July 11, 2006

What does news mean?

Dante Chinni in today’s Christian Science Monitor:

Just because there are differences of opinion doesn’t mean both sides are equally correct. When reporters don’t make the effort to sort through the evidence and simply fall back on “this side says this, and that side says that,” they are being lazy.

That’s a horse I’ve been beating for a few years now. I’m happy to see he ain’t dead yet (although it ain’t movin’ forward very fast). A discipline of verification should be basic to any practice that we would understand as journalism. Practicing such a discipline means that journalists must be custodians of fact, i.e. journalists should get to the bottom of civic disputes by gathering and verifying facts rather than simply allowing interested sources to spout off. Journalists should protect the facts from those who would spin them, ignore them, or distort them. When journalists don’t practice this discipline, they are guilty of spinning, ignoring, and distorting, often in the name of fairness and balance (see the structural biases of journalism).

“Getting to the bottom of,” however, doesn’t mean audiences understand what the facts mean in common ways.

“Facts” are the raw material of information, which we may understand as statements about facts–facts being, at least in part, measurements of, or reports about, phenomena. You may recognize this from Neil Postman’s articulation of information theory:

Information: Statements about facts in the world.
Knowledge: Organized information embedded in a context.
Wisdom: The capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems.

Information and knowledge specific to a localized audience (information users known as “citizens”) ought to be the products of everyday journalism. “Balance” and “objectivity” are stances in regard to information and knowledge. These name positions from which information and knowledge are understood in particular ways. In other words, these are phantoms of our human need to position ourselves in regard to the world in order to better understand and manipulate the world.

It is, therefore, not possible to manufacture a newspaper in such a way that a majority of the audience will understand it as describing a world they are individually experiencing or experiencing as part of a specific group or discourse community (i.e. a community with its own ways of knowing the world and talking about the world). But you can get your facts straight (a political act) and tell readers which of your sources have their facts straight (also a political act). From there, what it all means is up to the news consumer because what facts mean is always open to interpretation and debate.

Deciding what it all means is hard work. There are people who will do it for you, just like like anything else that’s hard to do. Call them pundits, or, in some more charitable frames of mind, opinion journalists.

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