One of my big frustrations with the concept of meta-reporting (aka. show-your-work journalism) is that I cannot simply teach it to my students as good journalistic practice. The reason is simple: It is not now much of a journalistic practice at all. It is troublesome because it exists outside the recognized discourse of news.
So I teach it as a transgressive practice that students should adopt because they are the ones who will create the brave new world of journalism following the inevitable failure of the corporate business model.
Matt Thompson, of Newsless.org, published an interesting essay about the three parts of a news story you usually don’t get. You usually don’t get them because they are not part of the recognized discourse. They are elements of meta-reporting. The three parts are:
1. Longstanding facts: “There is a universe of facts that stay essentially fixed from day to day.” These facts form the context (series: part 1, part 2, part 2 supplemental) of complex stories such as political campaigns and the struggle to hammer out complex legislation (e.g. health care).
2. How journalists know what they know: This is the most basic element of meta-reporting or show-your-work journalism.
3. Things we don’t know: Part of showing your work ought to be showing what work you have left to do.
As long as the news is structured solely around what just happened, journalists are going to be fighting a rough battle. With a latest-news-only approach, we stoke demand for journalism by trying to snag people’s attention with each new development.
There’s another way, one that leads to a more informed and more loyal public, and allows us to do better work. It involves:
- Enlarging the market for journalism by making it easier for more people to understand the longstanding facts behind each story.
- Increasing the appeal of journalism by letting folks in on the details of our quest to uncover the truth.
- Expanding the appetite for journalism by explaining what we don’t know, and what we’re working to find out.
As news consumers, we should be demanding these things as well. After all, right now we’re only getting the lamest part of the story.
Exactly. Let me add something else to this list: The kind of journalism produced by a standard practice of meta-reporting, I believe, has a high potential to produce the kind of information citizens need to be free and self-governing (the primary purpose). Meta-reporting creates a sound foundation for propositional content and thus aligns with Postman’s concepts of information, knowledge, and wisdom. That means meta-reporting may be not only a more effective method of informing the public, it would also then be a more ethical method.