By Steve Byers
Philip Meyer — the guru of precision journalism — gave a talk in October to an Austrian conference. I was derelict in my duty, so I just got around to reading it. Not only should I have read it last fall, but I should have made it required reading for my classes. It’s published by Nieman Reports, and you should read it, too.
Meyer links two major strands of journalism: the precision journalism field in which he was so important and narrative journalism, the field of Gay Talese and Truman Capote and Mike Royko and Jim Stingl. And, I would add, so many digital storytellers today.
Journalism feeds on facts, and the Internet culture makes facts available to us in such a stream that the need for journalism — for mediation — is more important than ever. As Meyer said, “Instead of replacing journalism, the Internet is creating a new market need: for synthesis and interpretation of the ever-increasing stream of facts.”
We need structure to see “the truth about the facts,” as he quoted from the 1947 report of the Commission on Freedom of the Press led by Robert M. Hutchins.
One takeaway from the talk: “Precision journalism borrowed the tools of science. Narrative journalism was based on art. In their early stages, these two approaches seemed to be in conflict. My argument today is that, in the 21st century, we should consider the possibility that we need both.” He couldn’t be more correct.
The Internet gives us the capability of offering any story in any fashion. The facts are there, but we sometimes lose track of the need for organization, context, telling a story. What the two strands of journalism have in common is recognition that raw data require structure to be made coherent.
There’s more, much more, but this single point makes the case for journalism and journalism education.
Steve Byers is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism at Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communication.