Author calls for journalists to become ‘knowledge specialists’

Thomas Patterson, Bradlee professor of government and the press at Harvard Kennedy School, critiques journalism today and calls for an overhaul of the current news-reporting system in his new book Informing the News: The need for knowledge-based journalism.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | November 6, 2013

Informing the News started out as a look at what journalism schools need to do to train a new generation of reporters. In an interview with Ross Reynolds for, Patterson differentiates journalism from other professions because it “doesn’t have an underlying knowledge base.” He reminds us that journalists are trained primarily in producing stories, which is an incredibly valuable skill, but can leave them “vulnerable” in certain situations.

A particular area of vulnerability is journalists’ use of sources; in a different interview with Joe Donohue for WAMC Northeast Public Radio Patterson warns that without “knowing their subject deeply” journalists can get too dependent on their sources, and there is a strong chance of being manipulated today when there is often so much spin on stories when they are told.

Journalist’s Resource review calls the book “a frank look at the failings of journalism today,” and states that it is “an articulation of the mission of the Journalist’s Resource Project” – a project at the Harvard’s Shorenstein Centre which “examines news topics through a research lens.” Patterson is the director of research at the project, which was called the “Best Free Reference Website 2013” by the American Library Association.

In a recent Q&A session with Nieman Lab’s Caroline O’Donovan, Patterson acknowledges that a journalist’s role is as a member of a community, reporting on that community and making efforts to bring information to the people, but there is also of course the financial reality which means that this reporting has to be profitable. “The news media,” he says, “have two bottom lines. One’s the fiscal bottom line – the have to make money to stay in business. The other one’s the civic bottom line.”

He recognises that news “needs to keep us interested;” there has to be “a sort of entertainment dimension” however he expands on this by warning against leaning to far towards the entertainment side of news, which gets further away from informed information. He argues that “what the news needs to do is to help ground us so that we can understand better what our choices are, and also that we can talk to each other.”

What Patterson is calling for is an intelligent, engaging balance between news that is appealing and holds attention whilst, most importantly, being rooted in accuracy. While he acknowledges that this crisis has been going on for a long time – he quotes Walter Lippmann, writing almost a century ago, calling for “trust relevant news” – however, Patterson also maintains that it is different today, there is “a lot more noise in the system than there use to be.” In a Journalist’s Resource video research chat, he criticises the internet for the “degradation of information” that comes with it, although praises the ease with which information can now be accessed. The key is that journalists need the tools to know what is reliable and what is not.

Patterson is encouraged by the trends that seem to be appearing online, however. Although there is, and always will be, a market for rapid, instant-update news, research is showing that it is often the deeper, better-researched long-form articles that get circulated around social media sites. Moreover, he argues that there is a place for both types of journalism; it should not be a question of choosing between either fast news and knowledge-based reporting.

Patterson tells O’Donovan that digital platforms “allow you to bring information and knowledge to news in a fuller way.” He maintains, however, that it is important to learn how to use digital platforms but to bring this together with “an understanding of how to use knowledge in reporting situations,” and that the combination of the two renders each skill more effective.

His overall message is a call to journalists to “bump the game up a notch,” and “subject knowledge has to be part of that bump up.” He tells Joe Donohue that “knowledge expands vision” and makes people “see the world in a larger and bigger way.” And journalists can do this too, “if they were more masters of the subjects they are covering.”

Patterson is aware of the effects, both positive and negative, that digital innovation is having on news reporting. In Informing the News he reminds journalists to be aware of the way in which they engage with news, and importantly, to make use of technical development in conjunction with a secure grasp of accurate fact to disseminate news effectively. He is calling for a solid core of knowledge-based journalism, with journalists seeing themselves as “knowledge specialists,” not victims and propagators of misinformation.

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