The Poynter Institute
ran an interesting piece by Charles Peters
, founder of The Washington Monthly and president of a foundation called Understanding Government
, a self-described "nonprofit foundation dedicated to improving the performance of the executive branch by helping journalists do a better job of covering it."
In the article, Peters announced that his foundation is offering a $50,000 prize for the best example of preventative journalism
- "reporting that identifies inept leaders, wrong-headed policies and bureaucratic bungling before
they lead to disasters like the bad intelligence about WMDs and the travesty that was the response to Katrina," as he puts it.
Peters essentially argues - and I'd have to agree with him - that most journalism is reactive. Some situation happens that is calamitous, and the reporters then swarm out to paint a picture of what happened. Journalists are fixated on drama and conflict, which is understandable to some degree, because they are elements of good story telling. But the writers don't then take any responsibility for not having covered the topic before, and certainly not after. They think they've already "done" the story.
But they haven't. I think "preventative journalism" isn't the best phrase, either. That carries some supposition that you are checking the health of something, know what constitutes problems, and will fix the issues. It smacks of the superior "We know what's good for you" attitude that journalists too often get.
Furthermore, reporters often have little understanding of the topics they cover. A phrase I've been using of late is the journalism of understanding. The point isn't to chase the story as it runs ahead, but to understand the systems - whether government, business, legal, or societal - and to grasp the conflict of factors and forces. You let the system and the people involved with it tell you what the stories are, and then you report on them.
In this approach, the stories are often not so black and white. For example, I have a piece coming out next week in IP Law & Business
about some serious issues in management of the US Patent and Trademark Office. Many involved in the intellectual property industry are saying that management there has become too political. Yet that's too easy a story by itself. Try to understand the situation, and you find many pressures and that management, Congress, those filing patents, and established conditions all have varying degrees of fault.
When you try to understand a situation, you're not just looking at what people are doing, but why they do it. Suddenly, you start losing the good guy/bad guy approach. Yes, some people may be doing something poorly or even acting in a morally questionable manner, but you start losing the accusatory edge and start gaining some empathy for what all are going through. That isn't to say that you become an apologist - far from it! Instead, you try to show how things got to a given point and what it might take for them to change.
The big difference, I think, between ordinary journalism and the journalism of understanding is that the former really focuses on physical issues - what
was involved, and how
did A cause B. The latter focuses more on the why - the question Peters emphasizes as well.
The why causes you to look at all other questions differently. Asking how something happened doesn't stop at a recitation of current physical details. You have to see the route things took to get to where they are. Apply why to what - the levels of profit that Enron appeared to show early on - and you start questioning the quality of the numbers. Apply why to reports of WMDs and you ask the common sense question of whether everyone really did agree on their existence.
Finally, there is a difference between asking questions to get information to fit into a story formula, and asking questions because you want to understand something. The latter is more open ended. You aren't checking off a list and getting what you need for a story that is essentially already written except for the specific details. Rather, you are wrestling with concepts and coming to an understanding that dictates the story. And when you work from understanding, you become less machine-like and more human - which, I think, is the real point of journalism (and writing in general) anyway.
Labels: Charles Peters, journalism, Poynter, prevention, understanding