As part of a course on the internet and journalism at HKS, I wrote a response paper on John Wihbey’s forthcoming News in a Time of Factual Recession.
Journalism isn’t what it used to be. Society as a whole has experienced a “network turn” (Wihbey 143) in recent years, away from offline interactions and toward those conducted via online networks, and media institutions are no exception. The archetypal journalistic activity has gone from writing up a city council meeting to participating in a discussion on Twitter. How this happened, what it means, and even whether it’s really happening are all central topics in John Wihbey’s forthcoming book News in a Time of Factual Recession. His central topic is this network turn and its effect on journalism, and how the profession should respond.
People have always existed within social networks, so specifying exactly what the modern “network turn” means is an important part of Wihbey’s project. He associates it with the new technologies that have come to carry those networks - and in the process, shape them. As Wihbey puts it, once people cease communicating only face-to-face,”networks can be highly influenced by engineering and design choices.” (83) The process began with the telegraph1 and accelerated dramatically with widespread adoption of the internet. Since about the mid-2000s, the newest technologies have both eroded journalism’s business model and expanded the tools available to reporters. Among many beneficial effects (e.g., Twitter is an excellent place to find breaking news) is what Wihbey refers to as the “rending of the epistemological order” and consequent “intellectual dizziness.” (6) Fake news is just the most obvious and recent symptom.
Are these developments overstated? It’s certainly possible to overstate the effects of these networked developments, however. New technology enters into journalistic work in many ways: leveraging large datasets in reporting, getting information from other journalists on Twitter, and more. But for all that journalism has become more focused on networks and social connection, the core work of reporting hasn’t changed as much as some of the rhetoric suggests. Most reporters working an investigative beat, for example, will still need to develop relationships with sources, identify potential stories, and most importantly turn those stories into engaging narratives. (As Wihbey himself mentions; e.g. 175.) One suspects this process would be familiar to earlier generations of journalists.
The biggest difference, indeed, may be in who makes up today’s generation of journalists. The decline of local news means that more and more professional journalism is done by more specialized workers at relatively large outlets. As journalism concentrates geographically, more and more of those reporters and other workers are in a densely connected New York and Washington social scene. Computer technology in general seems to advantage skilled workers and large institutions with large datasets, and social networks of course work best when everyone is on them. So it’s not surprising this configuration of the industry finds network methods from data analysis to Twitter useful.
Part of the apparent turn toward network-focused and data-driven journalism, in other words, is a selection effect: there’s simply less journalism being done, and the highly local, shoe-leather sort that’s less amenable to network methods2 is disproportionately what’s going out of business. Network “affordances” do indeed shape journalism, but only in concert with economic institutions.
The difference between this view and Wihbey’s more maximal take on journalism’s newly networked essence might seem like a quibble, but it has real implications. If local news ever recovers, how will it or should it attempt to do journalism, and how useful will the new methods really be in promoting that recovery?
The continuing importance of narrative One aspect of media practice that Wihbey acknowledges hasn’t changed much is “what are pejoratively called ‘narratives.’” Critics of media coverage, like Nate Silver’s well-known sideline in critiquing the mainstream media, frequently charge the press with shoehorning facts into a preconceived narrative and in the process distorting the news. (108) Wihbey concedes the point, and urges “analytical humility” and for “journalists to frame their work more as an ongoing process than as a finished product.” (108)
He doesn’t, however, look too deeply at how the problem came about. In part, that’s because the answers seem obvious: for Wihbey, deadline pressure and competition push journalists to sensationalism, and the use of interviews and anecdotes as the primary means of gathering information push against deep, data-driven takes. But it’s unlikely this is the whole story. After all, certain academic sociologists deal primarily in anecdote and interview data, and are much less prone to distortion of the sort that’s criticized in the mass media. Journalism displayed many of the same tendencies before the Internet took off, when deadline pressure was lower; indeed, cable news is frequently the worst offender.
Instead, it’s likely that narrative structure itself contributes to the problem. Narratives have beginnings, middles and ends; they have protagonists and usually antagonists; what’s more, as the line of criticism that started with Joseph Campbell has shown, there are only so many basic types of narrative. Because media coverage, both at large scale and at the level of individual articles, deals so heavily in narratives, most issues end up being discussed this way whether or not it’s the most useful way to frame them. Wihbey discusses the examples of a hypothetical small-business owner dealing with ACA mandates (as a stand-in for the larger question of the health law’s effects), and the political media’s horserace coverage of election season. (109) Other examples aren’t too hard to think of: the media usually covers housing availability and gentrification issues as brave advocates vs greedy developers, or the reverse. Larger but more important questions, about the economics of land use and who benefits from the current system, are hard to write an engaging narrative about and are ignored.
Wihbey urges journalists to “find ways to acknowledge uncertainty” in their coverage, to “‘ping pong’ between the anecdotal and the systematic,” (109) which is in tension with narrative structure and the desire for vivid (and specific) writing. If that’s going to happen, finding alternative frames for communicating information will be an important step.
Because narratives - stories - are so natural for human communication, selectively deemphasizing them won’t be easy. News articles aren’t written like academic papers, and academic papers have a reputation for being dull, for a reason. Some of the most exciting recent developments in journalism, such as the rise of data journalism and its emphasis on visualization, can be viewed as attempts to solve this problem. Scaling and further developing these early ideas will be necessary to solve it completely.
Wihbey, John. News in a Time of Factual Recession: Understanding Networked Media and Populist Knowledge. Cambridge: MIT Press (forthcoming).
Though even this line is difficult to draw - what about the printing press? The development of paper? Writing itself? There’s nothing magical about communication over electrical wires, even though it makes for a more focused book. ↩
Again, by “network methods,” I don’t necessarily mean any particularly sophisticated forms of analysis. Even Twitter is less useful to a small-town reporter who has offline relationships with key sources and local public figures. ↩