Journalism and the foreseeable future

January 2, 2020

Sam Greenspan, a former producer at NPR, released the first episode of his new podcast, Bellwether, in July. The name of the show, Greenspan says, stems from a practice dating to the Middle Ages in which shepherds tie a bell around the neck of a castrated ram (the “wether”), and track their flock by following the sound. “So a bellwether is something that predicts trends, or is itself a trendsetter,” he says. 

On the show, Greenspan reports “absolutely true” stories, not unlike those he used to do at NPR, about subjects such as alt-right trolls and artificial intelligence. But then Greenspan does something peculiar—he imagines that these broadcasts have been discovered by two “data archaeologists”—Icarus, a human, and Cass, an AI—in some far-flung future. “They’re government subcontractors of something called the Cloudburst Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Greenspan explains. “And on their first day on the job, the first thing that comes down the hatch is this old podcast, Bellwether, and they’re looking at it to see if it holds clues to what happened to their world.”

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Greenspan’s show is an exercise in speculative journalism: writers take verifiable facts or news stories and, from them, extrapolate what might happen in the near—and sometimes not so near—future. Where Greenspan differs from many of his colleagues is that he does the journalism part himself. Bellwether, he says, “has all the challenges of a narrative nonfiction podcast, and all of the challenges of a fictional serial.” he says. 

The show’s first episode, about autonomous vehicles, grew out of a story Greenspan did at 99% Invisible, a celebrated design and architecture podcast for which he was a founding producer. For the episode, Greenspan drove to Tempe, Arizona, to visit the precise spot where pedestrian Elaine Herzberg was struck and killed by a self-driving car, the first such fatality in history; he also interviewed experts from Carnegie Mellon and the National Transportation Safety Board, among others. 

For the fictional component, Greenspan spent six weeks in the Mojave Desert, at the Joshua Tree Highlands Artists residency. Surrounded by coyotes and painters and empty spaces, he came up with the idea of the two data archaeologists. Only Cass is voiced, by Sunita Mani of Glow and Orange is the New Black. (“A real get,” says Greenspan.) Icarus speaks only through clicks and tones, à la R2-D2. “Writing dialogue is hard,” Greenspan says. “Also, I didn’t know if I could afford two actors.” 

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Greenspan is currently working on the next three episodes of Bellwether, and hopes to release all four together in early 2020. The reported stories are pretty much done, he says, so now he needs to work on the fictional elements. He also hopes to kick off a newsletter roundup of the best of the speculative journalism genre. 

There are journalists and journalism outfits that engage in speculation all the time, without calling it such. I think we need a better practice around it, to make sure that we’re doing it responsibly and ethically.

This year, news outlets have embraced speculative journalism in a number of creative ways. In May, The New York Times launched “Op-Eds From the Future,” an ongoing series with contributors including Cory Doctorow and Ted Chiang, and titles like “Should You Add a Microchip to Your Brain?” and “Earth Must Intervene in Space Company Towns.” On a journalism-speculation spectrum, Bellwether skews toward the journalism; the Times series does the opposite, clearly labeling each article as a work of fiction. Even so, speculations in the Times pieces are very much based in fact. For a piece on how artificial intelligence might impact the US of 2043, the Times sought out Baobao Zhang, a researcher with the Center for the Governance of AI at Oxford and a postdoctoral fellow in MIT’s political science department. Zhang’s op-ed imagines how the increasing dominance of AI will help humans (reduced health care costs; the imminent possibility of Universal Basic Income) as well as hurt them (massive income inequality; autonomous drones dropping pepper spray on unruly protesters).

For Zhang, this sort of speculative work can be an important tool for social scientists like herself. “I think science fiction is a powerful medium to convey complex policy debates,” she says. “We still talk about, say, 1984, as what a surveillance state would look like. It’s totally a science-fiction book, but it’s become ingrained in our imagination.”

In August, High Country News published a “Speculative Journalism” issue imagining what the West might look like in 2068. (Spoiler alert: there will be fewer glaciers, and a lot more feces-eating soldier flies). The issue grew out of an editorial meeting about how to cover the contents of the 1,515-page “Fourth National Climate Assessment.” Few if any of their readers were going to plow through the actual report, staffers figured, and many knew a lot about climate change anyway, given the number of articles the magazine and its website had already devoted to the topic. “I think we realized that we were all hitting climate-coverage fatigue,” says Brian Calvert, the editor in chief. “So it was like, how do we use this information in an interesting way, that’s still useful to readers of a magazine that’s known for deep-dive journalism?”

Calvert and his staff leaned to the “journalism” side of the special issue as a practical consideration. “We didn’t suddenly have to become short-story writers,” he said. “We could just imagine ourselves as journalists in the future, and sort of write in a way that we’re used to.”

To its proponents, speculative journalism is one more valuable tool in a journalist’s toolbox, allowing readers to better understand otherwise unfathomable issues and to see, through vivid fictions, the sorts of futures hinted at in research papers. To its critics, it is, at best, lazy journalism, if it is journalism at all. In a 2018 New York Times op-ed, Christy Wampole, a professor of French literature at Princeton University, described speculative journalism as “reporters and editors making guesses at what might happen rather than reporting what did happen.” Such guesswork might mitigate risk for journalists, writes Wampole, or it might form the basis for fake news stories and conspiracy theories; as she admits, with humor, she herself is speculating.

Greenspan stresses the need for clear lines around the genre, particularly given how much speculating goes on among journalists and commentators every day. He imagines a ranking system and “accuracy score” for pundits on CNN; scores like “30-percent accurate,” would appear alongside their job titles.

“There are journalists and journalism outfits that engage in speculation all the time, without calling it such,” he says. “I think we need a better practice around it, to make sure that we’re doing it responsibly and ethically.”

Despite its dangers, Greenspan sees the value of speculative journalism’s mix of the true and the fanciful. “I think the goal should be to use fiction or sci-fi to tell a better true story,” he says. “And I’m taking seriously the kind of emotional impact these stories have on people. By introducing even just the slightest amount of something fantastical, it gives your audience permission to have their minds wander a bit from what we know to be true, and really opens up this window into possibility and hope.”

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Robert Ito is a journalist based in Los Angeles. He has written for Salon, The Believer, and The California Sunday Magazine, and is a frequent contributor to The New York Times.