Information needs people

I love Jay Rosen‘s formulation of a really important assumption for many journalism critics: Weak is the need for current information without a strong culture of participation.

So important.

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Seeing journalism as a niche product

One of the conclusions in Stealth Democracy is, to simplify, “some information is not necessarily better than no information.”

“Some information” means a few things, but one of them is the product of compromising on content to try to attract a wider audience. Think to when newspapers say “people are too busy to go to a jump page, so we’ll make it a ‘containable.’ That way they at least know something.” They at least know “some information.”

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse argue “some information” is harmful because, as they and others have argued, people make poor decisions in democracies when presented with incomplete information.1

“The conclusion “some information is not necessarily better than no information” has some potentially big implications for journalism.

For example, note the skepticism regarding the potential success of micropayment-funded journalism. Let’s say we’re right that many readers will run away if a news organization decided to start charging for content. To where will they run? If Stealth Democracy has anything to say about it, they will not run to the next site over to get news, or at least not news of much substance. They’ll run to someone who gives them TV listings and comics.

So, who’s left? To oversimplify (again2): People who care about what news journalists want to produce and who, hopefully, understand that producing that news comes with costs. These people understand that journalists (citizen, professional, extraterrestrial, whatever) need time to pursue the news and have to be willing to take on responsibilities to organize its delivery, presentation, etc.

I am not saying the community could not also help in all these processes (I would encourage it!), but I am saying this community may be made up primarily of like-minded people who, recognizing a social need and their having means to provide it, would be willing to compromise on a system of payment and responsibility necessary to provide that social need. If others outside of that circle wish to use it, fantastic. They’re welcome them into the group if they wish to join. But what interest would we, or should we, have in catering to them?

This could be a partnership. You have publication A for everyday, not-so-hard news, and publication B for people who want deeper coverage of events.

Publication B does not try to half-ass the news. It doesn’t offer “containables.” Because of its relatively small base of readers and funding, it can offer a deep relationship between reporters and readers/users (which can foster trust, also a good thing.) But publication A references publication B, saying “hey, someone wrote about this.” One line, one link to better coverage for people who want to know (do what you do best and link to the rest, right?).

How to monetize it? Good question. I haven’t a clue. I’m still not very good at thinking clearly about that.

:: late thought ::

The encouraging thing about the Internet is how easily this might — might — be possible. That’s why when I think about whether I’m too dismissive, I remind myself I also have an opportunity to overcome it with social networking tools and platforms.

:: related ::

Matt Thompson, of whom I’ve quickly become a fan, looks at this situation in a much more optimistic light. Worth a read.

:: notes ::

1. Lee Anne Peck has also argued against the mentality within journalism that praises act utilitarianism at the expense of asking “of what quality is the good created by our actions?” However, her argument addresses reporting practices, not necessarily output. You also could think of the times when newspapers name jurors, harming a good number of trials.

2. I keep saying I’m oversimplying because I want to stress I’m aware of when I’m doing so. The authors of Stealth Democracy make very clear their work is not conclusive, and I have no interest in trying to make it so. But I find the conclusions fascinating and, clearly, I’m interested in following them to see where they may lead when combined with more research.v

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Stealth journalism: What does it mean if people don’t want to – and won’t – engage in government?

Although most Americans like having the option to participate in government when they mood strikes them, they usually have no interest in becoming more involved. Most people aren’t interested in debate or policy.

Increasing the ability for people to meet with others to discuss issues does not result in better decisions, citizens who are more considerate of others, or increased citizen satisfaction in how decisions are made.

People would be OK with a government run by unaccountable elites so long as those elites were empathetic towards citizens and did not act for personal gain.

I just finished reading about these and other conclusions in Stealth Democracy, by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse.

To the extent the above are true — and the authors are quick to point out that their work is quite far from definitive — what, if any, are the implications for journalism?

I think there are probably many. But this book is becoming one where I think about it so much after reading it, everything becomes mentally cloudy. I’m sure in the future the book will come up, probably multiple times (I’m already formulating another post on it). Possibly in a late-night what-does-it-all-mean offering. For now, here’s something simpler, albeit still slightly incoherent.

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse offer the following reasoning for why Americans are continually dissatisfied with government:

• Most people will avoid confronting disagreement when possible
• Most people think everybody agrees on the answers to problems confronting their communities and country
• When people see politicians disagree, therefore, they feel it must be because there is some other interest (a corrupting “special interest”) affecting their judgment. Otherwise, because the agreement among citizens is so obvious, politicians would have taken action on those problems already

This is a rough sketch of their argument. There is much more nuance and empirical data to it.

Even within these outlines, though, is one way journalists can help address the situation as the authors describe it.* Simply put: Journalists can work to broaden perspectives.

One way journalists could help is by increasing the diversity of sources — of race, class, background, and viewpoint — in their work. But this sounds familiar. Journalists have been trying to improve on this for years (though they certainly have improvements they could make). Plus, just tossing more information into the fray runs straight into Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s argument that more information rarely helps the situation, no matter how well-constructed it is. Increasing the variety of reasons or sources for people to consider (or, in this case, getting people to realize those viewpoints exist in the first place) often degrades, instead of nourishes, a deliberation, they argue. I can imagine many people, such as, based on the interview in this book, Amy Goodman, would seriously take issue with this claim.

Yet one of the authors’ prescriptions for addressing Americans’ attitudes is increasing their awareness of the diversity of attitudes in their midst — thus attacking the second bullet point listed above, and undermining the assumption that it should be easy for politicians to formulate a plan of action.

So what can a journalist can do? Dedicate entire weeks of newspapers, or Web content, to introducing people to different theories? Move the editorial pages to the 1A? Create a new section of the Web site explicitly to promote diverse viewpoints (certainly you can find infinite numbers of them on the Web. Respectable ones, too).

But then don’t you run into another of Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s arguments: People don’t like debate conflict, and they usually become even more dissatisfied participating in contentious decision-making than they did before? Putting debate and disagreement into peoples’ lives has precisely the opposite effect from what we’d hope. They do not engage. They hit the TV listings.

It may be that journalists are simply out of luck. It may be the time to introduce people to diversity is only when they’re young. Possibly in college, when they’re removed from the atmosphere of their youth. At neither of those times, I am assuming here, do journalists bestow much effort on the young (and they’re not often paying customers, so why would they?).

But having missed the opportunity, perhaps they should not expect their well-written profiles and feature stories, or even inclusion of more voices on the Web, to do much for appreciating diversity.

* If, in fact, it needs to be addressed at all — an argument they would question, and one I’m thinking about a lot more now as well. Never mind the entirely separate argument one would need to say this is a journalist’s responsibility to worry about in the first place.

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