Just finished reading Thomas Patterson’s excellent Informing the News. The book makes a strong and convincing argument that democracy would be better served by journalists with greater expertise of the subjects they cover. Without sufficient knowledge, journalists can be easily manipulated by their sources and effectively used to communicate inaccurate and misleading information. [Patterson, to his credit, observes that many journalists have great expertise but also notes they are often at a disadvantage relative to their sources].
Journalism schools which adopt an outdated trade school approach and teach “skills” at the expense of understanding are part of the problem as they fail to provide journalists with the substantive content-based knowledge they need to report effectively and accurately.
By a bit of serendipity, I also stumbled upon this quote by Olga Khazan in a Huffington Post blog by Magda Abu-Fadil:
It’s remarkable the number of times I’ve wished I knew how to perform a regression analysis. I took some economics and statistics in college, but it was barely mentioned in j-school, even though most journalists have to analyze numbers and determine whether and how to report on them.
Patterson hits on a similar theme, noting numerical literacy is not required in most journalism schools. ”Journalism students,” Patterson writes, “are more likely to understand to the power of a picture than to recognize the power of data, even though aggregations of everything from voters to business firms cannot be interpreted properly without the ability to analyze data distributions.”
While we can’t teach journalists to be experts in everything, Patterson concludes, we can teach them better “how to use knowledge.”
A journalism built on this type of expertise may have to give up the illusion of being a “mass media” and instead occupy a niche for the informed and the engaged. In the long term, however, it will better inform voters and build a stronger brand than chasing after the marginal and fickle “soft news” audience.
Here’s hoping journalism programs will hear Patterson’s insightful critique and heed his call to action.