Journalism Skills for Everyone

The New York Times Building

When information sources become fractured and degraded, people break into smaller polarized groups, each supporting their own group think. In many cases, people can become easily swayed by those they trust in their social networks (on and off line).

Information from “influencers” may be accurate and create great actionable results. Other times, it may be spoiled by an increasingly deplorable lack of ethics (everybody get their Klout Perks yet?), faulty opinions and hypocrisy.

The transition to the new socialized era of information consumption creates great questions about what is factual and accurate. And while some assume that digital natives will be increasingly skeptical of the information they are consuming, research demonstrates that in fact, generation Yers have superficial information-seeking and analysis skills.

A Democratic society is as strong as the education systems that serve it, and if education systems cannot help the young delineate quality information, then that skill set must come from elsewhere or reform must occur. Or society can devolve. Perhaps the correct answer is to replace the media with more distributed journalism skills, providing them to everyone as part of their upbringing or their 21st century education. Questioning information would become the norm, not the exception.

The Destruction of Quality Information

Andrew Keen was decried for blasting the blogosphere and the social web in the book Cult of the Amateur. He stated the loss of journalistic quality caused by new media coupled with the rise of opinion based information from amateurs would rend the fabric of contemporary society.

Four years and one recession later, even folks like Ted Koppel are decrying the end of news as we know it. Glenn Beck, Keith Olberman, the destruction of MSNBC as a journalist organization, the widespread shrinking of newspapers and news staffs, and the folding of other papers have greatly hurt information quality.

Not that the news was perfect, a far cry from it, actually. But now there are even less quality journalists, and worse, news outlets have become even more sensational in an effort to retain audiences. Follow Jay Rosen’s Press Think blog, and see how the media continues to deteriorate and what can be done.

Online, there are great bloggers and sources of information that have risen to fill the gap. Newspapers and national broadcast outlets don’t employ many environmental reporters anymore. Consider Dr. Joseph Rohm’s award winning Climate Progress blog a one of the blogs that have filled the gap. Also with more distributed news sources, investigative reporting has evolved. The demonstrative citizen and blogger coverage of the oil spill last spring showed a Fifth Estate in action, holding the traditional media, BP and even the Obama Administration accountable.

At the same time, there are poorer sources of “truth.” Influence measures like Klout and self-appointed blogger influencers have successfully taken a significant portion of mindshare. Social networks and entire idea markets follow their lead blindly as sources of quality information. In some cases, this has given rise to questionable leadership enforced with punitive measures and in the worst cases, flash mobs.

The new information landscape creates the need for people to better discern the information they see. Otherwise, society will deteriorate into some quality networks and in the worst cases, ignorant mobs. Polarization and increased mindlessness will be the continuing trend unless a shift in focus towards asking more skepticism occurs, in turn creating a demand for higher quality information. On to the addition of widespread journalism skills.

The Five Ws of Journalism

What journalism teaches prospective storytellers to do is gather information and provide a complete investigative report. Many reporters are taught to be inherently skeptical, and to not accept what they are told at face value. Since the degradation of quality information in the news media, increasingly reporters don’t do the complete job, but the principles are still the same.

The five Ws (and H) of journalism represent the critical core of story research. In essence, these questions ask:

  • Who was involved?
  • What happened (what’s the story)?
  • Where did it take place?
  • When did it take place?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How did it happen?

These questions represent the basics. While asking them wouldn’t stop people from believing false information or following those they believe because of loyalty to relationships, they represent a start.

Just teaching our internet citizens to instinctually ask questions when they consume online information would make great strides towards better comprehension of data… and freely offered opinions and the source of information. In addition, regardless of source, questioning whether or not the opinion was backed by facts and substantiated reports needs to increase.

What else can be done to help the current and next generation better delineate quality information?


  • I think every Gen Y person (and maybe Gen X too) should watch, at the very least, “All the President’s Men” to get a sense of history, and journalism. And even see a pen and legal pad in action.

    PS I’m huge on Klout.

  • You mean Bill Cosby isn’t dead?!? …and I shouldn’t run with that story based on a handful of tweets? But the tweeter said they were a super influencer? D’oh!

    Nice post Geoff – thanks for the resources.

    • RTs can be an indicator of an important story… or not. I suppose asking the Qs to find out is critical. Thanks for the drive by, Devin!

  • @Mark – If “I’m huge on Klout” isn’t a t-shirt already… it should be.

  • There is common trend in Serbian media, to steal content from bloggers and publish it into their stream which is more powerful than resigning it by them as authors. Which is shameful. It’s good that we have options today to choose which source we will thrust. Bloggers are becoming valuable source of information for general public. Mass media is loosing value in the long run…

    • It’s sad to see the media devolve like this. I do think that bloggers have done a good job serving the market need. I wish we could teach better writing to ALL the bloggers, instead of just what seems to be a minority group who seem to be quite competent and are thorough in their efforts.

  • Geoff,

    Perhaps you are wrong. Yes, cable news has fragmented into barking opinions and the old guard of newspapers are cutting costs, but we also live in an age of greater intellectual curiosity where individuals have more freedom to write, report and analyze. That’s a good thing.

    Clay Shirky in a June WSJ editorial wrote that digital media helps “amateurs produce endless streams of mediocrity, eroding cultural norms about quality and acceptability, and leading to increasingly alarmed predictions of incipient chaos and intellectual collapse…

    “But of course, that’s what always happens. Every increase in freedom to create or consume media, from paperback books to YouTube, alarms people accustomed to the restrictions of the old system, convincing them that the new media will make young people stupid. This fear dates back to at least the invention of movable type.”

    Shirky’s point is that new media always creates chaos at first, but then leads to new forms of quality that culture did not expect. Movable type lead to novels and newspapers.

    While I am also dismayed at the poor quality and biased judgments floating through media today, I hope if we look out far enough, something better may arrive. We have writing tools and Wikipedia and video production capabilities in the hands of children. Surely with such amazing resources, they can produce content of value as good as that as professionally trained journalists, who, while masters of a craft, had far less at hand. Perhaps the screening criteria is lower; but if we have 100,000-fold more data, my hope is the balance will lead to higher quality in the end.

    Thanks for the great thoughts.

    • I should thank you for a great, optimistic view of the future. I’m not usually a Shirky fan, but I like the theory presented and agree with it. I like it! I wonder if discussion about the current information environment, and attempts to increase quality ca hasten this maturation process.

  • I think there needs to be a sixth W these days: “Who says?”

  • Just wanted to add this one from Geri Rossman on Twitter: “Funny–when I was in J-school at IU it was all about objectivity, multiple on-record sources, facts. #thingschange”!/GeriRosman/status/8187740814315520

    I thought it was a good addition.

  • This is wonderful Geoff and so many issues can spin off this one post! In the interest of brevity to answer your question of what else can be done to better delineate quality information, I will speak to one thing. Ethics/Trust – I agree with you, oftentimes reporters, in fact, don’t finish their job. I might argue some just don’t do their job to begin with.

    Ah to be back in the days of Woodward and Bernstein, and the likes of Ben Bradlee – verify verify verify – three sources. Nowadays in the “breaking news” race to be first – especially in broadcast, folks are reporting on rumor. Just think of all the time and backpedaling it would save if they just waited and got it right in the first place.

    Jay Rosen is brilliant, an anthropologist, historian… “The press is an important institution; and it has power, although its power is changing today— at the source, which is a free and alert citizenry.” His advice to the next generation is don’t take the view from “nowhere” tell people where you’re coming from.

    Thank you so much for writing this, more to talk about!

    • You’ll love the Klout ethics post that I’m dropping tomorrow. I do feel like ethics is the real place that the eye needs to point towards. When ethics are exposes, the sycophant mentality is surely likely to weaken. One can only hope.

  • Geoff, you touch on so many important issues in this post, and highlight the ongoing need for us as a society to remember the value that journalism brings to the table, and for us journalists to remember our societal responsibilities. Kudos.

    While I won’t go as far as Andrew Keen, whose screeds against citizen media devalue the wonderful contributions we see on so many levels that would never have been possible in a strictly consumer culture, I do find the devolution toward narrowcasting one’s own set of “facts” to be troubling, and I think we’re in for an absolutely dreadful decade in terms of debate over public policy. Because, in many corners of the mediasphere, facts no longer matter.

    It’s interesting that the words “Fox News” does not appear anywhere in your piece, while you take the time to rip MSNBC and Keith Olbermann (two n’s, by the way). MSNBC’s journalism has far surpassed that of most mainstream media organizations over the past few years, including that of Ted Koppel, in terms of detailing the facts behind going to war in Iraq, billionaires’ cash flowing into political campaigns, the effect that tax cuts for the rich will have on the middle class, and much more. We need more journalism that puts fealty to the public commonweal above corporate profits.

    As this little debate demonstrates, news coverage is at once a prism and a mirror. :~)

    • Thanks, JD. I totally agree on Keen. I think he had a great theory, he was just so absolute that it got lost in the weeds of angst and righteousness of that book. I think the narrowcasting becomes scary when we see the sycophant worship of it. To me, that’s the real issue at hand.

      On Fox News, I have always assumed them to be biased based on Murdoch. What was alarming was MSNBC’s switch to compete. Fox should be the anomaly, not the market leader to emulate. Now we have both right and left with their own narrowcastnews, and CNN left in between? Thank God for PBS and the BBC.

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