December 14, 2009

Journalistic Questions and Answers

Jay Rosen thinks a news site called explainthis.org ought to exist (I agree). Here’s the idea:

Users go to the site and find a prompt similar to Twitter’s what’s happening? or Facebook’s what’s on your mind? But instead of updating their status they type in a question they have for a team of journalists who are… “standing by.”

But not just any question will do (nor just any answer). The idea is to report on questions that cannot be answered by “a simple, or even a sophisticated search.”

My quick reaction: Give it a go. Let’s see what happens.

A commenter, however, asks two serious questions:

1. What are “journalistic” questions?

2. What are “journalistic” answers?

I like these questions. I’m a rhetoric scholar. I’m programmed to appreciate questions that do the work these questions do. What we have here is nothing less than an interrogation of the entire foundation of journalism. The commenter says that “defining what makes this a journalism site will contribute a lot to the debate over journalistic ‘value added.'” Yes. But it’s even more than that. These questions strike to the heart of “value added” for the entire enterprise no matter upon what media it is delivered.

I’ve spouted off before that journalism is an under-theorized practice because journalists often do what they do without reflecting upon the meaning of the premises and assumptions that support their practice. I stand by this claim.

Do agreed-upon definitions of these journalistic questions and answers exist? That’s another way of asking: Do journalists know what these things are, can they articulate them, and do many/some/all journalists agree?

Let’s start this investigation with a statement that conflates craft and ethics: The primary purpose of journalism is to give people the information they need to be free and self-governing. (I will assume here that “information” includes the concepts of knowledge and wisdom re: Postman)

Let’s set aside the definitional minefield we could get into with that statement and simply note that the various codes of ethics in journalism support this general notion.

First stab:

A “journalistic question” is one that seeks knowledge (organized information embedded in a context) that will eventually lead to wisdom (the capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems).

A “journalistic answer” is knowledge delivered in a politically, socially, and/or economically useful form.

Here’s the example “journalistic question” published by Rosen (and credited to Jim Marko): Why are we still subsidizing corn?

Journalism is not currently organized around answering that kind of question. Where does that question come from, i.e. what (whose) exigence does it address? That’s not the kind of question journalists usually ask because they spend much of their time reacting to “news” (agendas) that is the concern of powerful civic actors (status quo bias). In other words, journalists do not ask “why are we still subsidizing corn” because no one of any importance (to journalism) is asking that question. Journalists will ask the question when some politician calls a press conference.

Here’s the thing: The corn question is a “journalistic question” in the sense that it seeks the kind of information that meets the primary purpose of journalism.

Perhaps journalists should start asking journalistic questions. To do so, however, would require them to seriously question a powerful bias.

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