Journalism and ego seem to go hand-in-hand. There are no end to journalism “talks” where groups of middling C-list reporters give speeches as if they knew something. I went to one of these called Did technology kill the truth — or set it free?, except the panel of alleged journalists did not talk about how to find truth, separate truths from lies, or whether technology actually killed it — but were patently obsessed with the number of hits their articles weren’t getting, and Chartbeat. It was all very sad, and, as usual, completely uninformative about the marquee topic.
If you are a journalist and have no idea about truth or even Truth, get out of the business. If you cannot muster five words about what truth is, and how your job entails you evaluating truths, you are a fraud. I wrote an entire book on the subject, and believe me, I could write volumes about it, and teach graduate classes in it. What is one little talk?
But there is one all-day talk about “Data Journalism“, and the phrase does sound oh-so-very impressive.
But what data journalism is, in fact, stampede journalism, and it reminds me of an episode that happened to me when I was writing about one missing women who was inadvertently photographed by one newspaper photographer at a Take Back the Night rally. I went to another such rally as I had a hunch that even though the missing woman would not be there — there would be people who made the annual trek and would have known her in some critical capacity. They wouldn’t tell me outright, but I could ask questions, and read facial expressions and body language to know certain avenues I could pursue.
The rally itself was not impressive. No financial advisers to show women in desperate financial constraints how to crawl out. No government agencies with any grants or funding for the dispossessed women. Not even a single self-defence trainer or lawyer on site to advise these women how to take back their nights permanently without having to depend on others to be their saviour. These were women who needed to have control over their own lives, and their circumstances were impeding that through no fault of their own.
As far as I was concerned, this rally was all a passive sham complete with a large parachute that women could play with, as if that would somehow make any constructive difference in their nightmarish existence. To say I was perturbed by what I witnessed would be an understatement.
The place was crawling with social workers and activists, however, with a few women bussed in to the rally. The second I came to the scene, I noticed one woman holding on to a tree for dear life, right in full view of social workers and activists. No one even noticed her.
I talked to her to see if she was okay. She wasn’t. She was having a panic attack because she had agoraphobia, all thanks to an abusive husband she left, but was in constant fear that he would hunt her down and kill her.
I am not a psychologist, but I promised I would stay with her as long as she needed someone. She let go of the tree, and I asked how she came there. She said her social worker talked her into coming, but then she couldn’t find her, explaining why she was so distressed. We went off to find a social worker to see if she knew where her absentee colleague went. She called her…and the no-show called in “sick” and had no intention of going there…without ever telling the woman about her change in plans.
So I stayed with her in the eye of a circus. As for my original intent, I could tell people knew things about the missing woman I was investigating, but they would not divulge, which is typical in the lives of abused women: everyone knows things, but always keeps silent on the most important things that need to be exposed (it would not be the only time where people had kept back things from me on the that story that I managed to find out all the same).
But in a crush of people purporting to be doing something important, they were absolutely blind in knowing what was actually happening right in front of them.
You have stampedes of people running around, and yet nothing is actually being accomplished, even if people are running around, believing they are doing something that is saving them.
Data journalism sounds impressive, and big picture, yet it is neither. It is about missing grains, while purporting to catch every one. It is not a strong method of collecting flawed data.
It makes assumptions about the quality, veracity, reliability, and validity of information-gathered, and I can tell you as someone who worked as a journalist that people are not always forward with truths or facts — or even have the ability to see the facts that tell them that the truth is that their reality is not what their narrative is.
That fateful rally was a perfect microcosm of all the things wrong with data journalism: you cannot coldly gather information; you have to walk inside that data, looking for more than just sanctioned patterns. What it fails to take into account that it is not the quantity of data, but the subtle and tiny signs that actually tell a story or house within it a deeper truth. Big numbers bury important truths, and often unscrupulous con men deliberately use the big to cover up the small signs that what they are doing is a dangerous scam. Ponzi schemes thrive on the dynamic. Bad scientific experiments do, too.
We have even seen how political polling is all about data, and yet can no longer accurately predict the outcomes of elections.
And no matter what kind of data you have, unless you are out in the fields and trenches, seeing things up close, you have no clue what anything means — and that means we can get to the truth without big data — but we cannot find it without being a witness to our surroundings.
Journalists have decided to hide behind their smartphones and laptops, and that is not actual journalism. They conduct email interviews. They scour databases.
But the legwork — the movement in the actual environment — is what gets you to your actual destination.
Data journalism is about using secondary sources — something at least once removed from the truth, and not as reliable as journalists assume that it is. It can be a starting point, but I have yet to have secondary sources be a reasonable facsimile of the truth. I have read court transcripts of criminal trials, for instance, and then went to verify facts from it — and the picture presented during the case from both sides was never anything near to the truth of that reality.
Journalism, despite the blessings of technology, has to get as far away from technology when doing the work of finding out the reality of a situation, and then determine the truths slumbering within them.
You can see the corruption of data journalism has had on the actual product in the #MeToo story that has now dragged on too long on the “Who’s Next?” leg segment. By now, that part of the story should have evolved into several other avenues of inquiry.
But it is the habit-induced obsession of big data that is hampering the progression of this story. It is now stuck in a peculiar rut because headhunting is easier to do than look at various angles, forming theories, and then finding information that confirms or refutes a hypothesis.
That critical window has now passed.
Because a big picture obsession has blinded reporters from seeing the tiniest of grains that can bring down a mountain of facts.
A stampede can serve as a perfect cover and misdirection because people see a big threat, when that is not the actual problem.
It is the tiny whispers that often reveal the truth and reality.
But journalistic ego always gets in the way.
Data journalism sounds like something important with gravitas.
No, it is just another way of seeing everything except the very grain that matters the most, and it goes a long way to explain why journalists could never see the obvious of their own profession, or why they lost their way.