As a staff writer for New Yorker magazine and the current Dean and Henry R. Luce Professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Nicholas Lemann plays a major role in shaping the priorities that go into news reporting. Volume recently met with the journalist, educator and author to discuss just how news stories are told. He discusses journalism’s responsibilities in constructing news accounts and how that is evolving more generally within the media landscape. The principles of journalism Lemann advocates are described in his fascinating roadmap 'The Journalistic Method’, which accompanies the interview below.
Jeffrey Inaba: Fundamental to how we cope with crisis is how we understand it. And how we understand crises is through news narratives. Comprehension comes to us through how the story is told – by way of its stated context, problem or conflict, the people and events included and its subjects’ implied motives. To what degree is the narrative of the news considered or observed within the profession of journalism?
Nicholas Lemann: It’s very hard for non-journalists to accept [about journalism] that although narratives are incredibly important there is no process by which anybody sits down and says, 'This is the narrative, go follow it'. It’s a powerful, distributed process that’s very hard to explain exactly. Most people think that there’s this thing called 'the press' that decides on narratives for various reasons and imposes them on events. It’s a lot more complicated than that.
Much of what we do in journalism – not all, but much – is narrative. I’m not saying eschew narrative, but I am saying be more aware as you use narrative. Be aware of how it can mislead, be aware of these master narratives floating around, whether or not you’re being unconsciously drawn into them.
I started working with social scientists around Columbia and asked them, ‘To what extent can we as journalists apply some version of the scientific method?’ For the class I teach we show some examples of these narratives or framing devices that get so absorbed into your head you may not even be aware of them. If you’re aware of this tendency you check yourself instead of falling into it. I’m proposing the Journalistic Method as a new way to practice journalism. It’s a methodical and rigorous process.
JI: What are examples that approximate the Journalistic Method?
NL: No one’s ever seen this except my students, but George Orwell at his best employed the Journalistic Method because he’s saying 'I am not accepting the received wisdom at the moment in my world, and instead I am trying to see things in a completely different way.'
Talene Montgomery: In the piece you wrote in April for the New Yorker titled 'Paper Tigers’, you talk a lot about the storytelling of Pulitzer and Hearst’s age. How is that different than the shorter news cycle reporting that is going on now?
NL: I’d say it's different in the particulars but not in the fundamental process. In other words, if you watch just CNN, which is fairly good and respectable, there’s a very powerful set of rules, unconscious rules. Ask yourself why what’s on CNN is on CNN.
If you used a Venn diagram to rationally and scientifically map what important events you would expect to see on an international news channel and then compared that to what actually is on CNN there would be some overlap, but not that much.
So what’s outside the overlap on CNN that wouldn’t be on your map? First of all, you’d see a lot of these narrative hook stories: a little girl or a cat falls down a well. That will be on CNN even though it’s not really of world importance. And that’s a good third of what’s on CNN, what we call 'human interest stories'.
Essentially what drives that is audience. They appeal to people because they’re human stories. That’s very much like the days of Hearst and Pulitzer – working in real time to get the largest possible audience for a journalistic product.
JI: In general how is this effort to attract audience through human interest stories balanced with the notion that the press reports news such as political events in the public’s interest?
NL: The press is, generally speaking, a commercial institution driven by audience-building imperatives, at least to some extent. So one could say, well, if you’re Hearst or Pulitzer or Fox News or whoever and you’re trying to build the largest possible audience, then the decisions that build the largest possible audience are in the public interest, since more of the public are coming to your publication – that’s the proof.
That’s generally not the way the term is used.
What journalists are supposed to do is follow the commercial imperatives up to a point and then set them aside and serve the public. But what that really means is: 'operate according to internally-generated professional principles which may or may not be right’. I think they are usually right, but calling them the 'public interest' is a little tendentious because there was no mechanism for the editor of The New York Times to consult the public and decide whether it’s in the public’s interest. It’s what he thinks is most important. But we in journalism tend to cloak ourselves in the public interest and say that journalism’s a public trust and that is where we get squishy conceptually.
JI: Is it a foregone conclusion that the professional model of reporting has gone by the wayside and that the many-to-many participatory model of news and opinion sharing is replacing it for financial, social and technological reasons?
NL: It’s all in play. Journalism is in a very dire situation. The old distinction in journalism between news and opinion is useful. This participatory style works better in the realm of opinion than for news. There have been many claims made online over the last few years that news – the actual gathering of information, assessing its importance and considering its presentation – could be done through, as one of my web guru friends calls it, social production, where social production refers to a good being produced by a large distributed network of people without any money changing hands.
It’s the idea that in aggregate the function of journalism is not to produce information but to produce the flow of information. And more information would come out if you didn’t have journalist 'gate-keepers’. The view is that journalists are 'discourse-restricters’, not 'discourse-enhancers’. And I just don’t believe that. But that’s where the debate is now.
JI: You’ve discussed reporting by CNN and The New York Times. Are there significant differences in telling a story on TV compared to in print?
NL: There’s always a focus on the White House, which actually is important, but it also works on TV because it fits with the narrative nature of journalism because there’s a character. It’s very hard in conventional journalism, particularly television, but even print, to deal with issues that are incredibly important if they don’t have a person attached to it. So if you’re covering the White House you can fairly seamlessly move back and forth between the Obamas’ dog and Chrysler going bankrupt because it’s got a narrative frame. If the Federal Reserve or the FDIC does something that fundamentally changes the lives of millions of Americans, it’s incredibly hard for television to cover this.
JI: Because there isn’t a character we already know to establish the plot?
NL: Exactly. The White House is kind of like an ongoing family drama, especially now. It’s a TV show and there are characters who deal with things.