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?

Ted Koppel & the Death of Real News

Erin Burnett
Image by S_Mercurier

Today’s oped in the Washington Post by former Nightline Chief Ted Koppel declares the Death of Real News. Prompted by FOX and MSNBC’s clear political views, this piece declares something many have come to know: Our society has lost any resemblance of integrity in its news with very few exceptions. But given who said it — a hard newsman, an elder statesmen of the Golden Era of journalism — it is my feeling that the article will be remembered as a piece that marked a point in time that saw the end of uniform factual journalism across traditional media.

While there are holdouts — PBS, NPR, arguably the New York Times, to some extent the Wall Street Journal, and maybe CNN (at times) — news outlets have lost their soul, their revenue, and real hard journalists. Produced/printed with smaller budgets, younger and less experienced staff, and a hard target towards carving out niche clientele, news outlets opine more than produce facts these days.

“Truth” is not grounded as we have found out over an over again. The noble Fourth Estate has fallen far. “Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s oft-quoted observation that ‘everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,’ seems almost quaint in an environment that flaunts opinions as though they were facts,” said Ted Koppel in his piece.

My Dad was managing editor of the Philadelphia Daily News when I grew up. I ran the halls of that newsroom as a tween. He is still a journalist today (not with PNI anymore), and I have watched him fight for his livelihood as the ad margins shrank, staff was dropped like confetti at a championship game, and the papers sold their souls.

In many ways this downfall has created the opportunity for micromedia to fill its place, bloggers if you would. The Fifth Estate keeps media accountable to some extent, and in other cases it has replaced journalistic ventures with outlets like the Huffington Post and Mashable. But in general, the new media is much more subjective, and less reliable. Worse, we are seeing less blogging as compared to the past, and in some cases, a disintegration of hard hitting conversations.

We are back to the 19th century when many town citizens had a printing press. Learning how to discern quality information is the most important skill set of 21st century. Otherwise, we will be caught in our various echo chambers, chasing the popular myths espoused by our social networks (on and offline).

The battle is not over. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post are planning new electronic pay for content models. It may be time for the tide to turn, or at least become stemmed.

What is clear is the downward spiral of factual journalism has descended to the point of no return. The losses will not be recovered, and new media has reached an unprecedented point of power. We could see another era of factual value, but it won’t feature the powerhouse journalist in its traditional iconic image. Fractured media environments are not likely to consolidate. The real journalists that remain will survive on factual differentiation — an unusual offering in the 21st century media environment.

What do you think about Ted Koppel’s proclamation about the death of real news?