More nuanced theories of journalism needed

Everyone has a theory-of-journalism whether they admit it or not.

There’s a lack of nuanced discourse right now about what constitutes journalism. Sure people like to talk about what is and isn’t fake news. And people like to talk about “liberal bias.” but it’s not enough.1

The point of having a good theory of journalism is twofold. A good theory helps us understand what media are not journalistic. And, equally important, a theory helps us understand what unconventional, or new, kinds of media are journalistic.2

The problem is that everyone has a theory of journalism that they’re applying whether they want to or not. But it’s usually invisible and it’s often wrong and it’s rarely coherent. Here are two examples.3

A theory of journalism has to exclude bad actors, and for good reasons

Consider that not long ago wide ranging professional journalists and editors, were defending The Rebel Media. Even Canadaland, which bills itself as a critical media organization, defended The Rebel claiming they deserved to be recognized as press at a UN climate change conference.4

Ezra Levant goes on record, again, claiming that global warming is a scam.
A Rebel Media article, asserting that global warming is a scam.

Holy shit, if you can’t tell that The Rebel doesn’t deserve press credentials at a climate change conference, you have a theory-of-news problem.

Some Google results for The Rebel
Some Google snippets of The Rebel Media.

The most basic fact at a climate change conference is that climate change is real. Ezra Levant, however, has been claiming for years that climate change is a scam and Rebel Media continues to publish this.5 6 Just to be clear, this has real consequences for real humans. The World Health Organization estimates that the annual death toll that can be attributed to human caused global warming is in the hundreds of thousands. Their conservative estimate for deaths in 2000 was 150 000.7

In the case of The Rebel Media, the tide seems to have shifted in the last six months or so. Many journalists are now agreeing that The Rebel is not journalism. But the primary reasons for this, regrettably, seem to be that The Rebel does advocacy by holding rallies, collecting emails and asking for donations. These are terrible reasons.8

The Rebel are continually getting basic facts and context wrong and they show poor judgment on a number of issues, including climate change. They are hurting, not helping, public discourse in Canada. These are good reasons for rejecting The Rebel. That these reasons are secondary to most journalists is profoundly troubling to me.

Everyone is collecting emails and asking for donations these days. And I don’t think I even care about rallies. Heck, they could be registered lobbyists for all I care. Most political, economic and business journalists are effectively lobbyists.

What I care about is the quality of their work. I care that they’re right. I care that they understand science and the best evidence that we’ve got on the topics they write on. I care that they can effectively situate their work and give context for their readers. I care that they understand power. I care that they’re not misleading in the broad sense. I care that they’re not racist or hateful or hurtfully ignorant about the marginalized communities they write about. I care that they’re not continually showing poor judgment and committing the deep wrongs so prevalent across media in Canada.

What I don’t care about is whether they use “tropes of blogging” or “advocate.” All journalism is advocacy, in part, because there is no pure, neutral location from which to do it. And there are some excellent journalists and editors who understand this.

But the dominant view in journalism remains this: “the point of news is to inform, not to advocate.” This old cognitive shortcut is rubbish.

The point of informing is to participate, and to have an impact. Good information is, by its nature, socially and politically relevant. That’s not an accident. The entire point of news is influence. This is captured by the other old cognitive shortcut, “as goes news, so goes democracy.” 9

Hell, rallies and news articles have very similar goals.

News articles are meant to share stories, change minds, and guide democracy. Well, heck, rallies are meant to share stories, change minds and guide democracy. 10

The fact that advocacy is the underlying reason that so many journalists are beginning to exclude The Rebel from the club, is evidence of a lack of nuance in their theory-of-journalism. And it’s going to end up excluding a bunch of good actors that deserve to be seen as being good journalists. This is precisely what happened to Desmond Cole at the Star.11

A theory of news has to recognize and celebrate nonstandard forms of journalism

These days, there is a wealth of good journalism happening by nonstandard sources that are not getting recognized as journalism.

Consider this recent post, “Indigenous Lands in Canada are now in Google Maps“, by Google Canada. The blog post was written by Tara Rush who is Kanien’kehá:ka from Akwesasne and a Canadian “Googler” based at Google Kitchener-Waterloo.

On my view, this dispatch is an act of journalism. On my view, the entire research project is an act of journalism.

Mapping Indigenous lands as a collaborative project, ranging over 7000 kms and over 7+ years is a remarkable research project. No one can dispute this. And the maps are a resource for everyone now. And the work continues. The maps will do many things but, in part, they are a communications tool built with the expertise and input of people in the communities that the maps are about. This was, in other words, a journalistic project.

But. Many dinosaur journalists won’t think so.

The thing is, I believe that Postmedia, and before them, Canwest, have been deeply anti-Indigenous. These maps by Google have the potential to do more to deepen white Canadians’ understanding and discourse about colonization and Indigenous land rights than the Globe and Mail or the National Post ever will.

To really see how the original article was journalism, take a look at the news articles that were published by recognized news media after Google Canada announced the maps. Dozens of (other) news outlets picked up the story. Here’s a small selection:

I think it’s fair to say that not a single outlet published a story that was more informative, or more journalistic, than Rush’s original dispatch.12 At least CTV linked to the Rush post and to Google Maps. Josh McConnell, from the Financial Post, published a story about the Google Canada announcement and there’s not a single link in the article. That’s poor journalism and it’s poor web publishing. If the only thing you link to in your article are the paid advertisers, you’re probably publishing spam. Anyway, my point is that all of the subsequent stories were churnalism. (This is the widespread practice of republishing press releases.)

So it’s fascinating to me that so many journalists will think the Financial Post article is journalism but the Google Canada project is not.13

What I’m saying is that the project and blog post by Google Canada has significant journalistic value and will contribute for years to public discourse and democratic progress. The articles written after the fact, by established journalistic enterprises, didn’t contribute anything new. I suppose some of these outlets contributed their reach. So that counts for something. Maybe.

But if you’re theory-of-journalism recognizes the Financial Post article as journalism but not Rush’s post, it’s time to rethink your theory.

So how did we get here?

How did so many journalists get so bad at identifying what journalism is and isn’t?

We didn’t arrive here. We’ve always been here. The fact that few journalists have a very good theoretical understanding of what journalism is, is normal and totally understandable.

Many scientists also suffer from the same problem. Few scientists can place their specific domain of work in science in the context of the broader academy, history, or philosophy of science.14 My point here is that good journalists are too busy doing journalism to really contextualize their work in the history of journalism or cultural change.

It’s really hard to have a bird’s eye view of the trenches in which you toil every day.

Add to this the fact that there is a lot of cultural upheaval happening right now. Lots is changing in publishing tech and markets. And in the face of change, and overwhelm, people resort to cognitive shortcuts. Many news agencies still don’t provide hyperlinks, for example, to the people, reports and studies that they reference in their articles. Many news articles still don’t have a single hyperlink in them at all.

So here we are in a quickly changing cultural context and the old guard of journalism are relying on certain historical markers of what counts as quality and they’re overlooking new emerging markers. They are, in other words, operating from within an old paradigm.

Also, many journalists feel threatened. Publishers are trying to keep the lights on and journalism is happening online, in blogs, by companies, in the halls of legal offices and nonprofits. Scientists are pissed at being misrepresented so they’re hiring their own people so they can build trust and work with them to get their stories out. There’s video and podcasting. Meanwhile the Globe and Mail and the Star have repeatedly referred to Carol Wainio, who documented many instances of plagiarism, as a “blogger.” It’s diminutive. It happens because folks at the Globe and Mail and the Star have mortgages, I guess.

They’re wrong to feel threatened.

Social relevance of minimal and maximal views of journalism

Some years ago I wrote that we had a choice between having a more expansive, or more minimal view of journalism. Both paradigms can make sense.

However, if the minimal view wins, we’ll end up with journalism#min and it will play a smaller and smaller role in society. This variety of journalism will become less socially relevant. The very category of journalism will wither away. Interestingly, I think most journalism dinosaurs tend toward this conservative view. This is what makes them dinosaurs I guess.

If, however, we go with the more expansive theory of journalism, journalism#max, we’ll discover that journalism is everywhere and growing and constantly improving; it will grow in social relevance and the category of journalism will stay with us. I’m personally a fan of this more maximal (and optimistic!) theory of journalism.

It’s not an accident that so many social scientists and academics are working hard at becoming better story tellers. They’re wanting to contribute more to public discourse. They’re trying to learn from journalism and public relations.15

Similarly, universities, think tanks, and centres of excellence are growing their communications teams and doing more journalism. Think of NASA or the BCCLA. Also, consider the real journalistic value of Wikipedia.16

Dinosaur journalists don’t see any of these examples of communications work as journalism. They call it PR, or “blogging” or something else. Advocacy, lol.

And to be fair, many of the communications professionals working in those institutions similarly don’t call it journalism. Interestingly, this is usually for one of two reasons. Some don’t see themselves as doing journalism because they’re in an old paradigm. Others simply have moved on and no longer care about the category, journalism. These folks know what they do has value and they don’t feel any particular loyalty to the concept of journalism. I get it.

How to improve public discourse about theories of journalism

I have a theory-of-journalism. My view is not the dominant view; it’s controversial. I won’t lay it all out here. I will tell you that I think journalism is a species of public relations, much like humans are a species of animal. Journalism, like humans, are special. Maybe. But dogs are smarter than humans in some contexts, and sometimes PR folks get stuff right and journalists don’t. So, in some contexts, PR folks are better journalists than the journalists.

It’s much easier to focus on instances of journalism instead of journalists. It’s much harder to assess whether a person crosses a threshold of journalism, than an instance, because you have to assess their performance over time and across contexts. And it’s even more difficult to assess whether an institution passes a threshold of journalism than a person.

A huge part of the Globe and Mail, for example, is paid content, and advertising. Is this journalism? Of course not. But why do we think of the Globe and Mail as a news org first, and an advertiser second? Because they said so?

Another big part of the Globe and Mail is horoscopes. Horoscopes are literally fake news.

A screenshot of Globe and Mail Google results, including horoscopes.
A google search for “The Globe and Mail,” on a cleared browser, in 2014 yielded these results.

A CAJ Ethics Advisory made an attempt back in 2012 to formulate a definition of journalism and, even though a “definition” is a flawed approach, it’s still interesting. Someone should try applying it to real world instances and institutions.

Hmm. Someone should try applying it to The Globe and Mail.

A screenshot of Google results from The Globe and Mail.
The results of a Google search for “Globe and Mail cars,” on a cleared browser, in 2017.

But it’s not just for academics and students and Jimmy Wales to wonder what makes journalism, journalism. And it’s not just for the Neiman Journalism Lab or NPR, as interesting as they are.

As long as horoscopes and paid content and research and advertising are all bundled together and shifting over time, assessing institutions is going to be difficult but necessary. It’s not navel gazing. Knowledge is shared and requires trust.

And the sooner we burn down our outdated theories of journalism, the better.

  1. Here’s a good analysis of fake news by Claire Wardle. Also, read this field guide to fake news. Also, “Fact-Checking Won’t Save Us From Fake News“. This report on the lexicon of lies and “problematic information” is fantastic.
  2.  The first goal is essential to building trust. A theory of journalism helps exclude media organizations and individuals that are not acting in good faith. I believe that journalism still has a brand worth saving and this is part of salvaging and cultivating trust. It’s an uphill slog, given where we’re at and how poorly mainstream media has performed over the years. But it’s necessary. The second goal is to help detect and celebrate and benefit from journalism in all it’s shapes and sizes.
  3. Right now, everyone in news seems to be avoiding discussing the topic. Many consider it navel gazing. Some have said it’s a fool’s errand.
  4. Jesse Brown, and Tristin Hopper, went to bat for The Rebel on the Canadaland podcast. See also for example, https://twitter.com/JesseBrown/status/789171615716118528.
  5. See for example https://www.desmogblog.com/ezra-levant or “UN Climate Results are Only Possible Through Corruption” or more recently, “Trump pulls plug on global warming scam“.
  6.  Yes, even the Globe and Mail has been shown to have, by and large and in the long run, failed their readership on global warming. And the Calgary Herald is even worse than the Globe and Mail. But The Rebel is even worser.
  7. World Health Organization estimates on death due to human induced climate change.
  8.  One way to develop a theory to clear up grey areas, is to build a theory based on solid, black and white examples. You start with clear cases and then develop a theory, and then you apply that theory to grey cases hoping that it sheds more light. For me, a clear case is The Rebel. Sorry, Alberta Conservatives. If your theory of journalism includes The Rebel as journalism, well, we have ourselves some false premises. And another clear case is The Guardian. They do pretty good journalism.
  9.  Journalists are right to think that the more our identities are invested in believing or advocating for something, the higher risk we run in not being good at reality testing, or changing our minds. And there is truth in this. But nothing follows from this about the quality of our work, even if we are highly invested. It’s evidence that needs to be assessed, yes. But the quality of research can be assessed quite independently.
  10. It’s interesting to consider that Pride was born, in part, because most newspapers in North America were failing LGBTQ communities. Pride was born out of a need to share stories, change minds, and participate in guiding democracy, because newspapers weren’t.
  11. See also Democracy Now
  12. Yes, it’s true that there are theories of journalism that will recognize all latter publications as failing to be journalism. This model by The Canadian Association of Journalists (PDF) is an example. But, despite this, the dominant view is that these articles are all journalistic.
  13. The Financial Post doesn’t know how to link. The Financial Post wasn’t alone in this failure. Canadian Geographic failed to include a single link and they didn’t even bother to embed a map. Instead they made three images from screenshots of Google Maps.
  14. I get that this might sound a little disparaging to some. My apologies. And I get that some people might think that I’m positioning myself as an expert in both the philosophy of communications, or the philosophy of science. I’m not. I mean, I have some expertise, but I’m happy to admit that these topics are complicated and controversial.
  15.  On the flip side, it’s not an accident that some journalists are improving their data skills, and capacity for doing science. Social scientists are becoming better communicators and journalists (good ones) are becoming better scientists.
  16. They summarize and aggregate and contextualize very well. Wikipedia authors are also good story tellers, and they’re providing a positive contribution to public discourse and democracy. And they know how to link.

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