To read Megan Garber’s “Common Knowledge,” click here. To read Justin Peters’s “Something to Talk About,” click here.

Justin Peters: You said that news is “a reflection of ourselves.” But aren’t lots of things reflections of ourselves? Art, fiction, and so on? How is news specifically different? I think you’re saying that news doesn’t just exist outside of its creators; that what we produce as news is a function of who we are as reporters, or something like that. Am I right?

Megan Garber: Yes, that’s basically what I’m saying. When I wrote that, I was actually thinking specifically of Marshall McLuhan—not so much his medium/message stuff, although that’s certainly part of it, but this idea he had that digital media (by which he meant, primarily, television ) mean that we ‘wear all mankind as our skin.’ There’s a porous element to the news, I guess, a kind of osmosis that takes place between news consumer and the news itself. Because, of course, news is much more than art, or fiction, as you say—which certainly share elements of cultural reflection, self-reflection, etc. News is different because—and this is an obvious point, I realize, but it’s also a crucial one—it traffics in reality. It’s not meant to inform the soul; it’s meant to inform the mind.

News is, I guess, self-reflection that is, ultimately, actionable: it isn’t meant to inform vague conceptions of ‘the human condition,’ or what have you; it’s meant instead to provide us with the daily information that will help us live our lives.

So, yes, to answer your news/reporters question: news is, I think, very much a function of who we are as reporters. It is a reflection of how reporters see the world, as individuals and as a collective body. And it is a reflection of the filters we establish—‘the media’—according to that vision. But, then, there’s also an element of news that transcends who we are as individuals—which, then, gets back to the ‘it’s about reality’ thing. Because news is, most of the time, about observable reality. So reality itself is what keeps reporters’ subjectivity in check—and what makes news a fundamentally collective enterprise.

JP: But there are innumerable different ways to interpret an event, right? Which I think gets to your points about niche news. If news is a reflection of ourselves, then what does it say about us that news is increasingly stratified and segmented—for better or for worse?

MG: First, I should just clarify that the “observable reality” I was talking about above isn’t entirely limited to “observable events.” Sure, that’s the case a lot of the time…but that’s certainly not all news is.


As to news’s stratification, segmentation, etc., and what it says about us: I actually think that’s quite a natural response to the empowering capabilities of the Web. Narrative—and, more precisely, being the one to tell the tale—is power. It’s human to want that kind of agency over the events we’ve observed…and as you put it in your essay, the human impulse will always win out.

My concerns, I guess, are on a macro level, and connected to the (otherwise empowering) new technologies of the Web. Because, when systematized—when, for example, consolidated into niche sites—narrative power can become rather insidious. Take the fact that, per a recent poll, nearly half of Americans believe Sarah Palin’s “death panel” inanities. Nearly half. It’s horrific. And, to me, it’s also an example of narrative power run amok—and of what can go wrong when we lose our baseline sense of reality. It’s a kind of cognitive free-for-all out there right now.

JP: One of the things I found interesting about your piece was the idea that niche news isn’t just fostering different worldviews, but different worlds. Maybe it’s just clarifying these worlds that have always existed, though. Is this really something new so much as a new way of observing something that was already there? People have always organized themselves into interest groups, or picked their friends based on common interests, or so on. Couldn’t you say that news’s presumption that “we’re all in this together” has always been, in some sense, an artificial one?

MG: It’s a great question. And, you’re right, people have always coalesced into interest groups, etc. If they hadn’t, we’d have, essentially, social anarchy. But the difference now comes down to information itself. The facts of the world. People who watch Fox aren’t just fed a different perspective on current events from people who watch MSNBC; they’re fed entirely different information. That’s its own kind of anarchy.

Megan Garber and Justin Peters are the writers of CJR's series on news innovation, entitled Press Forward: Dialogues on the Future of News.