Hard-Pressed

December 10, 2013
By Christina Pazzanese, Harvard Gazette

The fact is, that the public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands. — Oscar Wilde

Gripes about the dismal prospects of the Fourth Estate are probably as old as the printing press itself. News consumers are uninformed and ill served by journalists who focus on the superficial, too often delivering a narrow and inaccurate portrait of the nation’s public affairs, protesters typically declaim.

Pioneering journalist and scholar Walter Lippmann, Class of 1909, was an early and influential critic of the press. Writing in 1919, he said newspapers are “the bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determines its conduct. It is the only serious book most people read.” And as such, Lippmann posits, journalists have a sacred duty to distinguish for citizens what is news and what is truth.

Now, using Lippmann’s critiques as his guide, Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), has lobbed a philosophical hand grenade at today’s moribund news business.

In his finely researched new book, “Informing the News,” Patterson catalogs the historic and systemic problems facing journalists concerning information, sources, knowledge, education, audiences, and democracy, and urges the profession to blaze a new path toward what he calls “knowledge-based journalism.”

“In some ways, it amazes me some of the things that have fallen through the cracks in journalism,” said Patterson in an interview. “It’s an old problem, but I think there’s a new urgency.”

With the proliferation of people and organizations claiming to provide news in the digital age, the public is inundated with information, but little guidance to distinguish what is useful and trustworthy. While journalists are still the best positioned to provide trustworthy information, Patterson says, increasingly they aren’t equipped to do the job properly.

“You would like journalists to function like a profession,” said Patterson. “Professions tend to run off of specialized knowledge that gives the professional the leverage that’s different, and makes them special in dealing with that situation compared to the layman. But when you look at journalism, there’s no knowledge base that underpins journalism.” read more

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Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government

Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government

Photo Credit: Justin Ide

“In some ways, it amazes me some of the things that have fallen through the cracks in journalism."