Monday, February 18, 2008

"Blackboxing" news judgment

Orson Scott Card's "Ender" series wouldn't be much of a story without a device known as "the ansible," a sort of sub-space radio that allows people to communicate instantaneously from planet to planet across light years of empty space. The story doesn't work without it... but how does it work?

Card's answer? It doesn't matter. The ansible is a black box: In science fiction terms, that means that it has rules, that it abides by those rules, and that so long as those rules are followed, the reader doesn't need to know how it works.

If you get right down to it, that sounds an awful lot like news judgment.

You'll hear a lot of people explain a lot of mysteries as "news judgment" as you go through your career. At its most basic, news judgment determines the difference between a strip "false-lead" and a two-column "news lead" and a bottom of the page "reader." New judgment sorts the daily budget into pages and categories, but it also illuminates decisions about photo placement, cropping, and the tone of headlines.

That's plenty, but we're still not done. Because our profession uses the "news judment" black box to determine more than story placement and layout. News judgment informs our decisions about what stories to cover and what resources they merit. News judgment tells us which voices to trust and which voices to ignore. Information goes in, processed news comes out. What happens in between is... well, as we say: Trust us.

Pause to consider this for a moment. We work in a profession that demands disclosure of interests. We discipline ourselves as reporters and editors to think in rational, restrained ways about competing versions of "truth." We demand that all information have a source, and that we know the source. We set aside what we think and suspect for what we can prove, and if anything in that reporting winds up being even trivially inaccurate, we will fall on our collective swords "because our credibility is all we have."

And at the end of all that work, we turn over all that we do... to a black box.

Is it really a black box? Of course not.

News judgment is one of the arts in what we do. It's supposed to represent the wisdom of our tribal elders, passed down by the generations. It's the pause before taking the bait, the long view in the heat of the moment, the experienced eye that see through the surface spin. News judgment is achieved in part by observing, in part by remembering, in part by reasoning... but it is also largely a function of sitting around talking and worrying. Even when traditional news judgment is done well, it's a messy, fretful process, much more sausage than steak.

But when news judgment is done poorly -- and it often is -- it makes a mockery of those noble intentions. Work in the business long enough and you'll encounter it: Sunday night editors who downplay a big story because they don't want to remake a page on deadline; top editors with hidden agendas they will never voluntarily reveal. Egos and office politics and fear and vengeance."News judgment" is our vague rationalization for all sorts of failures.

One of the cultural shifts that lies ahead of us can be compared to the shift from analog to digital recording. Old LP records -- the kind we listened to when I was a kid -- warped and hissed and popped, but they had a warm sound that digital music doesn't, and there were (and are) still those people who prefer it. But switching to digital music -- each note and quality assigned a digital descriptor instead of an analog wave -- opened doors to new possibilities: CDs, MP3s, downloads, etc.

We stand at that crossroads. There are things I love about our current way of doing things, but then again, I know that the way we do things isn't really a system. Moving ahead into the 21st century is going to require information systems that allow people to make multiple uses of the same data. The past is analog and opaque, the future is digital and transparent, yet we can't budge from this intersection. Why?

Three reasons:

Newsroom culture loves its analog myths: the hard-nosed reporter, the tough city editor, the cynical poet who captures the beautiful ugliness of life in a 20-word news lede, then heads off to the nearest bar to drink himself out of that terrible clarity. We are, so many of us, romantics at heart. Don't turn journalism into a digital representation of data, we say. You'll kill off the human factor -- and that's what really matters.

Then there's another, less romantic reality: We know that, despite all our claims to contrary, we produce a low-grade product. Call it the first draft of history, call it whatever you want, but ask yourself this question: Would you put a guarantee on it? What's the shelf life of what we write? How informed are our decisions? Demanding a systematic accounting for the messy daily miracle that is a newspaper will only reveal how non-systematic we are.

Finally, there's power. Senior editors and the people who influence them have the unchecked power to "make the news" in their own image, and for all their talk, they simply don't want to give that power away.

Twenty-first century journalism will differ from journalism practiced in the 20th century in numerous ways, but I predict the most significant change will be in the way we structure information and account for our decisions. Narrative was our primary tool in the past, but narrative doesn't scale. News judgment worked pretty well when the economics of information were based on scarcity, but it falls apart in an information market based on glut.

Newspaper journalists tell me you can't present the news by formula, that you can't grade information on its confidence. My answer to them? Horseshit. Google News is run by algorithms. Digg is propelled by user input. Intelligence agencies -- one of the models for our 21st century journalistic descendants -- routinely grade the "confidence level" of the information they process.

We're going to need all sorts of digital news products and systems, but none of those developments will matter if they're presented based on some black box called "news judgment." In a world where there's too much information and not enough time, trust will demand transparency and repeatability.

Does that mean we'll no longer have courageous editors who buck the system and do what's right? Or that reporters who tell insightful, moving stories will lose their value? Absolutely not.

Here's what I believe: Once we do journalism in the open, with open-source principles and ethics, we'll have a shot at regaining the credibility we lost over the last 30 years. And once the people learn to trust us because they can test us, they'll be able to see the value of that courageous editor and that insightful reporter.

All they see right now is a black box.