Notes on Journalism and Science

2007-04-15. A teaser from chapters II:2 and II:4 of Hans L Zetterberg's unfinished manuscript "The Many-splendored Society." The text needs editing.

Editors cannot report everything. The journalistic process is one of never ending selection. The wire services present long menus. Editorial meetings are held to decide which stories to pursue. The reporters who are given assignments to pursue stories must sift and sort facts and views in the raw material that they can muster. The subeditors select among the stories available what shall be published, what shall be rejected outright, what shall be reworked, shortened or strengthened, and what shall remain in store for another day. The board of directors has sifted and selected a candidate to be editor-in-chief, who, together with colleagues, has sifted and selected and appointed various subeditors. Editorial policies have been hammered out from many alternatives; options have been rejected and adopted.

In this long chain of picking and choosing lie also the details and colors that make a news story come alive. Here is an example from the training of journalists (by Bo Strömstedt, a legendary Swedish editor) taken from an article on public support to culture:

"A slice of the pie for new subsidies to cultural activity is summarized under the heading State Support for Literature. Last spring, after making some remarkable rounds prior to the Parliament's decision, it did not get an entirely favorable start. The main point is, of course, that the motion was in essence swept under the carpet."

(Or in Swedish: "Den kaka inom den nya svenska kulturpolitiken som kan sammanfattas under rubriken statligt litteraturstöd fick efter ganska märkliga turer en inte helt lyckad start i riksdagsbeslutet i våras. Det viktiga var naturligtvis att propositionen i allt väsentligt sopades under mattan." )

A slice of pie, summarized as a heading, makes some remarkable rounds before it gets a failed start, and "in essence" is swept under the carpet. In this text just about every word has lost its original Meadian meaning and, thus diluted, it is used in Saussurian ways. Pie does not mean pie, a round does not mean round, a start does not mean a start, point does not mean point, sweep does not mean sweep, and carpet does not mean carpet. At best, we can retain an image – in this case a misleading image – that a few crumbs are left and then hidden. Such is the nature of dead writing and diluted speech.

Note. The Saussurian use of symbols is basic to the theory that professors of journalism depend on when they put on their post-structural hats to claim that all truths are relative and depends on who has power. The insight that Median symbols are needed to make story come alive is what the good senior coaches of journalism must rely on. Deans of journalism schools ought to take notice. And may God help the students to learn the difference and put their faith in George Herbert Mead. (On Meadian and Saussurian Symbols.) End of note.

Effective journalism is helpful. It strives to minimize the efforts required of the receivers of its messages. Thus it tells one story at a time under one heading. What experienced editors know and media research confirms is that multiple tracks in a story tend to distract and confuse readers of a paper, and particularly listeners to radio and viewers on television so they receive less of the information. Many times I wish editors would overestimate rather than underestimate their audience and allow more tracks in stories. But I am not a typical reader or viewer.

To the insiders in an editorial office, the chosen track, “the angle” signaled by a heading, is a conscious device to influence the audience. The “angle” is the last step in the long chain of selections that constitute the journalistic processes. The art of journalism is to make sure that life and reality remain when the journalistic process comes to an end at the moment of publication.

There is a German tradition of journalism that regards the ultimate task of the journalist to be to convey a Weltanschauung – a philosophy of life. Karl Marx, of course, worked in this tradition. There is a British tradition of seeing the mission of journalism as providing a good story – that is, news or a report with intrigue, drama and a sense of immediacy. There is an American journalistic tradition whereby the primary task is the exposé, or "muckraking" – divulging evils, misuse of power and the like. Journalism is not immune to the fickleness of fashion: for example, after Watergate the muckraking tradition was held in high regard.

Regardless of journalistic tradition there are three social norms in professional journalism: (1) "Be as objective as you can in reporting!" It is difficult to stem all your biases and your own philosophy of life but you can approximate this goal. (2) "Be balanced!" Let all sides of a controversial issue be heard, not only one. (3) Be fair! Be honest and not misleading about ideas, persons, and practices with which you (or the opinion climate in your editorial office) tend to disagree.

The second norm gives news media most problems. It tends to give minority views on an event or an issue the equal voice as those given to majority views, and lay views the same attention as expert views, and odd experts the same weight as main-stream ones. Moreover, it runs counter to the dictum of effective mass communication, i.e. to tell one story at a time under one heading and to stick to this chosen editorial angle.

An internal public opinion makes itself felt in the editorial offices and the studios of the mass media. It reverberates easily through the typically open landscape of news desks. It affects the process of news selection and presentation. The amount of self-censorship becomes considerable (Zetterberg 1992). Research into the opinion climate of editorial offices would more than anything I can imagine illuminate the mechanisms of media power. What we have so far of penetrating insights into this milieu comes, not from research, but from thorough American court proceedings in connection with libel trials such as Westmoreland versus the Columbia Broadcasting System and Sharon versus Time (Adler 1988). The title of  Renata Adler's book is Reckless Disregard, an apt summary of the opinion climate in the editorial offices at the time of these events.

The editorial office is actually an organization coupled to a larger media structure. So is the business office, with its managers and owners of the medium. The Chesterton thesis that "journalism is the writing on the back side of ads" indicates the importance of the latter. The Frankfurt School developed a critical theory that held that the business office sets the tone of the media content (Adorno 1991). In the main, however, these scholars ignored the fact that media studies deal with so called autopoietic subsystems (See Methodological Notes in the Appendices). Media owners may disturb editors, but cannot run their daily tasks.

Journalism and Science

Scientific knowledge and journalistic knowledge are both public knowledge that has to be open for public scrutiny. Journalism is ideally based on facts, but its methods of controlling facts are not those of science, not even notoriously loose social and cultural science. There are four important differences between journalism and science.

First and foremost, a scientist must publish his methodology, and, if asked, make his data available for other scientists. (If the information is sensitive and threatening to personal integrity there are usually ways of making it anonymous to all except the original researchers.) Scientific discoveries must be replicable (nachfollziehbar). Experiments in physics and chemistry can be replicated but historical events cannot. A variation of the German term, such as "aftercontrolable," is a more adequate to convey the scientific credo in the humanities and social science. Here references are made to all archival sources, and all original data, if any, collected specifically for the research are saved, and statistical or other choices of methods of data summaries and analyses are public.  

By contrast, journalists in the Western tradition do not have to tell or show anybody how their information was obtained, who or where their their sources are, and what work notes they have. Only an editor in chief or a legally responsible publisher can ask for this information, a privilege they rarely exercise. The credibility of journalism is therefore rightly seen as more precarious than that of scientists and scholars.

There is a big market for news and features, unknown to most readers and viewers. This makes for a second difference between the reward systems of journalism and science. Journalists can claim intellectual property rights, copyrights, to their products. Free-lance journalists survive on this market. The copyrights of employed journalists may be routinely assigned to their employer-media in return for salary and support, but they may be activated when texts or photos are sold to other media. With a good employment contract, the employed journalist then shares in the proceeds. 

A scientist, by contrast, gives up all economic gains from his discoveries and analyses in return for the honor of having his name to them. The order in which joint authors of a scholarly paper is mentioned indicates their relative contribution to the research. Whenever other scientists uses previously published findings in their work they must be acknowledged in footnotes or text unless they are part of textbook knowledge. This is not a required routine, nor common practice in journalism. 

Journalists may have by-lines so that they can build personal reputations, but they are not normally cited by other journalists who build on their stories. There is a somewhat greater willingness to mention the name of the original medium that first had the news, but not the name of the journalist. An informal honorific reward system does exist among journalists in an editorial office. Honor and prestige comes from having many contributions flashed on the front page or in the introduction of a news cast.

Third, a medium such as an established newspaper, magazine, or TV-network provides a monopoly area for its functionaries. An ever so qualified MD cannot write about health issues in his morning paper, at best he or she is interviewed by a medical reporter. The same is the fate of a most cited environmental scientists. Not only the elites in the life area of science are kept out of the monopoly space of journalists, but also the elites from other life areas. The most successful business executive is not allowed to write about his branch in a paper; the writing is done by business journalists who may, if luck has it, interview the most knowledgeable executives. The most knowledgeable military officer is not presenting the war news, a war reporter is. The public may write into the editorial dustbin called "Letters to the editors" but also here a journalist keeps the gate. The same is true for op ed pages; journalists are the gate keepers. This monopoly power by journalism over media space is at the time of this writing threatened by the Internet and its lone bloggers, a few of whom have obtained large audiences at a very modest expense. However, when a blogger closes his blog to comments from others he also has again created a little journalistic monopoly.

A fourth difference between a journalist and a scientist stems from the far-reaching specialization in science. A scientist knows a huge amount about his specialty and a journalist knows a little about many specialties and is often at a loss about the technical terminology of a scientific specialty. However, in the broad media of a daily newspaper or a all-round television network there is also a journalistic specialization, albeit much so less than in science. A brief experience I had as an editor-in-chief of a metropolitan newspaper confirmed this. A many-splendored society is like a big metropolitan newspaper. In its different pages or sections, a big daily paper mirrors and helps define and redefine a changing society. Here are pages about politics, economy, medicine, sport, entertainment, art, drama and literature, religion, and a page recording births, marriages, and deaths. These sections have different sub-editors; to a far from sovereign editor-in-chief they are known as his “space barons.” Each section of the paper has its own criteria and makes its own evaluations about what is worth publishing. No space baron possesses criteria that are applicable to all the others. One sub-editor cannot readily take the job of another without some retraining, not only about the new content but about a different way of evaluating this content for publishing.

The general, in the decades around the millennium shift has seen a widening shift between journalism and science. The movement toward so called "precision journalism" that works for more grounded knowledge from science is not gaining ground.

The great advantage of journalism over science is its speed, broad coverage, and its accessible and entertaining presentation, also of difficult topics. In science easy topics tend to be complex, as is well documented in the present text. The competition for discovery in science, however, is equally severe as the journalistic competition for news, but it is a marathon race compared to the 100 yard dash for news.

Journalistic practice has within its power to seduce and corrupt science and scientists. It does make a difference to a scientist when big media publish his findings and when the small peer-reviewed journals of his specialty do it. It is the latter that counts, but the former that fills the minds of people and of the scientist himself. One should be routinely skeptical of scientists who spill findings on threats to health and environment to big media before they have been accepted for publication in their own journals.

The Right to Know

Both scientists and journalists have claim to the right to know and publish.

A justification commonly heard in mass media (Row L in the Table of Social Realms) is "the public's right to know." This is not a justification to publish anything. It is generally agreed that a democracy depends on transparency of the state. The media in a democracy shall report all that the state does and all that the states neglect to do. Then you have an informed electorate capable of deciding whether a government shall get new mandate or be forced to leave office. But note that the reverse is not true. Citizens have the right to a private zone. A civilized government has no general right to enter the private zones and register the doings and conversations of citizens. The duty of the government is rather to uphold the right to such a private zone. We will return to this in our discussion of

Do media have a general right to spy on people under the umbrella of "the public's right to know?" when the state has no such right? No, that would make media a non-democratic agency in a democracy. Are media exempt from the general prohibition to invade personal privacy? No, of course, not. To plant a journalist as a mole or spy in an organization or network to be reported on cannot be a policy in a civilized editorial office. Such "walraffing" may be a case of civil disobedience by a professional author who is prepared to take full legal responsibility. In a civilized society, amateurs who find or explore wrongdoings can report them to professional journalists working in a serious news group, and expect that they remain anonymous. Laws on freedom of the news media should protect journalist from having to reveal their sources to authorities, and laws shall prohibit authorities to investigate journalists' sources. Unfortunately such laws are not in place in all democracies.

Also important to clarify: do mass-media (or bloggers) in a democracy have the rights to enter uninvited into non-political parts of society such as family life, scientific laboratories, artists' studios, business boardrooms, worshipping congregations, or voluntary associations with a moral agenda. In principle, the answer in a civilized society must be No; media, like all others, need an invitation to be allowed to enter such non-political realms and particularly non-political private spheres. When media in a democracy enter non-political realms, they do well to have familiarized themselves about the values of these realms of society, a topic sadly neglected in journalism training.

A case history from 1914 is worth a study. A Parisian socialite and wife of a politician, Henriette Caillaux, shot dead the editor of Le Figaro. The paper had published a letter with allegations, not only about her husband's politics, but with details about her own adultery which had no political relevance. She admitted the killing, but was not held guilty of murder by the Court.

You may take photos and videos and make drawings of anybody who is in a public place. This is not illegal, but there may be something uncivilized about a rushing paparazzi crowd of photographers getting pictures of a celebrity who happens to be in a public place. (Some democratic countries impose restrictions on crowding that disturb the public; this could make some paparazzi behavior an offense.) Of course, if and when a celebrity poses for a photographer, the two can make a contract about the disposition of pictures and fees. In several countries there are mandatory requirements imposed on photographers to have permission to publish unsolicited photos of celebrities, most regularly when the pictures are used in marketing, even in promotions of the picture-based magazines. 

The strictures on mass media to respect privacy clash with the press lords' right to make money. Justifications often clash this way in a modern society.