes toward a certain subject. Then present to them the content that you have produced with the intent of increasing understanding. Then poll them again. See if you’ve succeeded in moving the needle at all. (For more on this, see Jim Fishkin’s work on deliberative polling.)

There is, still, a problem here. Students have a big incentive to be in class and participate: Their grade depends on it. But what obligation does your audience have to stick around as you try new and creative and time-consuming ways to impart your wisdom? Nothing.

It’s even more important, then, that this sort of journalism be engaging and fun to experience–not just for the New Yorker crowd. Done poorly, I could hardly think of anything duller than a story about people being polled and then being polled again. Or publishing a piece about the “making of” this process of understanding. To make the content sing, you will have to highlight the tensions between ignorance and knowing, between those who know and those who don’t, the reasons for the gap, and the implications of not knowing.

Another tension: What happens to the news beast while you’re off trying to create understanding? The day-to-day news cycle demands rapidity and discourages reflection, especially as the number of people devoted to journalism shrinks. And not every story demands this sort of treatment. Sure enough. Keep on feeding the beast. But start house-training it: Take a stand and start skipping news conferences where your reporters are spoon fed quotes. Kill story ideas that don’t seek to make an impact.

And then when you seek to make an impact, make damn sure you’re succeeding. What if you owned a restaurant and every night you sent out plates of food, and every night they came back untouched? You’d have to quickly adjust or you’d be sunk. But in journalism all you have to go by is circulation and audience numbers and web impressions. While that gives you some top-level sense of whether or not people are eating what you serve, it does nothing to confirm that you’re actually doing your job.

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short, sharp and narrowly targeted

That may, or should, be the future of newspapers, argues Journalism Prof Philip Meyer. What he’s advocating is that newspapers become more akin to magazines, though magazines dedicated to cultivating community influence, locally. I think he’s spot on in how we defines what news should be today:

“By news, I don’t mean stenographic coverage of public meetings, channeling press releases or listing unanalyzed collections of facts. The old hunter-gatherer model of journalism is no longer sufficient. Now that information is so plentiful, we don’t need new information so much as help in processing what’s already available. Just as the development of modern agriculture led to a demand for varieties of processed food, the information age has created a demand for processed information. We need someone to put it into context, give it theoretical framing and suggest ways to act on it.”

I think there’s a huge opportunity here.

artificial sensemaking

technologists are refining software that teaches computers the meaning behind words.

here’s why i’m interested: apply this to a stream of information flowing in from a massive network of sources each in their own special way trying to tell you “what’s new,” and the prospects for spotting emerging issues, trends, etc. seem pretty interesting.

may try to visit powerset, an sf company that specializes in this sort of software (and was recently acquired by microsoft).

the big sort, politics & public media

turns out that when counties tip one way politically, they become more and more concentrated and homogenous, so says bill bishop, the progenitor of an important new trend dubbed the big sort.

we tend to live near people we want to be like, or who we think we’re like, or who we wouldn’t mind our kids marrying, or whose cars we secretly covet. next all the coffee klatsches and backfence discussions simply reinforce what we already believe, instead of challenging our conceptions and forcing us at the very least to defend our beliefs instead of leaving them to potter about in sweats and slippers, flabby and untested.

which is where public media should come in, right? without fear or favor, report the truth, and do so in a way that is designed to appeal to everyone, regardless of class, income or political affiliation? challenge assumptions? debunk myths? speak truth to power? uncover lies and expose them?

but, wait a sec, what if people are choosing their media just like they’re choosing their neighborhoods? that station feels liberal, this one conservative, etc.

then what if the leaders of those media, in an attempt to “superserve” their audience, simply amp up the signal and generally fashion their stations in the image of their core listeners? doesn’t that also feed the whole cycle of sorting and homogenization?

i’ll leave that for you to decide. but you can guess what i think.

e pluribus … unum?

a truly wonderful and thoughtful contemplation of our current divisive political climate by renowned psychologist jonathan haidt. ostensibly it gets at why liberals don’t get conservatives, which has been much on my mind lately.

reading haidt helped me make better sense of something i’ve long believed: that, in many ways, public radio is one of the purer expressions of the liberal ethos. it may seek out all points of view, but only within the frame of celebrating diversity, valuing equality and highlighting the individual. but that ends up, according to haidt, sounding “thin” and unconvincing to conservatives, who tend more to value hierarchy, purity and the whole (the unum).

there’s a great deal to think about here, and many questions that arise. such as: what would it sound like if public radio found a way to transcend its own frames and assumptions? can public radio appeal to both conservatives and liberals in equal measure without forsaking its journalistic standards and ideals of depth and thoughtfulness? more broadly, what changes need to be made to newsrooms to create journalism and programming that republicans and democrats could both enthusiastically embrace? is that even possible?

i know numerous conservatives who listen to public radio, some who even support it, and some who have trouble explaining why it’s considered an arm of the democratic party.

what haidt doesn’t explain is why it is that conservatives have found it somehow justifiable to embrace rovian politics in all of their incredibly ruthless disingenuousness. perhaps they have an easier time justifying deplorable means if the ends are sufficiently important — lies in service of the unum are all well and good. i don’t know. all i know is that mccain’s campaign has grown cozy with lies, and obama’s has not — and i see nothing here that explains why that is.

be that as it may, both liberals and republicans are prone to dangerous groupthink that forgets that this country was established on the basis of tolerance and respect for many points of view. whether via sarah palin, or the chorus of liberal internet chatter that casts her as a jackbooted fascist, we seem to be veering again towards a very poisonous political season — fueled in no small part by the media, liberal or otherwise.

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news & the attention economy

the scarce resource in the information age isn’t information it’s attention.

such is the operating principle of attention economics, an emerging field of study that may provide some of the scaffolding needed for creating journalism online in the digital age.

most news web sites are dumping grounds for “extra” pics or audio or facts that would never have made it on the radio or into the paper (where the scarcity of space demands focus from editors and reporters) but which the web folks thought someone might be interested in rummaging through.

that’s great for those who have the time and interest to piece the extras into the whole. and then there’s the long tail implications: post something online and google will ensure that people find it for years to come. but for the rest of us, the majority of us, who go to news sites to help us make sense of the world all that extra stuff makes it harder to discern signal from noise.

once we attempt to truly understand and appreciate the limits of our audience’s attention, only then will we serve up journalism online that helps people focus and make sense instead of feel scattered and spread thin.

see some of the seminal attention economics texts and sources here, here and here.

The Economics of Attention

The Economics of Attention


get the truth & print (broadcast/blog/tweet/facebook) it

the funny thing about the internet is that you can stumble on something, read it, think it the freshest most original thing you ever read, and then realize it’s three years old.

such was my reaction upon finding a 2005 post by tim porter dissecting philip meyer’s book the vanishing newspaper. in the final of a series of posts, porter offers this alternative ending to the book (not being satisfied with meyer’s conclusion):

My ending lies in Meyer’s beginning of this chapter, words spoken by John S. Knight to “summarize the essential mission of traditional reporting.” They are: “Get the truth and print it.”

I believe the path to journalism’s future lies through its past, its roots, its “essential mission” of speaking truth to power, of being a champion for the community, of enabling conversation, of airing differences in society in order encourage commonality.

Sadly, I believe it is the very professionalism Meyer urges journalists to embrace further that has diminished newspapers’ capacity to fulfill those core purposes. Most newspapers bred the spirit and the fire and the spit out of themselves as they attempted to become all things to all readers and in the process became necessary to very few of them.

Professionalism, as Meyer points out, is a “conservative force against innovation,” which journalists need more of, not less.

If there is an “ism” journalists should embrace to ensure they have future vehicles to support John Knight’s “essential mission, then it is entrepreneurism. Don’t wait for new forms of media to emerge – build them yourselves.

That’s what David Talbot did when he left a newspaper to create Salon. That’s what Larry Kramer did when he left a newspaper to start MarketWatch.

That’s what former newspaperman Mark Potts is doing building Backfence.

And, that’s why Dan Gillmor left the San Jose Mercury News to found a new business for grassroots journalism.

There are examples, as well, of newspapers attempting to rebuild themselves. Some, like the Chicago Tribune with RedEye or the Dallas Morning News with Al Dia, are using traditional methods (newspapers) to reach niche audiences (young people and Spanish speakers.). Others, like the Bakersfield Californian with Northwest Voice, are breaking with tradition altogether and allowing the community to help create the news product.

I wish Meyer had ended with a call for action instead of a call to prepare for action. He could have paraphrased Scoop Nisker and made this his last sentence: If you don’t like the newspaper, go out and make your own.

That’s better.

i couldn’t agree more, with porter, or with john s. knight. somewhere along the line the pursuit of truth has ceased to be the lodestone for newsrooms. what’s replaced it? in some cases, pandering to public fear and superstition and received wisdom; in others, false objectivity. the main force behind it all is a certain pervasive acculturation or professionalization of the press that impels journalists to write for each other and not for the audience or the public; that nudges reporters to cozy up to sources and become part of the power structure they were meant to critique. it’s the force the compels journalists to get on the bus, and the social pressure that makes them snicker in cynical unison once they’re proudly ensconced there.

i think here of william whyte’s famous book the organization man.

the only solution, of course (as huffpo is so admirably is doing) is to avoid the bus, leave the pack, live among the people you’re covering, and use every tool at your disposal to find the truth.

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wisdom from asne

nice, pithy post from tim porter over at first draft. i like barry diller’s admonition: “internet created, not replicated.” thanks for posting tim.

citizen political journalists?

i’m one of those who generally takes a dim view of citizen journalism (such as this new msnbc project). i find much of it pandering, and little of it actual journalism. not that there isn’t huge promise in partnering with the public to cover the news, there is. the key is sensemaking.

a strong hand is needed to take what the public is saying and do what journalists should do: provide context, connect the dots, weave together the threads, build a narrative.

without all of that, it’s just anecdote. i’ve been working on a version of this to cover the economy, called economic lookouts. it’s similar in that we’re asking average folks to keep an eye out for economic signs that seem noteworthy. the key difference is that we’re plugging what they’re saying into our news process, to spot trends and inform reporting. at least that’s the idea, it’s still a bit of an experiment.

towards a new journalism

how can we utilize the best tools of the Internet age to make journalism more effective?

that’s the central question i’ll be asking over the next year while i’m a knight fellow at stanford.

here’s the basic premise: the dawn of the digital/information age has turned a great deal of what we call news into a commodity by giving us the ability to check out and aggregate stories from dozens of publications at once. what we realize when we see the same stories told essentially the same way time and time again is that what we call journalism, the profession we once considered such a bastion of independent thought and analysis and penetrating observations, is often very ad hoc in its judgments, impulsively and frequently (but not always) pointlessly adversarial, at times surprisingly incurious and less interested in truth than in something we now call false objectivity.

then consider, against this set of problems, that the technology, tools and social innovations of our age enable us to simultaneously gather and makes sense of info from many sources, to engage with and to learn from thousands of people, and to shine lights into the darkest corners of our world.

i think this helps clarify a bit what’s roiling the fourth estate these days. but i’m far less concerned with the problems (since the market seems to be dealing with those rather efficiently) than i am with the opportunities and the solutions.

toward what end? to create a journalism that seeks self-actualization above all, that makes extraordinary connections, creates trust and understanding, and breaks down the barriers of culture and groupthink to arrive at simple truths that help us make better decisions. that means investigations, enterprise, adventurous reporting. in other words, nothing less than the best of old journalism making the most of new tools.