Introduction to “Journalistic Cultures of Truth: Data in the Digital Age.” (Forthcoming)

Introduction

After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile; seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire whether there might be some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else: whether, in fact, there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness.
— Spinoza, “On the Improvement of Understanding.”

Facts are simple and facts are straight / Facts are lazy and facts are late / Facts all come with points of view/ Facts don’t do what I want them to / Facts just twist the truth around / Facts are living turned inside out.
— Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless.”

 

In the summer of 2008, as I was completing my first round of fieldwork in the newsrooms of the struggling Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News (Anderson 2013a), one of the few Daily News employees who could code and I were discussing his vision for the future of the news industry. There needed to be a greater and more strategic use of newspaper archives, he told me. What’s more, he had a particular notion of how these archives might intersect with the place a story occurred.

Say you’re walking down the street with your iPhone or your mobile device. One of the things newspapers could do that no one else has the resources to do is to tell you the news story that’s happened recently at the very place you’re in. You could use geo-location for that. But that’s not all we could do. We could find a way to share every single news story that’s ever happened in a place by drawing on our archives. Say you walk into an intersection where a politician gave an important speech or there was a good restaurant or a famous murder. We could tell you that too even if it was 50 years ago. And we could link to the story. And we could sell ads off that too.

This radical vision of news reporting as drawing on structured data– the notion that journalism could live at intersection between static archives and dynamic, consumer-oriented location services– seemed radically new to me, and much different than the ideas I was hearing from other journalists in 2008. At the same time, however, many newsroom journalists were unwilling to engage in far more common digital-era practices such as linking out to other websites in order to justify their claims to factual knowledge. When quoting another website or noting a piece government data housed in an online archive elsewhere on the web, the journalists of 2008 seemed largely incapable of placing a <html=> tag in their news stories in order to send readers to that information via a hyperlink, something I had learned to do in 1996 when building my first ever college hosted homepage. Sometimes journalists blamed their content management systems (Anderson and Kreiss 2013), other times they claimed that the economics of the news industry mitigated against sending readers “away” from their news websites (DeMayer 2014), but in both cases there seemed to be a great deal of professional resistance to the idea of linking in news stories.

To my mind, what united both of these disparate pieces of evidence from the newsroom was that they both involved questions of what “objects of evidence” journalists considered to be appropriately truthful and journalistic (Anderson and DeMaeyer 2015). Was deploying a hyperlink in order to buttress an evidentiary claim something journalists ought to do? Should journalists integrate news archives and other forms of structured data into their stories? These questions, in turn, raised further questions of the materiality of journalistic evidence and the manner by which material affordances intersected with journalistic epistemologies and professional cultures to create patterned forms of news reporting. In other words, journalistic pretensions to knowledge (what journalists could claim “to know” about public life) were in part influenced by the way they assembled network chains of evidence to buttress particular notions of journalistic expertise—and there were material, epistemological, and professional elements to these network chains (Anderson 2013b).

In other words, journalistic pretensions to knowledge (what journalists could claim “to know” about public life) were in part influenced by the way they assembled network chains of evidence to buttress particular notions of journalistic expertise—and there were material, epistemological, and professional elements to these network chains (Anderson 2013b).

When “data journalism” emerged as the next big thing in news reporting in 2012 or so (Anderson 2013c) I naturally approached it in a way that was based on my earlier thinking about hyperlinks and news archives. Data journalism seemed to offer a plethora of new objects of evidence for journalists to consider–from large numbers of documents to statistics to online databases and data visualizations to structured information—and somehow integrate into their traditional reporting practices. What was more, many of these new evidentiary objects had an unusual materiality (particularly documents and databases) and made new epistemological claims (they were quantitative) in ways that challenged some fundamental reporting practices, practices which were still largely based on oral and qualitative evidence. Such, then, are the origins of this book, which proposes to analyze how “data” is (or is not) creating new “journalistic cultures of truth” and in turn changing how journalists understand objectivity and their professional role in public life.

Over the long genesis of this volume, I’ve concluded that there are four essential requirements if we are to properly understand the role played by data in news reporting, requirements that can be said to more generally apply to studies of news production and even other forms of non-journalistic knowledge creation. Our research must understand the materiality of evidence. It must consider the epistemologies of professional groups. It must be comparative; ie, it must go beyond journalism and compare journalism to other kinds of professional knowledge production. Finally, it must approach these materialities and epistemologies historically- it must consider how they change over time .

In the pages that follow, I discuss each of these four frameworks- comparative and historical materiality and epistemology—reviewing some of the most important literature about each of them, tying this literature into journalism scholarship, and demonstrating how these considerations play out over the bulk of the book. My goal here is to advance a framework for understanding journalistic (and professional) knowledge in the digital age. The final section of this chapter begins our descent into the history of American journalism, covering in short order the epistemology and materiality of news production from the colonial era in America until the end of the 19th century.

Anderson, C.W. (2013a) Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press

Anderson, C.W. (2013b) “What Aggregators Do: Towards a Network Concept of Journalistic Expertise in the Digital Age.” Journalism: Theory, Practice, Criticism 14(8): 1008-1023

Anderson, C.W. (2013c). “Toward a Sociology of Computational and Algorithmic Journalism.” New Media and Society 15(7): 1005-1021

Anderson, C.W. and Daniel Kreiss. (2013) “Black boxes as capacities for and constraints on action: Electoral politics, journalism, and devices of representation.” Qualitative Sociology 36: 365

Anderson, C.W. and Juliette de Maeyer (2015). “Objects of Journalism and the News.” Journalism: Theory, Practice, Criticism 16(1): 3-9

De Maeyer, J. (2014). “Citation Needed: Investigating the use of hyperlinks to display sources in news stories. Journalism Practice, 8(5): 532–541.

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