American Culture

‘Journalism-as-process’ needs an overhaul

Speed-induced error, lack of definitive sourcing, problematic context always a risk

The emergence of “journalism-as-process” thinking continues to annoy and confound me. Elsewhere at S&R, my friend and colleague Brian Moritz explains its impact in sports journalism. While I appreciate his take on its application in the LeBron Sweepstakes Story, this “process” continues to impress me too often as mere Twitter bait.

Incrementalism breeds error. And not necessarily a highly visible, dramatic error. Often, it’s the absence of information that breeds error of interpretation and story sequencing. If readers and viewers miss part of the “process,” they may take in the story missing earlier fragments. That leaves them, in effect, erring in understanding the story. So does speed degrade accuracy — beat everyone else to the tweet. One only needs to dig into the history of AP vs. UPI to see that.

Does “process” effectively and rigorously sort out hype and the quest for hits and ratings from substantive facts? In the LeBron story, what facts — yes, real facts — emerged in the “journalism-as-process” approach? It’s a simple story: Will he stay in Miami or will he return to Cleveland? Yet ESPN and sportswriters everywhere milked that simple equation for hundreds of hours of airtime, thousands of tweets, and at least two or three column inches in real print newspapers. (Yeah, that last phrase is sarcasm.)

“Journalism-as-process,” this incrementalist style, often shortchanges the folks who are presumably in this “two-way conversation.” For example, in the other, less odious NBA potential trade story, an ESPN reporter stood in front of a camera and breathlessly based 30 seconds of airtime on this statement: “I just talked with a friend of Carmelo’s.” As if that’s enough.

Speed and the brevity of Twitter often leaves us with little more than “A source told me …” We are entitled to know who the source is, why the source is credible, and whether the source has an agenda that may influence what the source is selling. Incrementalism — a story told over time in brief little snippets — is often manufactured hype whose origins are unknown.

Since the origins of routine Internet use by millions of people, this notion of “two-way conversation” has been sold to us as the future of information dissemination. Journalism, we are told, has a broad, blank canvas on which both producer and consumer can write. Consumers would be able to talk back at (rarely with) the producer of information. Well, really. How often does that effectively happen? I reply to a journo’s tweet from time to time — but no way in hell is that a conversation.

“Journalism-as-process” is not new, either. It is as old as war. Correspondents in wars have always been forced to tell the story of conflict a small piece at a time. I am loathe to equate today’s version of sports journalism with the enormous difficulty journalists have in conflict coverage. True, Twitter has been enormously helpful in allowing journalists to tell us and show us the horror they have witnessed. Similarly, those affected by war — the innocent thrust in harm’s way — have found a voice to share their pain.

As a form of storytelling, “journalism-as-process” assumes readers and viewers will, in fact, consume all the little bits fed into the digital public sphere. It assumes no one will miss a nuance, a fragment, or the thread that holds the “process” together. Sorry — I don’t have the time to devote that many hours to sports stories that are, as Brian wisely explains, controlled by the LeBrons of the world.

Meanwhile, as so much energy is devoted to pursuing a story with the “journalism-as-process” approach, what other stories go undeveloped? In the weeks of LeBron and Carmelo “indecision,” how much effort went into stories explaining how the players’ decisions would determine economic gains and losses in NBA cities? How visible were those stories?

Yes, there are some sportswriters who are very good at this work, ones who rarely err. (I know. I taught some of them, and I’m proud of them.) And yes, much of “journalism-as-process” is driven by both the availability of instant dissemination of “facts” and the audience demands for same. But too much of this approach is practiced by writers who may have never learned to tell a story well in the first place, let alone in fragments over time.

A well-reported, well-told story does more than inform. It can illuminate humanity in ways that a series of tweets cannot do as effectively. (I note a brilliant exception: the photo tweets from Gaza by William Booth of The Washington Post. Yes, photos are powerful. But often their immediacy requires more context.)

So just send me a tweet with the link when the story’s finished. I don’t need or want all the steps in between.

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