December 30, 2004

Ask more, tell less…

I’ve been waiting for #5.

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.

As Jay Manifold wrote in a recent comment:

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?

UPDATE (11:15 a.m.): Need an example? Here’s a “report” from the MLA conference to challenge The New York Times.

10 Responses

  1. Tim 

    The objectivist journalism profession is still goal oriented (and ideological in that sense):

    Granted that he states only facts, it is still essential to know what are his emotions, what is his motive. It may be that twelve hundred men in Tottenham are down with smallpox; but we want to know whether this is stated by some great philosopher who wants to curse the gods, or only by some common clergyman who wants to help the men. (here)

    Rosenstiel writes, “What is disappearing is an idealism about the potential of TV as a medium to better our politics and society.” That sounds like advocacy. That sounds progressive. That’s not a statement devoid of a cause, looking to objectively communicate a undistorted map of reality.(here)

    For any journalist who understands his real job– helping the public life of this nation work well…

    Stop right there. The ultimate job of the press, in Satullo’s world (and in mine), is a pragmatic one: "helping the public life of this nation work well." This view, we should tell you, has rivals. One of them says the ultimate job of the press is to help no one, advance no agenda. "We’re the watchdogs and the truthtellers and we advocate nothing. End of story." I call it the View from Nowhere. Satullo isn’t on that side. And this affects what he thinks about the bloggers.(here)

    Coleman also lets slip something that tells us quite a bit about the mentality of today’s press:

    Powerline is the biggest link in a daisy chain of right-wing blogs that is assaulting the Mainstream Media while they toot their horns in the service of … what? The downtrodden? No, that was yesterday’s idea of the purpose of journalism.

    re: 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?

    The world of Big Media used to be a high-trust environment. You read something in the paper, or heard something from Dan Rather, and you figured it was probably true. You didn’t ask to hear all the background, because it wouldn’t fit in a newspaper story, much less in the highly truncated TV-news format anyway, and because you assumed that they had done the necessary legwork. (Had they? I’m not sure. It’s not clear whether standards have fallen since, or whether the curtain has simply been pulled open on the Mighty Oz. But they had names, and familiar faces, so you usually believed them even when you had your doubts.) (here)

    Rosenstiel argues that networks have “abdicated their authority with the American public.” They have exchanged prestige for profit. Network news moved closer to a cable news model, cable news is winning and network news is ceding. As a result, the format or structural bias is different: from “journalism of verification” to “a journalism of assertion”.

    That’s interesting as I think in terms of “trust me” journalism. From “authority” to “assertion”. (here)

  2. Anna 

    Uh, Tim, be careful with the blockquoting – at present it looks like some of Rosen’s words (the “Stop right there…”) were written (rather than copied and pasted) by you.

  3. Tim 


    I noticed that and probably should have posted something immediately about the screw up.

    The problem, I think, was a paragraph tag inside of the blockquote tags and how that was handled. I was not able to see that in the preview template. Hopefully, Andrew will work on the preview template soon.

    For the record, the only words I authored above are: The objectivist journalism profession is still goal oriented (and ideological in that sense):

  4. Oooops…I forgot all about that preview template. I never use it. I’ll look into it. I’ll also fix the problem above, but it won’t happen until tomorrow.

  5. Tim 


    I’d be surprised if there is an easy fix for the paragraph marker between blockquote tags, but if you find it please let us know.

    The big fixes on the preview would be to turn off the auto centering and perhaps a better background/text combination that would be easier to read.

    Thanks! But with everything you need to do based on your last update, if it doesn’t get done tomorrow – no big deal.

  6. Tim 

    There are two points (questions/comments?) that I’m tossing out for conversationalists:

    1. The narrative bias *beginning-middle-end* is most affected by the conduit metaphor; allowing both a lecture without interrupting questions (or even often at the conclusion), and an end that is almost certainly artificial in completeness and finality.

    2. re: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 look at one example: The inverted pyramid structure of news articles. This is an artifact of objectivist, one-way rhetoric. Is the “gap” between the legacy new’s objectivist rhetoric and the transactional universe influencing the changing noetic field?

  7. Tim 

    Let’s Blame the Readers

    At one session the APME attendees and those of the affiliated meeting of the Associated Press Photo Managers were asked to say whether they would have published certain grisly photographs on page one — a shot of Nicole Brown Simpson’s corpse, the burned bodies of American civilian contractors hanging from a bridge in Falluja, and so forth. Electronic voting allowed members of the audience to identify themselves by job (as editors or photo editors), and the embedded readers were also asked to vote. One of the photos rated was the iconic Abu Ghraib photo of a prisoner standing on a box, hooded, with wires attached to each hand. Of those who identified themselves as photo editors, 96 percent said that they either ran or would have run the photo on page one. But 71 percent of the embedded readers said it should not have been run on page one. Asked about the propriety of running photos of terrorists holding hostages, 60 percent of the photo editors were in favor of printing the pictures, but 78 percent of the readers were opposed.

    Why don’t readers want to see these things? [Good question, did you ask them? – ed.] Why are so many people avoiding the hard task of keeping themselves informed about what is going on in their government and society? [Uh oh … avoiding? – ed.] Why is ignorance so widespread at a time when higher education is more widely pursued than ever before? [Ignorant! We’re ignorant! King Journalism is dead, long live the King! – ed.]

  8. Tim 

    It is interesting to me that this same CJR article speaks favorably of the Greatest Generation, yet how do the folks at CJR imagine that the responses to whether the photos discussed above would have met with any greater approval from members of that generation, then or today?

    Would it be accurate to describe the news of the 40s and 50s as less censored? I don’t think so. How about the tone of the news: war, economy, politics, …?

    Also, after Corey Pein‘s discredited “analysis” of memogate … well, what can CJR possibly be thinking?

    Ask more, tell less … indeed.

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