Review: Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism

It is clear that Patterson, like Lippmann, is concerned about the state of the press not necessarily for its sake alone, but because its function relates directly to the quality of democracy in the United States. Both believe that vibrant, accurate, and enlightened media play a critical role informing citizens of experiences they are not personally exposed to. Both agree that the complexity of the modern world increases the importance of the intermediary role of the press. However, Patterson argues that instead of serving an educative role, media actually increase confusion surrounding important issues like the economy and climate change.

Relying on “he said, she said” modes of reporting, Patterson believes the press has relinquished its critical thinking capacities and instead become a sounding board for controversy. By doing so, “objective” reporting is now thought of primarily in terms of accurate quoting and proper fact-checking. However, Patterson notes that a story may contain accurate facts but utterly fail to place these facts into proper context (though he questions whether journalists get even the basic facts right in many cases). The results of this failure to contextualize has led to mass disillusionment about a political environment constantly framed in adversarial terms, as well as an increasing distrust of the press. Patterson notes that journalism practitioners often know much less about the “subject at hand than the newsmakers they are covering” (66). As a result, reporters must rely on sources for the “truth” of the matter, leaving them susceptible to the motives and misinformation of those “experts.” The fast-paced world of reporting leaves little time for research and writing, leading to stories that inevitably are long on conflicting perspectives but short on synthesis and analysis. He points out that this situation not only fails the ideals of a democratic press, but misjudges the context-heavy, long-form reporting preferences that audiences express (NPR as a prime example).

Though he recognizes that change will come slowly, if at all, Patterson recommends a few reforms that have the potential to increase journalists’ knowledge and may lead to more informed stories. One example he offers is subject-matter training in journalism schools. The university environment is the obvious place for increasing knowledge about particular topics and has the unique ability to offer experts who could work with students tangentially to their journalistic skills classes (for example, majors in both journalism and economics for an aspiring business reporter). Patterson’s experience with the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education has convinced him that this is a viable option (97). For schools with less resources, he advocates for emphasis in journalism programs on “knowledge of how to use knowledge” which he likens to education schools instructing future teachers on pedagogical content knowledge. By familiarizing future journalists with resources they can use to supplement their reporting, while also emphasizing the importance of enlightened public writing, students will be able to cope expertly with the tremendous amount of information and propaganda that saturates the current media environment. It is clear that Patterson also believes that democracy will be strengthened by reporters who prioritize “knowledge” in their journalistic worldview and professional practices.

Patterson’s book provides a perceptive analysis of the flaws of the today’s press system and cites many examples of how a lack of journalist knowledge has damaged the reputation of the press and the quality of information it provides its readers. Although Patterson channels Lippmann effectively, a broader discussion of the historical context of the early 20th century would be helpful to contextualize Lippmann’s thought within his own time. Lippmann had a number of suggestions for the press as well, many of which Patterson mirrors in his own recommendations. However, Patterson doesn’t dwell enough on how Lippmann’s suggestions panned out after he made them in order to test the efficacy of his own recommendations. Additionally, by not mentioning any of Lippmann’s books aside from Liberty and the News and Public Opinion, nor any of his editorials, Patterson leaves out significant parts of Lippmann’s press critique. The omission of his 1920 co-authored essay with Charles Merz for the New Republic, A Test of the News, is particularly noticeable and deprives Patterson of one of the first examples of a journalistic critique based upon the social science methods he touts.

Patterson’s solution of increasing the prioritization of knowledge in journalism schools is no doubt an important pathway towards resolving the knowledge deficiency within journalism. However, he does not investigate whether schools have already instigated this process, and, outside of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative, how they have done so. He provides little in the way of sufficient qualitative or quantitative data that might provide a sense of what works, how it works, and the subsequent career experiences of journalism students who have extensive subject-matter knowledge. To be fair, many of Lippmann’s own recommendations (such as knowledge bureaus) also remained largely speculative. Like Lippmann, Patterson writes clearly about the difficulties facing reporters and media users, but offers only starting points for future investigation. As such, his book is a valuable contribution that general audiences would benefit greatly from reading and thinking over.

 

Patterson, Thomas. E. (2013). Informing the news: the need for knowledge-based reporting. New York: Random House LLC.

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