Toward a Science of Journalism

A couple of decades ago, one experimental psychologist had written a journal article advocating for a science of propaganda (how to study it, not how to make it). His work fascinated me, as did the few others whose area of expertise was precisely understanding how messages manipulated and blinded people and when I was getting my undergraduate degree in psych at McMaster University in the early, 1990’s, I read every book and journal article I could get my hands on. There weren’t as many of them as you’d think and of those, not as were reliable and valid studies as some others.

I was studying how journalism could fall into the propaganda traps. That was my area of interest at the time and I studied how emotion, sophistry and even illusions and misperceptions clouded the gathering of facts, but it was during the final semester of my final year when I decided to take my research out of the academic halls and into the real world.

But far from abandoning the science, I opted to take it with me.

I was going to study journalism as a scientist. The world was my laboratory. I knew how to conduct a good study as I conducted them in a real lab complete with a sound-attenuating booth.

But this time, my study would take years.

What was wrong with journalism? That was the question and after a decade conducting my real-world experiments, I had the answer.

There was no science in the journalism.

And it desperately needed a form of science to make it stronger and more useful.

Journalists aren’t trained in experimental psychology and it showed. In fact, psychology and journalism are nearly identical fields: sisters, even, except psych had discipline and journalism didn’t. One reflects while the other reacts.

Journalism needs more discipline and reflection.

It needs more of a kind of science where the reporter is not bogged down by academia, but still has a solid, if flexible framework.

Journalism professors don’t conduct studies to help the ones in the field to do their jobs better and it shows. It is a profession without a spine of confidence. Anyone can write and spin a yarn. Not everyone can remember not to ask loaded questions during an ongoing crisis.

Some people have tried to do journalism differently, yet all they have managed to do is make an inferior form of it. Why? No science. We don’t need another undercover reporter who is blinded by ego and subjective folksy logic.

We need the journalist scientist going out in the field, conducting experiments, comparing and contrasting as she confirms and refutes facts. Learning how to do that responsibly takes years.

It is not about image or shoving your sophistry down another person’s throat.

It is about gathering facts and not letting your perceptions fool you.

Only when that happens, can journalism be reborn.

One thought on “Toward a Science of Journalism

  1. Very interesting perspective. I watch a lot of news and news related programs. I definitely agree with what you are suggesting with regards to making journalism more scientific.
    Many a time i have been watching 60 minutes and seen the story presenter lead on the interviewees to answer either loaded questions or answer questions more or less how the interviewer wants the questions answered.

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