STIGMERGY: The C4SS Blog
Missing Comma: Informing The Public vs. The Knowledge Problem

Initial thoughts on “Informing the News”

I recently picked up a copy of Harvard journalism professor Thomas E. Patterson’s latest book, “Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism.” One of the things that immediately interested me about the work was its thesis, that the cure for journalism’s current “crisis of confidence,” as Patterson refers to it, lies not in the hands of independent and citizen journalists, but in the currently-existing journalist class reinventing itself in the image of “knowledge-based journalism.”

The other thing that spurred me to buy the book was that Patterson devoted an entire chapter of this book to what he refers to as the knowledge problem. By name alone, this should be immediately familiar to anyone who reads C4SS or Austrian economics. Patterson isn’t referring to Hayek’s main thesis in his 1945 essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” but that thesis does shine through in areas.

“Journalists are asked to make too many judgments under conditions of too little time and too much uncertainty for the news to be the last word,” Patterson writes, preceding a quote by early-20th century journalist Thomas Lippmann. “’When we expect [the press] to supply a body of truth, we employ a misleading standard of judgment. We misunderstand the limited nature of news [and] the illimitable complexity of society.’”

Compare to Hayek in “The Use of Knowledge In Society”:

The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form, but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.

Patterson goes on to explain how, in his view, journalists are nearly the only professionals whose field does not sit on a substantive knowledge base, which he defines as “established patterns and regularities organized around conceptual frameworks or theories.”

He writes, “Knowledge is more than mere information or conventional understandings. It is systematic information.”

Journalists’ knowledge deficit does not appear to be a major concern within their profession. […] Yet the public has a sense of it. In a Freedom Forum study, journalist Robert Haiman found that although the public ‘respects the professional and technical skills [of] journalists,’ it feels that journalists ‘don’t have an authoritative understanding of the complicated world they have to explain to the public.’ […] ‘When it comes to a subject of more than average complexity, the truth in news often comes from outside of journalism. The news media, Lippmann argued, ‘can normally record only what has been recorded for it by the working of institutions. Everything else is argument and opinion.’

Again, from Hayek:

All economic activity is in this sense planning; and in any society in which many people collaborate, this planning, whoever does it, will in some measure have to be based on knowledge which, in the first instance, is not given to the planner but to somebody else, which somehow will have to be convayed to the planner. The various ways in which the knowledge on which people base their plans is communicated to them is the crucial problem for any theory explaining the economic process. […] The answer to this question is closely connected with that other question which arises here, that of who is to do the planning.

In my initial skimming-through of Patterson’s book, I found myself both agreeing and disagreeing with his overarching thesis. He’s right, insofar as there is a need for a journalism that can more succinctly serve the public with news that is more accurate and less prone to misinformation. But where he and we seem to disagree is that his answer to this problem lies in maintaining the current centralized structure of news media (despite the knowledge problems it inherently creates), rather than exploring the possibilities of a journalist class that includes as many people as possible sharing information in a stigmergic fashion.

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