BGF Leader Series: Thomas Patterson

(BGF) – On December 5, 2013, Boston Global Forum Co-founder and Harvard Kennedy School Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press, Thomas Patterson, sat down with Boston Global Forum’s Tuan Nguyen and Jonas Brunschwig in the inaugural installment of the BGF Leaders Series. Professor Patterson spoke about his new book, Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism. In Informing the News, Professor Patterson addresses American journalism’s current need for a deeper, stronger knowledge base. According to Prof. Patterson, journalists lack knowledge and expertise in the subject matter on which they report. Consequently, journalists in the American media have had to rely heavily on the knowledge of the policy makers and other experts they interview.

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To further illustrate the knowledge-dependence of American journalism, Prof. Patterson draws a distinction between the profession of journalism and professions in other fields, such as law and medicine. He asserts that as opposed to professions in those fields, journalism has no body of knowledge. Rather, it is a profession built on borrowed knowledge and the complex skill of story-telling . “[Journalists] are taught to gather information, put it together in a story and communicate it effectively,” says Prof. Patterson. “So that’s the longstanding tradition in American journalism—heavily dependent on sources and on what sources know.”

Several contemporary trends in politics and journalism have magnified the impact of knowledge-dependence in the American journalistic tradition, thereby highlighting the importance of deepening and strengthening the knowledge base of American journalism. Firstly, Prof. Patterson notes that there is a greater amount of spin in contemporary politics than we have seen in previous periods. As such, journalists have to become increasingly knowledgeable about the subject-matter they are reporting on in order to be able to discern the validity of information they obtain from their sources. Secondly, public policy has experienced tremendous growth in terms of complexity. The increasing complexity of public policy makes it imperative that  journalists increase their subject-based knowledge so that they can provide thorough and accurate reporting. Lastly, Prof. Patterson cites the myriad of news sources that are now available to the public, the number of which has grown exponentially compared to decades past. These new outlets have aimed to attract attention, instead of informing and edifying the public.

Further expounding on the media’s focus on attracting attention rather than informing the public, Prof. Patterson noted that it is of the utmost importance to strike an appropriate balance between simplicity and complexity in international reporting. In this regard, Prof. Patterson admits a need for simplification for a wide American audience. However, he says, “the simplification occurs in the story. The simplification does not occur across the range of stories that are used to cover a particular area of our public life.” As an example, he mentions news coverage of Africa often being negative – covering war and disease – because that is what captures people’s interest. Unfortunately, what it leads to is a simplification of larger issues.

Relatedly, Prof. Patterson sees Boston Global Forum’s 2013 issue of Minimal Standards for Worker Safety as an example of journalism’s problematic tendency to report on issues only after instances of disaster or scandal. As he notes, labor experts are hardly present in any newsroom, while economic and business reporters are growing in number. Furthermore, Prof. Patterson argues “we don’t have enough reporters who know enough about labor to bring that issue to us in a full way.” Had the media devoted more attention to the issue of worker safety and rights earlier on, the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh may have been prevented.

Given the need to deepen and strengthen the knowledge base of American Journalism, in light of the aforementioned contemporary trends, there must be key changes in both the newsroom and the classroom. According to Prof. Patterson, a key change that must occur within the newsroom is the need to have people who can not only tell a story, but also possess solid knowledge of the subjects related to the stories they tell. Moreover, journalism education has to evolve so that students learn a body of knowledge in addition to the traditional methods of observation and reporting.

Additionally, in order to break from the journalistic norms that prevent a broader base of issues from being reported, Prof. Patterson suggests that journalists remove themselves from cities such as New York City or Washington, D.C., where many journalists congregate and report heavily on the problems of politicians and business executives. With better training, journalists could apply a broader lens on their reporting and break from traditions engrained in the profession, with the goal to make journalism more democratic over time.

Looking forward, there is little evidence that news outlets will publish more knowledge-based reporting. However, “there is strong evidence that weak reporting is bad for business,” says Prof. Patterson. Weak reporting and “info-tainment” might not be bad for news outlets in the short run, but in the long run people will begin to look for alternate sources of news. According to evidence, longer, better-informed stories tend to have greater longevity on the Internet. Moreover, we must be patient with the transition towards knowledge-based journalism, as it will not occur overnight. Many of the necessary changes discussed by Prof. Patterson are structural changes within the tradition of American journalism that will require a long-term time horizon in order to realize.

As for social media, Prof. Patterson sees it as an overrated component, lacking the ability to truly inform people. Given the knowledge deficiency Prof. Patterson sees in journalism, he believes the average person sharing stories on social media is even less equipped to serve as a reliable source for information on current affairs. However, social media does better at engaging, energizing, and mobilizing people to form communities than traditional media.

When prompted on his next research project, Prof. Patterson mentioned an interest in working on the restoration of the center of American politics against the current level of polarization. His interest is not in deliberate efforts that fuel polarization, but rather, in the unintentional things that the news media does that fuel polarization.