Tag Archives: physics

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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