the news frontier

Who Says

Narrative authority in a fragmented world
March 4, 2010

Great is Journalism. Is not every Able Editor a Ruler of the World, being a persuader of it?
— Thomas Carlyle, 1837

Journalism is just ditchwater.
— Thomas Carlyle, 1881

In its inaugural State of the News Media report in 2004, the Project for Excellence in Journalism put its finger on a core paradox in contemporary American journalism: “Journalists believe they are working in the public interest and are trying to be fair and independent in that cause,” the report went. “This is their sense of professionalism.” The next line? “The public thinks these journalists are either lying or deluding themselves.” It continued: “Americans think journalists are sloppier, less professional, less moral, less caring, more biased, less honest about their mistakes, and generally more harmful to democracy than they did in the 1980s.”

It concluded: “After watching these numbers closely for years, we at the Project suggest that all of these matters—the questions about journalists’ morality, caring about people, professionalism, accuracy, honesty about errors—distill into something larger. The problem is a disconnection between the public and the news media over motive.”

A disconnection between the public and the news media over motive. In other words, the profound mistrust Americans apparently feel toward their media isn’t rooted simply in the products of journalism—the news reports put out every day in text and image and sound—but rather in the producers themselves. Mistrust in our media is as much a matter of the who as the what.

Which is worrisome. Not only because it suggests that every joke told at the expense of lawyers, IRS agents, and similar scourges also applies to journalists (“How many reporters does it take to screw in a light bulb? None: reporters only screw us”)—and not only because it leads to journalists’ dismissal by their own audiences as ‘sloppy’ (ouch) and ‘biased’ (ouch again) and ‘immoral’ (okay, uncle)—but also because, more broadly, it foments a strain of skepticism that simply has no rhetorical recourse. If news narrative is not to be trusted because it is produced by people who are not to be trusted, then there’s little to be done to improve the apparently wretched state of our journalism—save, of course, for ridding it of journalists entirely. Per this framing, journalism is flawed at its foundations. Its whole ontology is off.

The mistrust has myriad causes, of course, many of which do indeed resolve in the behavior of journalists. But the larger matter is one of classic cognitive disconnect. News reporting, in general, has structured itself as an arbiter not merely of human events in particular, but also of—sorry, postmodern sensibilities!—Truth in general. That presumptive capital-T and all. But news narrative, as a body, is as restrictive as it is descriptive; it constrains the world as much as it expands it. It marries moral and narrative authority; and it does so, of course, for the eminently practical reason that it requires moral authority to have any value in the first place. News’s worth as a commodity is predicated, almost completely, on the trust it commands from its consumers.

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But consumers, for our part—and, of course, from the journalism-as-commodity perspective, our part is paramount—appreciate almost instinctively the narrative tension between the world as we experience it and the world as journalism packages it. Text—the narrative product itself, be it realized in print or pixel, image or sound—requires, implicitly, a conjuring of the metaphysical, and thus a disconnect from the reality it signifies. The Egyptian god Thoth, Neil Postman points out, was the god of writing. He was also the god of magic.

It’s a tension that in some sense as old as text itself. Even in the earliest days post-Gutenberg, the print-culture scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein notes, the profusion of books that addressed the same topics likely contributed to readers’ awareness of discrepancies among their narratives—and, thus, skepticism about their veracity. As for journalism, “the rise of the news-sheet in the seventeenth century made the unreliability of reports of the ‘facts’ more obvious to more people than ever before, since rival and discrepant accounts of the same events, battles for example, arrived in major cities on the same day and could easily be compared and contrasted,” the historian Peter Burke observes. Indeed, according to one Englishman, commenting in 1569: “We have every day several news, and sometimes contraries, and yet all put out as true.”

What that commenter was getting at then—and what his successors, from the sharpest media critics to the dullest propagators of Media Biasℱ arguments, get at today—was the paradox of authorship in news reporting: the disconnect between journalism’s traditional mandate (to aspire to universality, both in relevance and appeal) and journalism’s traditional limitation (the fact that it is produced by people whose people-ness itself prevents universality). News, in the sociologist Gaye Tuchman’s enduring phrase, is “a constructed reality”—and the construction in question is carried out by individuals, with all the idiosyncrasies and the biases that come with that distinction. As authors vary, the thinking goes, so must their stories—and so must, therefore, the truth of those stories. And truth that varies is, if we’re going to be purists about it, no kind of truth at all.

This attitude—which blends skepticism with cynicism, pitting reporting’s premises against its myriad promises—derives, overall, from a phenomenon that we might call “author awareness”: our sense, as we consume journalism, of the personhood of the producer of that journalism. Author awareness creates an implicit tension in traditional news reporting, which aims—‘according to officials,’ ‘sources say,’ ‘experts agree,’ etc.—to transcend, in its real-world impact, the fact of its own authorship.

Journalism’s much-agonized-over mandate toward objectivity, indeed, was initially a somewhat crude means of realizing that transcendence through the application of the scientific method to news reporting: By training the journalist out of his own subjectivity, the thinking went, the results of his investigations could be trusted—because, indeed, they weren’t his investigations at all, in this observatory-analytic framework, but rather investigations conducted, impartially, in the name of Public Information. The “reporter of ordinary events and speeches,” the English essayist Leslie Stephen wrote in 1881, is “a bit of mechanism instead of a man.” The person conducting the investigation didn’t much matter; it was the system that mattered—and the system, therefore, that was to be trusted.

As journalism shifted its focus to systemization in its narrative strategies—spurred most explicitly, the media scholar James Carey argued, by the terseness of telegraphy in the nineteenth century—the tension implicit in the author-text-audience relationship only increased. Radio, I’d argue, which brought, literally, a human voice to the news, increased it further. And television, with its talking-headed tendency to anthropomorphize even the most anodyne of news reports, increased it further still. To the extent that, now, the conflict between personality and commonality, and between medium and message, has strained journalism’s narrative authority to its trust-busting breaking point. Journalism that aims for universal relevance is often stymied in its ambition by reporting’s Rashomon realities.

The Web has complicated the matter even further, intertwining journalists’ personalities and their products even more inextricably than before. Journalists’ blogs—which often feature the ‘back stories’ of their work and/or their ‘real feelings’ about that work—are more and more common. On increasingly prevalent podcasts—The New York Times’s “Political Points,” The New Yorker’s “Political Scene,” Slate’s political Gabfest, etc., etc.—hard-news reporters similarly suggest journalism’s personality/product disconnect. More and more reporters are be-heading themselves, as it were, playing pundit and, often, partisan on increasingly influential cable news shows. And more and more reporters are participating in social media, which both blur their personal and professional identities…and broadcast the result of the blending.

More and more, as a result, audiences are aware not only of the journalism reporters produce, but also of the lives they lead: who their friends are, what music and movies and books they like, how they interact with acquaintances, etc., etc. And more and more, we journalists are selling ourselves by selling our selves—which is to say, our full identities. Not as incidental aspects to our journalism, but as central ones.

This isn’t a pervasive phenomenon, to be sure—the vast majority of the journalists that remain to toil in their craft do so under the traditional veil of effective anonymity—but it is increasingly common. To the extent that we can identify a trajectory. Increasingly, the ethos of celebrity—which entails a fixation on the personhood of the celebrity as well as the cultural products that won her fame in the first place—trickles down from the echelons of our opinion pages (‘Win a trip with Nick Kristof!’) and anchor chairs (Half an hour with Brian Williams!) and into journalism’s rank-and-file. Reporters, as producers of news, are increasingly branded not only in the macro sense—top-down, vertical, ephemeral—but also in the micro: personal likes and dislikes, political leanings, friends and associates, educational background. Increasingly, we are aware of reporters not merely as purveyors of narrative, but as people who purvey narrative.

To an extent, of course, that shift is very much to the good: Sourcing matters, in the critical interpretation of journalism as well as journalism itself. Awareness of journalism’s authorship creates crucial context for news consumption. Readers, inundated as they are with deluges of information, need now more than ever to be savvy in their interpretation of the news—and that savviness extends to their awareness of the news’s authors. Because the author of journalism—her cultural upbringing, her socioeconomic status, her political proclivities, her education, her friends and associates—affects the product of journalism.

And yet, and yet, and yet. Author awareness can lead consumers astray because that awareness is, at its core, a flawed concept. Journalism—the news reporting I’m concerned with here, at any rate—does not, in fact, have an author. It has authors, plural. Or, more specifically, to borrow Foucault’s phrase, it has an author function. Journalism is the product not of a single person, but of a community, working in concert to produce a narrative. (Journalistic text is, in that sense, the opposite of literary text: It derives its authority not from the authenticity of idiosyncrasy, but rather from the codification of conversation–from the consent, as it were, of the governed.) At its most basic, news represents a kind of dialectic between the reporter and his sources, between the reporter and the information he unearths in his reporting. Usually, though, it represents more: a conversation in which reporter and sources and information—and editors and more editors and still more editors—engage with each other, discursively: refining the details, expanding the context, excising the extremities, tightening and tempering the text.

The mitigating effect of news’s institutional discursiveness can operate both for the better (‘edited by committee’ as a boast) and for the worse (‘edited by committee’ as an affront). But the point is the mitigating effect in the first place. Bylines are misleading: When it comes to straight news reporting, no narratives are singular in their sources. Narrative construction is a communal endeavor. This is a fact that audiences—and critics—of journalism too often forget.

And it’s one that we forget at our peril. There’s a fine line, after all, between author function and author fixation—a fixation that, in questioning journalists’ capabilities as mechanical producers of news, misconstrues them as emotional filterers of it. It’s this fixation that has let journalism’s reputation erode under a barrage of bias charges from both the right and the left—and has allowed journalism as an institution to fall prey to the intentional fallacy. It’s a fixation, in other words, whose logical conclusion reduces the qualitative analysis of our news to the who it’s from rather than the what it is.

The toxicity of that tendency, as realized in our journalism, is hard to overstate. Because when the identity of the author eclipses in our judgment the text that author produces—the words on the page, the images on the screen, etc.—journalism cedes too much to the ephemera of authorial identity. It shifts focus from the text to the subtext. It removes journalism, essentially, from the realm of the analytical, placing it instead in the land of the fanciful: a place where bias charges and their many, many counterparts are allowed to fester, unanswered, for the simple reason that they are fundamentally unanswerable. Daniel Okrent, The New York Times’s first public editor, noted during a recent talk that even an anodyne sentence like “Tel Aviv is the capital of Israel” tended, during his tenure, to elicit floods of indignant responses from Times readers. Is there anything, really, that he could he have said to convince those readers of the basic veracity of the Times’s claim?

No, probably not. And therein lies the problem.

Our obsession with authorship ultimately enables one of the most troubling aspects of contemporary intellectual life: the fluidity of facts. “Political scientists have characterized our epoch as one of heightened polarization; now
the creeping partisanship has begun to distort of very perceptions about what is ‘real’ and what isn’t,” Farhad Manjoo writes. “Indeed, you can go as far as to say we’re now fighting over competing versions of reality. And it is more convenient than ever before for some of us to live in a world built out of our own facts.” As I noted in a previous essay, what we stand to lose in a fragmented media landscape is the notion of common knowledge itself. And an approach to news reporting that includes authorial motivation as a criterion in criticism allows for a kind of epistemological relativism–my authors, my facts; your authors, your facts. We see the reminders of that again and again: in our politics coverage (see: McCaugheyGate, versions 1994 and 2009), in our environmental news, and in pretty much every other facet of journalism. It is facts themselves—and, by extension, a core assumption of shared reality—that are ultimately at stake here.

Author awareness, at its most pernicious, creates a particularly cruel irony: The more trustworthy a report tries to be–systematically, mechanically–the more, in general, it is mistrusted. But an approach to journalism that insists upon knowingness of the author—that insists that knowingness is possible in the first place—is flawed at its foundations. It’s an approach that has no point precisely because it has no end point.

And journalism, fundamentally, needs an end point. It needs takeaways and conclusions and here-you-gos. What works in literature (endless context, and therefore endless interpretation and inference) simply does not work in journalism—which, as pragmatic narrative, must come to some resolution in order to achieve its ends. Our obsession, in other words, with authors—with writers’ personal identities, with outlets’ institutional biases, with brands’ political proclivities—has compromised the ability of journalism to be an actor in the world, to be a provider for democracy. It has made news reporting—which, at its best, holds a mirror to society so that we might act upon the image it reflects—into, instead, a hall of mirrors. Infinitely reflective. Infinitely refractive. And infinitely reductive.

So what’s to be done? As the problem is cultural as much as it is journalistic, there’s certainly no easy solution. But here’s one thing that journalism, as a profession and, barring that, a culture, can do: recognize—and advertise—the fact that institutionalism itself is nothing to be ashamed of. And certainly nothing to be hidden from public view. Institutionalism—which is, at its core, infrastructuralized conversation, the Habermasian ideal of discourse ethics brought to life—is, instead, to be embraced. Sure, we Americans may harbor a kind of knee-jerk resentment of large institutions and bureaucracies—and, sure, that resentment, in journalism as in most other aspects of public life, is often eminently justified. But we’ve come to a point—in journalism, at any rate—in which the resentment has blinded us to the myriad benefits of institutionalism. Consider how many of the great achievements of journalism in the past century have been possible not only because of the tenacious work of committed individuals, but also because of the committed support of those individuals by their respective news organizations.

But as newsrooms disintegrate, and as technology enables increasingly individualistic content-distribution strategies, institutional journalism is becoming increasingly rare. Which means, I’d argue, that it’s also becoming increasingly valuable. And that is a point that news organizations need to embrace—and, significantly, publicize.

Instead, though, we’re seeing many news organizations taking the opposite tack: essentially, branding individual journalists by way of humanizing their facelessness. That approach may work on occasion—Nick Kristof at The New York Times, Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times, etc.—but by and large that individualized branding serves only to legitimize author fixations among audiences. It may help the bottom line in the short term; it may not serve journalism, however, in the long. It may serve, finally, only to further legitimize the cult of the author.

Better, I think, for news organizations to win (and deserve) trust by embracing the collective voice. That doesn’t mean the voiceless voice—objectivity’s “view from nowhere,” in Jay Rosen’s borrowed phrase—but rather the voice of many voices. The institutional voice. The discursive voice. Take Wikipedia, for example, which is authoritative particularly because it is authorless—or because, more precisely, its author function is so intersubjective, as Habermas might say, as to be effectively neutralized in its subjectivity. Indeed, “to understand something like a Wikipedia article,” Clay Shirky writes, “you can’t look for a representative contributor, because none exists. Instead, you have to change your focus, to concentrate not on the individual users but on the behavior of the collective.”

The same may be said of news organizations. Wikipedia, after all, is at its core simply a fully transparent version of what happens in newsrooms: the discussions and debates and yes, buts and have you considereds that result, finally, in a singular narrative. The difference has been the finality of print versus the permanent-beta of the Web post—and the author-suggestion of the byline versus the authorlessness-suggestion of the lack thereof. Wikipedia is so trusted as a source, indeed, that it may actually enjoy more trust than it deserves (cf. the many instances of errored-Wikipedia-entries-accepted-as-fact); the root of that trust, though, is the authority of the collective.

It is that authority that news organizations need to leverage; it is that authority that they need to embrace. Transparency may be the new objectivity; but we need to shift our definition of ‘transparency’: from ‘the revelation of potential biases,’ and toward ‘the revelation of the journalistic process.’ Transparency needs to be about fostering conversation rather than ending it, and about respecting the audience enough to take them into the process of news. To re-imagine news less as a commodity and more as a community.

As journalism accumulates more and more voices, though—and as the din of those voices becomes louder and more cacophonous—we increasingly need narrative agents that rise above simple subjectivity as much as they do simple objectivity, agents that transcend the authorship of the individual: agents to sort fact from fiction, the quality information from the dreck, the news that forms the basis of democratic action from the news that forms the basis of the everything-else. We need, in other words, the collective authority of the institution. If news organizations can reclaim institutionalism, they’ll be taking a small but significant step toward reclaiming their narrative authority. And our trust along with it.

For a list of suggestions for further reading, click here. For Justin Peters’s companion piece on authority and credibility in online communications, click here. For an overview of the Press Forward series and links to older content, click here.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.