Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Process Journalism?

There's been a minor squabble of sorts after a New York Times column probed the question of how to handle rumors. This was a perfectly reasonable approach to the question, but some in the blogosphere do not take kindly to even a hint of criticism (and really, it was just a hint).

There's this response, which is kinda reasonable though a bit misguided. And journalism prof/uber blogger Jeff Jarvis fired this somewhat less reasonable and a tad more misguided response. But Jarvis did point out something I found interesting, the dichotomy of product versus process journalism.

Now my gut reaction to process journalism is to ask: isn't that journalism that isn't ready to be published yet? Oh,and there's a good response to all this here that's worth reading.

Never mind the journalism side of this. While I'm a journalism prof this blog is not really so much about how we go about the business of finding stuff out than it is about the effects of the stuff we tell people about. What people know. In discussing this I am somewhat steeped in the deep literature of how people learn about politics and public affairs and the consequences of that knowledge (or lack of knowledge).

And so setting aside most of the blogorreah, let's go with the idea of process journalism, something that ebbs and flows, in which lots of people participate, in which thinly sourced material finds its way into publication because, dammit, someone may have possibly said it or at least thought about saying it, or maybe it is potentially true even if no one admits it. Let's assume this is a good thing (and I'm being a bit unfair here and I'm actually a little sympathetic to the notion).

What are the consequences?

My reading of serious scholarly work from social psychology, mass communication, political science, sociology, and a host of other fields that touch on how people learn and what they do with that knowledge suggests this kind of "reporting" is about as bad an idea as you can possibly come up with -- that is if you're worried about the consequences of your actions. If you're not, if you want to go with rumors that later turn out wrong because the system is self-correcting, then you fail to really understand how people process communication, how they make sense of the world. First we have all these filters that affect what we learn of the political and social world, and then we have the primacy/recency effect, and then we have selective exposure and attention and retention and memory that influence not just what we see or read, but how we use it inside our black box brains. Go with rumors? Sure, if you don't care about misinforming people who tend to remember that kind of information and not later information that fixes the problem you created in the first place. This also gets into concrete versus abstract information and memory.

The bottom line -- while there is fascinating potential in this kind of news, the consequences on real actual living breathing people are not good. We're not wired that way, and What Would Google Do is not going to change the way we process, retain, and use information.

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