Jay Rosen has been running down his top ten ideas for 2004, ideas he developed or encountered in the course of thinking and writing about what he calls “pressthink.” All of them are interesting, but I have been waiting for #5 because I think this one represents the largest potential change in journalism in more than 100 years.
5. News turns from a lecture to a conversation. “Newspaper people (especially) still have the mindset of putting out the edition and then they’re done with it,” complains Glenn Reynolds. “We used to think that the news was finished when we printed it,” says Jeff Jarvis. “But that’s when the news now begins.”
Here’s how I said it describing the epistemology of journalism in the current noetic field (i.e. the current dominant rhetoric):
1- The journalist, as objectivist observer, is capable of discovering facts in the world or capable of accurately recording the fact-observations of sources. 2- The journalist is able to discern meaning in the observations of the source as the source understands that meaning. 3- The journalist is able to put these facts and observations into language that avoids distortion of the original observations and may even reproduce the original observations as a mental-emotional experience for the audience. 4- The facts and truth exist independently of the journalist, the source, and the audience. 5- The source is an authority capable of discovering facts and accurately reproducing them in language for the journalist. 6- The audience is capable of unpacking the journalist’s language and finding meaning that corresponds to the facts.
This is an objectivist rhetoric that works on a conduit metaphor of language and communication, i.e. ideas are put into words and words are sent to the auditor who then unpacks the ideas. This conduit is a one-way system metaphorically, but it is also a one-way system in reality for several reasons: 1- Reporters work within institutions and use a rhetoric that separates them from the public; 2- The public has limited access to the pages of newspapers or the air time of television stations; 3- The public has limited access to journalists; 4- The public has limited access to the journalists’ sources; and 5- Journalists presume they know more than the public by virtue of their institution, training, and access.
A noetic field and its dominant rhetoric is an epistemological system defining: 1) what can and cannot be known, 2) the nature of the knower, 3) the nature of the relationships among the knower, the known, and the audience, and 4) the nature of language. A noetic field is a closed system in the sense that any change to the field changes the system. Because journalism is an important discoursive practice in our culture, it necessarily fits the dominant noetic field. Journalistic practice conforms to and establishes the dominant noetic field. In the rhetoric of journalism there exists a one-way communication from those who know (sources and the journalists who gather information from them) to those who don’t (the public).
Again, from my field theory essay:
The language of journalism creates and maintains the relationships of the rhetorical situation by using language that treats these relationships as self-evident. Journalists rarely engage in the kind of qualifying that calls into question their observations and experiences or the observations and experiences of sources. Further, the ethos of journalism leaves such assessments for the reader to make and, by default, assumes that such assessments are possible given the information that’s available.
I see journalism as a subculture, which like all others, must be at least somewhat self-reinforcing to survive. The same tendencies that keep it together, however, both limit its appeal as an occupation to a relatively narrow range of personality types and place constraints on its output that limit its credibility among other subcultures.
Again, all subcultures have such traits, but in journalism they’re more obvious, not to say more painful, because journalists are trying to describe reality to the rest of us. If most of the rest of us don’t identify with journalists, we won’t believe them.
Perhaps journalists should be drafted from the general population by a random lottery. ;^)
It’s not a lottery and it isn’t random, but the mechanisms of change do exist, and they are made possible by the interactivity of the internet. Let’s name two of them: open-source journalism and blogging–the audience talking back, doing journalism, and becoming an equal knower.
We need new metaphors. “Web” works a lot better than “conduit” in this new emerging noetic field just as it works better to describe the technology that’s making change possible. And journalism also needs a new metaphor for this field; as Rosen says: “news should be less of a lecture, more of a conversation.”
These are not merely semantic changes (when were such changes ever “mere”?). We are witness to a potential change in what we know, how we know it, who can know it, who can tell it, how they can tell it, and how we can understand and respond to it. The old rhetoric of journalism cannot operate in a new noetic field–at least it cannot continue to so operate and hope to survive in its old form for very long.
Let’s use blogging as a synecdoche for a moment: Blogging may kill the traditional newspapers (I say may because we are experiencing a moment of change that has not come to completion; we don’t know where we’re heading yet). That’s not to say blogging will kill newspapers in general or that print is doomed. But I think we may see the end of traditional newspapers within a generation. Print will survive by becoming something more converged and interactive, by becoming part of a local, interactive, multifaceted journalism product.
Blogging works as it does because it operates with a web-based rhetoric, i.e. a metaphor for a large and interconnected communications structure in which there are multiple knowers who share what they know with other equal knowers. Ideas may still be put into words, but they no longer move one-way. They spread like waves. They bounce and reflect. They multiply.
A few days ago I criticized Steve Outing for suggesting that bloggers consider journalistic theories of writing to improve their work. I called that bad advice. Let’s look at one example: The inverted pyramid structure of news articles. This is an artifact of objectivist, one-way rhetoric. It says that complex situations can be described by order of importance: 1- We journalists know what is important and in what order to tell it; 2- we will tell you our way; and 3- you will accept it because it’s the best available approximation of the truth (as guaranteed by our professionalism, fairness, and objectivity).
That won’t work on a blog. And it won’t work in the emerging noetic field made possible by the new interactivity.
Just the other day I asked if journalism has a class bias. In the epistemology of the old noetic field I shouldn’t ask. I should tell. I am a bona fide knower. Those three little letters after my name say so. But I am writing a blog, a communicative form of the new noetic field. My readers may interact with me. I want them to interact with me. I want a conversation. They know more than I do. So I ask.
What would happen if journalists began doing more asking than telling and then giving those they ask the space and time necessary to give good answers?