February 25, 2009

Question Marks

You can obviously boil something down too much. That may have been the case today in my Introduction to Journalism class. But, at the moment, I’m kind of liking thinking about this: A journalist’s job is to remove question marks from a story not add them.

How this came up: I’m having my students write a story based on notes I’ve given them. I’ve put some pitfalls into the notes, e.g. missspelllings, factual errors, missing information. But I’ve also put a few bits of information into the notes that lead them to believe that the story might be juicier than they first supposed, i.e. “Hmmmmm… what if this is really about ______?”

Today we were covering what they know (and how they know it), what they don’t know (and why they don’t know it), and what they have to do to finish this particular article (get the stuff they don’t know and tell it to their readers in such a way that they might then know it). And I popped off with that assertion about question marks.

Now, on a certain level, it is utter bull. There is no state of affairs in which a journalist reports and writes any given news event in all its complexity. Good journalism unfolds over time. No single story can (or should?) get it all. I would even argue that “all” has no real boundaries, i.e. not only can we not get “all,” we have no real clue what “all” is or can be.

But my quip identifies something that I think journalists can avoid doing (to a certain extent): Raising more questions than they answer. At least in general. At least as a way of thinking about the job they should be doing.

Here’s an interesting complicating factor coming from something I’m advocating now. Does / can / should this apply to meta-reporting? I’m thinking meta-reporting is partly about raising questions and being transparent about what journalists don’t know in order to eventually discover and report the unknown. Ah, OK, that answers my question. What I mean by not adding question marks, then, is not adding stuff that makes the news event harder to understand. Adding interactive question marks? — to solicit understanding from readers — that’s OK.

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