IN 2000, U.S. PUBLIC HEALTH AUTHORITIES declared measles eliminated. That was tremendous cause for celebration: Measles is one of the world’s most contagious diseases and was once a major public health threat. It still is in other parts of the world. Before the measles vaccine, the virus killed roughly 500 Americans each year, left others deaf, and sent 48,000 to the hospital, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. But in 2015 a measles outbreak at Disneyland sickened 150, reaching seven states. And journalists are at least partly responsible for the disease’s return.
Why? Most people know about the fraudulent and thoroughly debunked claim that vaccinations lead to autism. That claim launched a movement of “all-natural” parents who refuse to vaccinate their children against measles and other infectious diseases. Many reporters covered the controversy with conventional journalistic “balance”: offering the quotes and claims of “both sides,” as if they were equally valid. But one side’s claims were based on facts, and the others on fraud: the false equivalence encouraged the anti-vaxxers. Meanwhile, research shows that reporting on a public health question as if it were a political controversy leads citizens to discount the science and take “their” political or cultural group’s point of view, while also breeding mistrust of medical professionals. In Orange County, California, where Disneyland is located, the vaccination rate was below 90 percent—and public health officials say that 95 percent is the level at which “herd immunity” protects the community against outbreaks and epidemics. Below that, risk increases dramatically because individual immunization is effective but not a guarantee.
Voila: measles outbreak.
That’s just one example of how our current model of journalism is failing civil society, according to Thomas Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard Kennedy School and acting director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. He’ll quickly offer you a long list of others. “Good public policy reporting can be some of the most difficult journalism,” Patterson acknowledges—and the consequences of failing at it can be deadly serious. In his 2013 book Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism, Patterson argues that Americans are profoundly misinformed—in part because far too many journalists, talk show hosts, pundits, and bloggers are misleading them, whether intentionally or not. He goes further, explaining that the fault lies in journalism schools and the profession’s norms, crafted a century ago, which offer inadequate training in covering complex issues.
At the Shorenstein Center, Patterson worked with then center director Alex Jones to launch an audacious attempt to transform those norms. Before reporting on any serious issue—public health, war and peace, environment, crime, education—they believe journalists should have a basic grasp of the factual, peer-reviewed research into that public policy topic. In 2008, the Shorenstein Center started planning a website that would promote knowledge-based reporting through case studies on journalism. That plan evolved into a dynamic website called Journalist’s Resource, which offers summaries of the most important research on critical public policy issues, on the understanding that democracy is best served not by shouting matches or fact-free opining but by a shared grounding in the facts. The goal: revamp journalism schools and transform the next generation in the profession so that before reporting on any public policy issue, journalists automatically ask themselves, What does the research say?
Journalist’s Resource emerged from a project launched by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation, says that journalists cannot meet democracy’s needs unless they become “knowledge professionals” who have “mastery not only of technique but also of content.”
Carnegie hosted a meeting focused on revitalizing journalism education in June 2002, and a product of that gathering was an expression of interest by the Knight Foundation in forming a partnership with Carnegie to work on the issue. In 2004, they commissioned a study by McKinsey titled “Improving the Education of Tomorrow’s Journalists.” While the report was complimentary about journalism education, the overall judgment was that a “crisis of confidence” had seized the discipline, and that journalism schools were not providing a solution to that crisis. It singled out the need to raise the degree of mastery that journalists bring to the field and the level of analytical skills required to explain a complex world.
The Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education was announced by the two foundations on May 26, 2005, and included four universities with journalism schools—Columbia, Northwestern, UC Berkeley, and USC—and Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Over the years, the initiative has added other universities and now totals 12. The Shorenstein Center has acted as its research arm.
Patterson was affiliated with the initiative in his role as research director of the Shorenstein Center and wrote four Carnegie-Knight reports: “Young People and News,” “Mandatory Testing and News in the Schools,” “The Internet and the Threat It Poses to Local Media,” and “Creative Destruction: An Exploratory Look at News on the Internet.” Research for Informing the News was also supported by the initiative.
Journalists are still being trained to rely primarily on the same tools that were enshrined in the early 20th century: interviewing and observing. Those may have been sufficient when what citizens most needed were eyewitness accounts of distant events. But today we are bombarded with firsthand information from cable, cell phones, webcams, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Would-be reporters are drilled in such basics as how to interview, observe, write, and structure a traditional news story—but not in covering the complex global issues that, more and more, bedevil our public policy. As a result, many reporters cover “all sides” of an issue by quoting anyone who has an opinion, treating speculation as the equivalent of research-tested knowledge. That harms democracy, resulting in citizens who lack the information to push their leaders to make smart decisions.
Technological pressures on journalists combine with intense financial pressures on the news industry. Speed has become a hallmark of the new age of reporting. Many journalism schools continue to function as trade schools focused on craft rather than professional schools that teach understanding. For instance, Patterson says, one standard newswriting course’s only required reading is the AP Stylebook, which explains form and ignores how to think about content.
Breaking into Journalism
Biannual meetings with journalism school deans and several years of research led to the idea for Journalist’s Resource: make it easy for journalism professors to teach both knowledge and practice by creating a central resource that would offer relevant knowledge online. “The idea was to select gold-plated research, solidly grounded in data and peer review, that speaks to the issues reporters are likely to cover,” Patterson says, “and turn that into a classroom resource.”
With funding from the Carnegie and Knight foundations, the Shorenstein Center hired Leighton Kille as a “web journalist.” Kille brought broad journalistic experience to the effort. He had worked at an alternative weekly in San Francisco and had covered general news and the arts at the Boston Globe and had been a managing editor. His undergraduate degree was in economics and computer science, leaving him comfortable amid statistics and research. And he had technical experience in setting up websites and production sites.
For two years, the Shorenstein Center worked to figure out exactly what reporters, editors, and journalism professors on the front lines of today’s news really need. The 11 journalism school deans and the two foundations also contributed their unique insights into what would be most useful.
In 2011, John Wihbey came to the project from WBUR, Boston University’s public radio station, bringing complementary skills that included familiarity with daily radio and newspaper reporting. Wihbey had been the new media reporting editor and deputy senior producer for “On Point,” and had worked as a reporter for the Newark-based Star-Ledger. Importantly for this project, he also had an MS in journalism from Columbia University. Wihbey’s social media skills opened the site to a much broader audience. Wihbey is assistant director and Kille is research editor.
“A project like this might not have had this sort of impact a decade ago,” Wihbey says, “but a combination of digital trends really helped accelerate its reach—from the rise of social media to the increasing openness of scholarly literature online.
It has long been a dream of the academic world to get more research in the hands of mass media and to reach the wider public, but until a few years ago, you just didn’t have the channels and delivery mechanisms.”
The site has grown enormously. It began with a handful of studies on climate change, grew to 300 policy studies by the fall of 2011, and had more than doubled, to 700, by 2012. Today, Journalist’s Resource has a research database of more than 1,500 scholarly articles, with summaries that distill more than 8,000 key studies across many disciplines. The website is on course to have one million visitors and more than 2.5 million page views this year. Journalist’s Resource was named one of the “best free reference websites 2013” by the American Library Association.
Syllabi, skills, and studies
Journalist’s Resource has three main parts: syllabi, skills, and studies.
Syllabi. Whether in basic news or feature writing or in specialized beats such as business, science, and politics, the syllabi cover the usual journalism fundamentals—and add units about how to seek out reliable research; to analyze and evaluate data, statistics, and research; and to put news in a meaningful context.
Skills. Today’s working journalists aren’t neglected: The skills section offers continuing education for those who seek to sharpen their reporting. Journalists have a (sometimes deserved) reputation as innumerate former English majors. The site shows them how to overcome math phobia and teaches basic research and statistical terms such as “regression analysis” and “selection bias.”
Studies. These lie at the heart of Journalist’s Resource. Every week, Wihbey and Kille sort through recent academic and governmental studies, selecting the most important and reliable ones to translate for reporters. “We want to offer access to relevant and actionable research, but we treat anything that has a public policy angle, from municipal issues to international development,” says Kille, whether it’s a currently hot topic or a perennially important one such as literacy. They hire Kennedy School MPP students to examine a study’s methods closely for rigor and reliability and to take a first pass at summarizing the findings. Kille and Wihbey edit those write-ups and link material to related studies in the database.
Atop posts about individual studies are meta-summaries, offering a wider view of the relevant research on a hot issue. For instance, with Uber and Airbnb lately in the news, one recent “research roundup” examined claims and critiques about the “sharing economy,” summarizing the key academic debates and studies on whether, say, Uber enriches or exploits its drivers, or whether it hurts or helps local economies and housing markets when Airbnb’s “hosts” sidestep local rules and regulations for landlords and hotels. The two staffers are meticulous about portraying its research findings neutrally, without expressing opinions about what conclusions should be drawn from those findings.
That’s useful both to journalism professors and to journalists now in the field. Today’s overburdened reporters simply do not have the time or the resources to master a body of research on each of the many subjects they must cover every week. Challenges include the ever-accelerating 24-hour news cycle; the avalanche of information available via the Internet and cable; and the collapse of newspapers’ traditional business model, leaving fewer resources for serious or analytic reporting. For them, it can be a boon to find careful summaries of the key issues. Melissa Eddy, Berlin correspondent for the International New York Times website writes,“Several of the studies have been very useful in helping me to better interpret the news… Health care and guns are two topics that immediately jump to mind.”
The site is also helpful in showing journalism teachers how to teach the ideal of informed public policy reporting. According to Mark Poepsel, a communications professor at Southern Illinois University, Journalist’s Resource is “taking the promise of social science and applying it in ways that are meaningful for journalists and journalism students.” Poepsel appreciates the help in getting journalism students to think about “backing up their claims with more than just a quote from a politician or some other official source.”
Wihbey and Kille spread the gospel of knowledge-based reporting in a variety of ways, attending conferences, posting on Twitter and Facebook, and sending out a weekly e-mail to 21,000 subscribers scattered across geographies and at every level of the profession, from small weeklies in Iowa or India to reporters at the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. Most traffic comes from general online searches when a topic is hot. After the Ferguson and Eric Garner protests began, the site’s post summarizing the research on race, law enforcement, and controversies over reasonable versus excessive force got more than 80,000 unique page views.
The Carnegie and Knight foundations have recently renewed their commitment with matching grants over the next three years. The Shorenstein Center is in search of more sources that will enable the website to expand. Patterson says, “John and Leighton are unbelievably dedicated to this. I can’t tell you how good they are. They wear all the hats: As researchers, searchers, writers, marketers, they’re doing it all.” More resources would make it possible to enlarge the staff.
Numbers aren’t the primary way the Journalist’s Resource assesses its place in the newest journalism wave. “In the past couple of years, there’s been a significant rise in explanatory journalism, with news sites like 538, Vox, and Wonkblog,” which focus on explaining our world by relying on empirically based research, Kille explains. “Clearly the public and policymakers have an appetite for facts. We feel we are part of a movement.” Kille feels proud of his part in helping reporters, readers, and policymakers “get used to asking the question, What does the research say?”
According to Alex Jones, “Journalist’s Resource has proven to be a hugely powerful tool for development of knowledge-based journalism, a better, deeper form of journalism, which, when published or aired, better informs tens of millions of Americans each year. The research and insights from Journalist’s Resource directly reach scores of thousands of working journalists, as well as journalism students and professors. This enormous resource has been created by two staff members at the Shorenstein Center and they deserve a tremendous amount of credit for their work.”
The goal “is to make reporting more accurate, more trustworthy, and more relevant so that you have an informed citizenry on important issues of public policy,” Patterson says. “I think that is of tremendous interest to every graduate of the Kennedy School.”