August 20, 2009

Fleshing Out Meta-Reporting

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, 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.

Thompson’s conclusion:

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.

8 Responses

  1. Great essay. This is one of the nicest meta-essays (no pun intended) on journalism that I’ve read in awhile. It’s interesting to watch some of the major news agencies take to Twitter. Not all, but some of the correspondents, are Tweeting on-the-spot background, thoughts, unanswered questions, etc. Their feeds do a bit of what you describe here. But – also interesting – few of their finished stories reflect this process.

  2. Isn’t the status quo bias of journalism really the status quo bias of monopolistic advertising? Isn’t the “better work” of meta-reporting in gaining eye share, in gaining loyalty, in promoting ethics; cultivated in obscurity until big enough to be harvested by corporatism? The hothouse of journalistic ethics will see the seed beds of newspapers give way to the hydroponics of blogs, but will yield nothing if both are watered with the Coca-cola of unchallenged monopolies’ advertising budgets.

  3. Tim 

    Why is journalism more difficult than brain surgery and meta-(show your work)-reporting so important?

    1. Longstanding facts & Context: “facts, as agreed-upon statements about the world, cannot possess ideology or bias except as they are employed rhetorically, or applied analytically, by the interlocutors and auditors in a given rhetorical situation.”

    2. Simply communicating by written or spoken words introduces bias to the message.

    3. What’s my bias?

  4. acline 

    Tim… Show-your-work is a step toward mitigating the problems inherent in a complex form of communication such as journalism. It bucks the lecture in favor of the conversation — a sharing of the creating of knowledge.

  5. Tim 

    Agree, it is a mitigating step and moves toward conversation.

    I think it turns a “because I said so” lecture for 8th graders into a “how I did this” lecture for peer review (sharing of the creating of knowledge).

  6. acline 

    Tim… Exactly. But you can see the problem from how you expressed it: Who would want to give up the “power” of the lecture? 🙂 And, thus, the state of things ATM.

  7. Fortunately, the internet is a great medium for meta-reporting, because of the ability to hyperlink to relatively reliable sources of historical information,primary sources, and helpful commentary. Unfortunately, radio, television, print, and short-form electronic media do not lend themselves to meta-reporting.

    The journalist is still responsible for wise choices about what to hyperlink to.

  8. acline 

    Harry… Yes, easier online. But it can be done in other media at a cost of space and time. I contend that paying that price is worth the results.