Good News: Principles of Good Journalism

12 Mar

If fake news—deliberate disinformation, not uncongenial news—is one end of the spectrum, what is the other end of the spectrum?

To get at the question, we need a theory of what news should provide. A theory of news, in turn, needs a theory of citizenship, which prescribes the information people need to execute their role, and an empirically supported behavioral theory of how people get that information.

What a democracy expects of people varies by the conception of democracy. Some theories of democracy only require citizens to have enough information to pick the better candidate when differences in candidates are material. Others, like deliberative democracy, expect people to be well informed and to have thought through various aspects of policies.

I opt for deliberative democracy to guide expectations about people for two reasons. Not only does the theory best express the highest ideals of democracy, but it also has the virtue of answering a vital question well. If all news was equally profitable to produce and was as widely read, what kind of news would lead to the best political outcomes, as judged by idealized versions of people—people who have all the information and all the time to think through the issues?

There are two virtues of answering such a question. First, it offers a convenient place to start answering what we mean by ‘good’ news; we can bring in profitability and reader preferences later. Second, engaging with it uncovers some obvious aspects of ‘good’ news.

For news to positively affect political outcomes (not in the shallow, instrumental sense), the news has to be about politics. Rather than news about Kim Kardashian or opinions about the hottest boots this season, ‘good’ news is about policymaker, policy-implementor, and policy-relevant news.

News about politics is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. Switching from discussing Kim Kardashian’s dress to Hillary Clinton’s is very plausibly worse. Thus, we also want the news to be substantive, engaging with real issues rather than cosmetic concerns.

Substantively engaging with real issues is still no panacea. If the information is not correct, it will misinform than inform the debate. Thus, the third quality of ‘good’ news is correctness.

The criterion for “good” news is, however, not just correctness, but it is the correctness of interpretation. ‘Good’ news allows people to draw the right conclusions. For instance, reporting murder rates as say ‘a murder per hour’ without reporting the actual number of murders or comparing the probability of being murdered to other common threats to life may instill greater fear in people than ‘optimal.’ (Optimal, as judged by better-informed versions of ourselves who have been given time to think. We can also judge optimal by correctness—did people form unbiased, accurate beliefs after reading the news?)

Not all issues, however, lend themselves to objective appraisals of truth. To produce ‘good’ news, the best you can do is have the right process. The primary tool that journalists have in the production of news is the sources they use to report on stories. (While journalists increasingly use original data to report, the reliance on people is widespread.) Thus, the way to increase correctness is through manipulating aspects of sources. We can increase correctness by increasing the quality of sources, e.g., source more knowledgeable people with low incentives to cook the books, increase the diversity of sources, e.g., not just government officials but also plausibly major NGOs, and the number of sources.

If we emphasize correctness, we may fall short on timeliness. News has to be timely enough to be useful, aside from being correct enough to guide policy and opinion correctly.

News can be narrowly correct but may commit sins of omission. ‘Good’ news provides information on all sides of the issue. ‘Good’ news highlights and engages with all serious claims. It doesn’t give time to discredited claims for “balance.”

Second-to-last, news should be delivered in the right tone. Rather than speculative ad-hominem attacks, “good” news engages with arguments and data.

Lastly, news contributes to the public kitty only if it is original. Thus, ‘good’ news is original. (Plagiarism reduces the incentives for producing quality news because it eats into the profits.)

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