How to fix the fourth estate? Saving the news is about “civility, respect, and a return to what’s important; the death of bitchiness; the death of gossip and voyeurism; speaking truth to stupid,” says the fictional TV news executive producer, Mac McHale, on the first episode of HBO’s The Newsroom. In his new book Informing the News, Thomas E. Patterson gives a much less dramatic, much more pragmatic answer: Journalists need to hit the books.
“Traditionally when journalists think about a story, they think, ‘I want to do some interviewing, and if it’s close by, I’ll take a look and see what’s happening.’ They don’t naturally think, ‘Where can I learn more about this subject to inform my reporting?’ ” Patterson says. As a professor of government and the press at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, part of Patterson’s job is to explore how media coverage of events affects the ability of American citizens to participate in a democracy. “Like it or not, the issues that we face today are becoming more and more complicated,” he says, citing the Affordable Care Act as a prime example of a subject that confuses the public because of a lack of informed reporting:
When the public starts thinking about death panels and some of the other sideshows that occurred during the legislative debate, it’s very misled about what this legislation will do. You can make an argument, as one side has, that this legislation is a bad idea, but unless the public knows what they’re talking about, unless people have a realistic understanding of what this legislation does, how can they make a sensible judgment about whether this is a good thing?
For Patterson, “the information problem,” as he calls it, is especially bad on the talk show circuit, but print outlets—even venerated ones like the New York Times—are guilty of publishing thin, under-contextualized stories too. In the first part of his book, a report on the broken-down state of American media, Patterson is particularly critical of the Times, especially of its political reporting during the lead-up to the Iraq War. “The point of that is: This is our best outlet by most people’s standards and even they regularly drop the ball,” he says. “When you look at why the ball gets dropped in particular instances, it’s because the reporters didn’t have a full enough understanding of the situation they were reporting on.”
Solving the problem of the naïve journalist is at the center of Patterson’s book, a manifesto of sorts for transforming journalists into lay experts in the issues they cover. This won’t be accomplished in understaffed and overextended newsrooms, but in journalism schools.
Fittingly, Paterson’s book came out of his experience taking part in the Carnegie-Knight Initiative to rethink the curriculum at 11 of the best journalism schools in the country. Working with the students at these schools, he discovered that even the double-majors in areas like political science or international relations often found it difficult to use their subject knowledge in the journalism classroom. So he helped set up news writing classes that featured themes—national security was one example—and were co-taught by a journalism professor and a subject matter expert, usually an academic.
“The students basically learned how to use knowledge in their stories,” he says. “The long-term goal of this was not to make the students experts in the sense of, let’s say, a PhD in economics, but to learn how to use knowledge. And if you do enough of this, it becomes second nature.”
Patterson’s tight yet meticulously researched book is full of common-sense ideas—like this teaching technique—about how the industry can adopt a knowledge-based journalism model. In addition to changing journalism education, Patterson mandates reducing the amount of what he terms infotainment: celebrity news, human-interest stories and crime. Hard news should have less of an episodic framework and focus on political squabbles, and more discussion of the overarching issues at stake in public policy debates and political events. One of the strengths of Informing the News is that he makes these large-scale changes in journalism seem within the industry’s reach.
Patterson admits, however, that getting industry professionals to work together to change journalism practices will be difficult. “I think mass communication scholars and journalists would have a lot to say to each other if they start talking more,” he says. “But these changes are threats. Everybody is comfortable in their existing world, and the idea that you have to make some major changes is hard.” He and his fellow researchers of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative had mixed success in getting the faculty of the journalism schools to be receptive to their ideas.
But Patterson is able to take a long view of the industry, which allows him to be cautiously hopeful. “It took about three decades for objective journalism early in the 20th century to become the dominant model,” he explains. “If this were to become the dominant model, we would know that around 2050, not 2015.” If Patterson is right and our country’s second yellow journalism period is far from over, it makes the ideas in Informing the News even more imperative.
Alexia Nader is a freelance writer and an associate editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly. Her work has appeared on the websites of The Oxford American, The New Yorker and in the Los Angeles Review of Books.