No More Stories

Journalists need to stop writing “stories” and start monitoring empirical consensus.

This is a bit of a rant, and it's about a topic that I’m not an expert on, but I do feel strongly about. So, despite the forceful language, please read this knowing that there’s still a fair amount of epistemic humility behind what I’m saying and I’m definitely open to updating my opinion if an expert on journalism or public policy were to have some compelling reason for the Chestertonian fence of the structure of journalistic institutions. Comments sections are the devil’s playground so I don’t have one, but feel free to reach out and if we have a fruitful discussion I’m happy to publish it here.

One of the things that COVID has taught me is that the concept of a “story” in the news media is a relic that needs to be completely re-thought. It is not suited to the challenges of media communication today.

Specifically, there are challenging and complex public-policy questions which require robust engagement from an informed electorate1. These questions are open-ended and their answers are unclear. What’s an appropriate strategy for public safety, for example? Should policing be part of it? I have my preferred snappy slogans in these areas but if we want to step away from propaganda for a moment and focus on governance, this is actually a really difficult question that hinges on a ton of difficult-to-source data.

For most of history, facts were scarce. It was the journalist’s job to find facts, to write them down, and to circulate them to as many people as possible, so that the public discourse could at least be fact-based; to have some basis in objective reality.

In the era of the Internet, though, we are drowning in facts. We don't just have facts, we have data. We don't just have data, we have metadata; we have databases and data warehouses and data lakes and all manner of data containers in between. These data do not coalesce into information on their own, however. They need to be collected, collated, synthesized, and interpreted.

Thus was born the concept of Data Journalism. No longer is it the function of the journalist simply to report the facts; in order for the discussion to be usefully grounded, they must also aggregate the facts, and present their aggregation in a way that can be comprehended.

Data journalism is definitely a step up, and there are many excellent data-journalism projects that have been done. But the problem with these projects is that they are often individual data-journalism stories that give a temporal snapshot of one journalist's interpretation of an issue. Just a tidy little pile of motivated reasoning with a few cherry-picked citations, and then we move on to the next story.

And that's when we even get data journalism. Most journalism is still just isolated stories, presented as prose. But this sort of story-after-story presentation in most publications provides a misleading picture of the world. Beyond even the sample bias of what kinds of stories get clicks and can move ad inventory, this sequential chain of disconnected facts is extremely prone to cherry-picking by bad-faith propagandists, and even much less malicious problems like recency bias and the availability heuristic.

Trying to develop a robust understanding of complex public policy issues by looking at individual news stories is like trying to map a continent's coastline by examining individual grains of sand one at a time.

What we need from journalism for the 21st century is a curated set of ongoing collections of consensus. What the best strategy is to combat COVID might change over time. Do mask mandates work? You can't possibly answer that question by scrounging around on pubmed by yourself, or worse yet reading a jumbled stream of op-ed thinkpieces in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

During COVID, some major press institutions started caving to the fairly desperate need for this sort of structure by setting up "trackers" for COVID vaccinations, case counts, and so on. But these trackers are still fit awkwardly within the "story" narrative. This one from the Washington post is a “story” from 2020, but has data from December 16th, 2021.

These trackers monitor only a few stats though, and don’t provide much in the way of meta-commentary on pressing questions: do masks work? Do lockdowns work? How much do we know about the efficacy of various ventilation improvements?

Each journalistic institution should maintain a “tracker” for every issue of public concern, and ideally they’d be in conversation with each other, constantly curating their list of sources in real time, updating conclusions as new data arrives, and recording an ongoing tally of what we can really be certain about and what is still a legitimate controversy.2