behind the news

Q&A: Blur Author Tom Rosenstiel

On verification and critical thinking in the new, open journalistic era
December 3, 2010

In their 2001 book, The Elements of Journalism Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach list ten fundamental principles (“elements”) that make up journalism, and number four was, “Its essence is a discipline of verification.”

Their latest offering, Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload goes beyond what journalists need to know and practice by outlining the skills that a new breed of empowered, critical media consumers need to make sense of the torrent of information that flows from a fractured and ever-expanding media universe. The v-word once again figures prominently. It seems the essential discipline for journalists has also become a core skills for us all.

I spoke with Rosenstiel by phone last month in a wide-ranging discussion that touched upon the new world of news and why the discipline of verification is something we all need to adhere to. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

One of the things that struck me about Blur is your previous book was very much oriented towards journalists. This one, while there are things for journalists in it, seems to take this to a wider audience and to help spread the skills that we all need now.

You’ve put your finger on it. We now live in a user controlled media world. People are their own editors, and the ability of the press to function as a gatekeeper over what the public sees, or to force-feed the public what it should know, is over. Our public discourse is now going to be a collaboration between citizens and consumers of information, and the sources from which they get that information. The real gap in the twenty-first century is not between those who have access to the Internet and those who don’t; it’s between those who have skills to navigate the information, and those who are overwhelmed by it and escape that sense of overwhelming by just going to the sources that make them feel comfortable, or to points of view that are comforting and familiar.

It’s interesting because I had noted a passage from the book where you are talking about access. There is a fundamental issue of access in that if you don’t have access to information then, as you write in the book, there is “the gap between reason and superstition.” If you are in a country where you don’t have access to the Internet or even the printed word, then that is going to lead you to superstition.

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Absolutely. There is an issue of access, although the spread of mobile and the prospect that we really have small computers in our pockets have made the worry about who’s wired and who is not somewhat less urgent. We know that in some of these countries, where media are quite undeveloped, cell phone coverage has actually leaped a generation, has leapt over wires and into mobile…

To some extent it’s a rhetorical point. Certainly you want to be wired, or you want to have access, but even if you have access you need skills. And if you have neither, then you’re really in this realm of superstition and belief.

In the book you talk about the example of Homer Bigart in challenging the authoritative version of events from the authorities in Vietnam. With that example comes a fundamental question: How do you determine authority? Or what are the new means of determining authority now, for both journalists and for the average person?

The conventional press has historically always been too reliant on authority, on taking peoples’ word for things just because they were officials, and being a conduit for those powerful voices. As the press evolved in the latter part of the twentieth century, becoming more investigative and more interpretative, it pushed against that somewhat. Technology undermined or inhibited that move by the 1980s, when cable began; that was a medium that ceded more power back to authorities because if you’re moving very quickly and you’re passing things along as quickly as can, you have less time to probe and investigate. Well, that’s accelerated now through digital technology. Everyone is now in the breaking news business and they have to actively push against that.

The ability to question, to be skeptical, now logically includes using the audience as a skeptical sounding board for the press. But it also means the audience themselves need to keep an open mind and not say, ‘Well I like this guy, I like President Obama, and therefore I believe him’ …

It’s incumbent on all of us to say, ‘Okay I like you—now show me the evidence behind what you are saying.”

As we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, I would hope that we all recognize that the people we like and the people we dislike in public life are capable of spin and shading the truth and exploiting statistics, and engaging in argument rather than explanation of things.

One thing you offered in the book was the origin of the phrase, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” I thought it was one of these things people just repeated without ever knowing its source. But you folks identify the source as being a news organization in Chicago.

Yeah, the Chicago News Service [sic], which was a place where a variety of prominent folks trained. One of the things that’s interesting is that kind of classic and very formalized apprenticeship system has broken down. CNS was, in the mid-twentieth-century, a place where kids could get entry level jobs and be taught by the iconic scary city news editor who would terrify them into learning the discipline of verification, not that anybody used such polysyllabic words to describe it … (Editor’s note, 10/11/11: The organization was actually called the City News Bureau.)

The point you mention about the erosion of the apprenticeship is interesting. On the one hand, internships at big magazines often go to people who are well connected or from wealthy families because they are unpaid, and it therefore creates a specific class of person who is able to do these internships. On the other hand, when we had these larger systems where you would pass through—for example, if you wanted to be a newspaper reporter you would start at a community weekly and move up and up—with the erosion of those systems there are definitely some drawbacks; but now there is also room for different kinds of thinking because not everyone passes through the same system. Is there that other side of it?

Like any phenomenon that we encounter it has its wonderfully, powerfully positive aspects and its drawbacks. One thing is that a new, better journalism will be invented because there are so many more tools for conveying information on a digital platform. If you had people who had only been classically trained in the old narratives, there would be a tilt more towards old narratives, old voices, old storytelling types like inverted pyramid …

The new storytelling techniques that may be graphical and not even text will come from people who understand the way the next generation processes information. You also have the advantage of many more editors; if news is a colloquy between the newsgatherers and the audience, and if the press is engaged with its audience and listening to its audience, the knowledge about what things mean should advance more quickly.

Conventional journalism, we know from two generations of research, is too focused on the horserace, on inside baseball and power politics, and loses sight of what will this actually mean to citizens, what will this cost, is it working in the real world? …

At least at the moment in the year 2010, the new ecosystem for news hasn’t come close to making up for what’s been lost in these traditional newsrooms. We can point hopefully to a neighborhood blog here or a small website that’s developing in this community, or to that community website, and that’s wonderful; but in volume … we’ve lost more than we’ve regained.

Is there a necessity to lose in order to move on? Is there a relationship between those two things?

There probably is. We’ll probably move on faster because of the destruction. People who are going to invent the new way of doing something aren’t stuck with the old techniques. We don’t simply want, I don’t think, the people who create community websites to be only people who took buyouts in old newsrooms because they’re going to do things fairly conventionally…

Some of these skills about how to verify and gather news, how to get things right, how to triple check, how you get spun—some of the knowhow, some of the tradecraft of verification that exists in these old newsrooms has real value. Until you’ve been lied to by a truly skilful liar, you can’t quite know what it’s like. There are lots of people in old newsrooms who have gone through that.

I suppose some would say the average person has gone through that as well, because it’s been disseminated by us when we don’t practice that tradecraft.

Absolutely. And I think that’s the germ of where things begin to be really exciting. If you think about it, how did Google get started? It got started by consumers—two students—saying, “Gee regular search engines are flawed; we think we can do better” …

The idea that a very conscious critical consumer of media says, ‘There has got to be better way to marry technology and journalism that is actually more useful than the one that I’ve gotten in the past.’ That I think is what this book is sort of hoping for.

It’s interesting that you talk about a “conscious consumer of media”—you didn’t say it had to be a journalist who comes up with the new journalism. Is that a conscious statement on your part?

I think so. If I were forced to make a bet, my bet would be that the great leaps forwards for news and information are going to come from young people who understand the technology but share and learn the traditional values of verified journalism, or the journalism of verification. Those can be learned. And they can be learned precisely because they came from what citizens needed. They didn’t come from a philosophy text. I do think the key to this is the discerning consumer; certainly that’s who Blur is aimed at—the more conscious and discerning consumerism of information is what Blur is about …

Obviously we have the issue of huge amounts of information that is constantly flowing, and there is the challenge of filtering. There is also the fact that things go viral. So there is one element of empowering citizens and also an element of empowering journalists. Are those the two cornerstones? Are there other things we need to sift and filter and process the information that’s coming out?

One cornerstone is empowering citizens and another, as you say, falls on journalists—and a third one is journalists need to listen and engage the audience. They need to see the audience as a community who has something of value.

Another cornerstone of it is numerical literacy. We live in a century where many more of our arguments are statistical because spreadsheets and Excel make the massing of data much faster and easier. To some extent, more of our media sounds like expert witnesses in a trial throwing very complicated data at us to make their arguments…

A credulous consumer could say, ‘I couldn’t possibly judge that; it sounds very researchy—it must be true.’ One of the things that’s part of the new consumer, the new citizenship, is asking questions of things that are databased, and not just saying, ‘Well, those are the facts, I move on from there.”

One phrase in the book that really struck me was the concept of “open-minded humility.” I think it’s a pretty powerful phrase. Maybe you want to define what it is?

For me that’s a very important concept. What we’re trying to get at with that is that you come to your life as citizen with a sense of wonder, with a sense that ‘I’d like to learn more. I don’t know the answers and my preconceptions are only hypotheses of what the real answer might be.’ And that requires both the humility to think I might be wrong and an open-mindedness to say people who I think I disagree with might have something I can learn from …

There’s an element of that that can be very helpful for journalists to internalize as well. Humility seems to be something in general that perhaps we can benefit from on a larger scale.

That was the genius of Homer Bigart, who had been a reporter who’d covered everything; he was the most experienced reporter in Vietnam, but he acted as if he knew the least. That’s what we called his “portable ignorance.” He would say ‘Hmmm, interesting, prove that to me. Can you do that?’ Which also involves being wiling to look stupid…

It reminds me of Jay Rosen’s talk of ’the church of the savvy.’ There seems to be something about us in the press—particularly the political press—where you always to show that you know what’s going on, that you’re in and you have the scoop. Admitting that you don’t know about something is almost admitting to a weakness in front of your fellow journalists.

Right. Whereas it can be the most powerful and liberating way of doing this, of going about this …

I think that ultimately this book as I imagine it—and I hope it comes across—this book is fundamentally optimistic. As we say in the last chapter, and in the epilogue, we think we have the potential and the capacity for a far superior journalism in this more open system than we ever had with the old …

Out of the confusion that may feel is the opportunity for a much superior way of learning in which journalism is almost continually improved by an audience that is able to push back against it. But we have to be realistic; we can’t assume that the crowd pushing back is necessarily informed. This new open system creates responsibilities both for citizens and for those who report the news—and that’s what we’re trying to identify: What are the skills that these sides now need.

Because it’s great to be empowered, but what are you going to do with this?

Correction of the Week

“IN Saturday’s Evening Post we printed a photograph of a man in connection with a court case involving a disturbance after the Swansea V Cardiff football match on November 7 last year. The caption stated that the man pictured was Kevin Richards, one of the defendants. This was in fact incorrect. The man pictured was Mark Owens who was not connected in any way to the court case. We apologise for the error.” – South Wales Evening Post

Craig Silverman is currently BuzzFeed's media editor, and formerly a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.