Monday, February 22, 2010

What's Wrong with Journalism?

I couldn't have said it better myself. And it wasn't for lack of trying. In a post a few days ago (link here), I tried to explain what has gone wrong with the American media. This morning Alison Gopnik outdid me in Slate. Link here.

In her first paragraph Gopnik demonstrates, in a nutshell, what is wrong with American journalism today.

In her words: "It is a truth verging on truism that journalism is about telling stories. But what exactly is it that narratives-- good stories-- do for us? Stories work because they explain important or unusual or compelling events in terms of our everyday psychology-- the causal principles that we all understand by the time we are 4. A good journalism explains why the health care bill failed, for example, by telling us about the beliefs, desires, and emotions of the wavering senators."

What's wrong with this statement? A great deal, as it happens.

Begin at the beginning. Instead of arguing for a point of view Gopnik presents her opinion as a self-evident truth, as though it were axiomatic, and as though only a fool would dare disagree.

Asked what journalism is about, most of would say that it is about fact more than story, about information more than narrative coherence?

As I have suggested, one of the most important problems with journalism today is that it has lost track of facts, and gotten caught in a web of well-constructed narrative fiction.

Can a good journalist weave the facts into a compelling narrative? Surely, he can. But when he does so he will always run a significant risk, because the rules for constructing a compelling narrative are not the same as the rules for reporting the facts accurately and objectively.

As for objective reality, Gopnik has no real interest or concern. She would likely not accept the action of the editor of the Atlanta Progressive News-- firing a reporter for believing in objective reality (link here)-- but she is on the same page. When she says that stories relate everyday events to everyday psychology, she is saying that we cannot understand facts and events within an historical context. She believes that we must personalize everything, make it relevant to our everyday lives.

Do you really believe that events around the world are unintelligible unless we can see how they are affecting us personally? I don't.

As for what Gopnik means by "everyday psychology," I do not have a clue. She appears to be saying that a journalist must tell stories because we all think like 4 year olds and 4 year olds relate to stories better than to facts.

For my part I believe that most adults have put away the toys of their childhood and have learned more adult mental functioning, to the point where they can think of events in terms of something other than their personal experience. I also believe that adults can grasp objective realities even if they are not quite as entertaining as good stories.

Finally, Gopnik feels that good journalists must explain why the health care bill failed by revealing the emotional make-up of the "wavering senators."

Wow. And more wow. Only the truest of true believers would say that the problem with the health care bill was the emotional health of the "wavering" senators. Gopnik seems to imply that the health care bill would have passed if certain senators had had more therapy!

Has it never crossed Gopnik's mind that these senators might have been deliberating, not wavering, and that in a deliberative democracy, this is a right and proper thing to do. And why would it not make to sense that some senators voted against the bill because they believed that it was not in the best interest of the country.

Shouldn't journalism tell us what is in the health care bill, what it would cost, what it would mean in terms of the national economy, and whether or not we can afford it? The more reliable information we have the less we will rely on stories to fill in the gaps.


Robert Pearson said...

When I commented on the first linked post above, I did not hit the link to your earlier "Atlanta Progressive News" post, and I realize now that at any rate my comment was rather duplicative of the latter.

But on to the Gopnik, so to speak. Later in the piece she notes, almost casually, that cognitive therapy is effective, and "do[es]no harm." And as you and I both know, it is as effective or more effective than drugs for wide variety of conditions.

Now that's some information that "journalists" should be regularly putting on the front pages. If acted upon it would do more good for more millions than almost any other reporting I can think of.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good point. I'm glad you mentioned it. As it happened I was so stunned by her first paragraph that I did not pay very close attention to her later remark.