The danger of journalism that moves too quickly beyond fact

The best thinking about journalism’s future benefits from its being in touch with technology’s potential. But it can get in its own way when it simplifies and repudiates the intelligence of journalism’s past.

That is happening, to a degree, in a discussion gaining momentum lately that journalism should now largely move beyond fact gathering and toward synthesis and interpretation.

The NSA story is just the latest case that shows the importance, and the elusiveness, of simply knowing what has really happened.

In a Nieman Journalism Lab post, Jonathan Stray made the case recently for moving beyond facts, or what might be called The Displacement Theory of Journalism. “The Internet has solved the basic distribution of event-based facts in a variety of ways; no one needs a news organization to know what the White House is saying when all press briefings are posted on YouTube. What we do need is someone to tell us what it means.”

In their manifesto on Post Industrial Journalism, C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky argued something similar, though more inclusively. “The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation, bringing sense to the streams of text, audio, photos and video produced by the public.”

We need to be careful with our language. Technology has not “solved” the problem of knowing the essential facts of public events. We need journalists to do more than bring sense to the streams produced by the public. The act of monitoring powerful institutions is messier and more complex than that.