Can structured news reinvent archives and reimagine objectivity?
In earlier posts I have reviewed the long-term potential of structured journalism to make newsrooms economically sustainable, empower news consumers and future-proof journalism as a profession. However, journalism is not just another business. Its economic and market success is important not only to its shareholders, customers and employees, but also to society in general. Journalism, in different forms, is essential because it is the mechanism by which society informs itself and thereby improves itself through informed action. Structured journalism, as a fundamentally new paradigm of what journalism could be, has the potential to substantially alter that mechanism. It could change how journalism influences society and, therefore, change how society behaves. This potential may be the most consequential long-term outcome of a more structured approach to journalism.
Consider, for example, the difference between a collection of archived text articles and a repository of structured journalism accumulated in a database over many years. Large archives of text articles have not proven economically valuable for most newsrooms or influential for society. Useful access to journalistic archives is often only available through professional vendors such as Lexis-Nexus and Factiva, and the information content held within them often requires professional-level research to unlock. Although retrieving specific information like quotes, facts and dates can be done with relative ease using search tools, assembling a coherent and contextualized understanding of a complex set of events is extremely challenging and time-consuming. Such work is therefore rarely done except by motivated researchers investigating relatively narrow subject matter.
In contrast, retrieving coherent, contextualized information from a repository of structured journalism can be a relatively simple task, because the information content has already been identified, structured and organized at the time of reporting rather than at the time of retrieval. The sense-making process that situates news within its broader context is performed only once, when the information is produced, instead of each time the information is consumed. Structured information can therefore be explored with relative ease, enabling broader access to knowledge instead of merely broader access to archives of stand-alone articles.
This difference has profound consequences. Knowledge within traditional written articles cannot accumulate, and instead remain locked up within isolated documents without a meaningful connection to those documents that precede or follow them. In contrast knowledge formatted as structured journalism can accumulate over time into knowledge artifacts that are orders of magnitude larger than text articles. This ability of structured journalistic knowledge to accumulate removes the distinction between news and archive, making news from last week, last month or last year as accessible and coherent as news from yesterday. Structure converts rich, contextualized journalism from push media, like old-school TV, into pull media, like Netflix, so that a well-organized understanding of any story becomes accessible to anyone at any time.
Retrieving coherent, contextualized information from a repository of structured journalism can be a relatively simple task, because the information content has already been identified, structured and organized at the time of reporting rather than at the time of retrieval.
The capacity to accumulate structured news has substantial implications for the quality of journalism, because structured information can be refined and improved by many people over long periods of time. If a journalist discovers an error in an archived text article, or uncovers new information pertinent to a past article, it makes no sense for them to go back and rewrite that article, and it makes even less sense for another journalist to do so. In contrast, correcting records and adding new information to a database is a normal, everyday occurrence — so would correcting and adding to a structured journalism repository. This ability to continually refine and improve society’s first draft of history would be new. It might eventually enable journalistic and historical knowledge to behave in much the same way as complex computer programs, which “evolve” as they are gradually improved by hundreds of programmers and feedback from millions of users.
A second beneficial characteristic of structuring news is its potential to convert every individual news event into a definitive and explicit factual claim, each with its own unique identifier. This potential is demonstrated by PolitiFact, the pioneering and Pulitzer Prize-winning structured journalism website that identifies factual claims by politicians and pundits. Journalism expressed as written language can often be ambiguous or vague, with information sometimes being implied or suggested rather than directly stated. In contrast news that has been structured is refutable, sourceable, attributable and verifiable at the level of individual events or facts. Specificity also facilitates debate and comment that is focused on the truth or falsity of facts rather than on differing interpretations of written text.
The potential of structured journalism to continually refine news and to make it explicit both contribute to a fascinating possibility: Structuring news may enable a new form of objectivity to develop, more akin to scientific objectivity than to traditional journalistic objectivity. This new form of objectivity, referred to by some scholars as “second order objectivity,” is based on the truthfulness or falsity of specific factual claims, and on arguments and conclusions that are rooted in those specific factual claims. This possibility is particularly important because public trust in traditional forms of journalistic objectivity is declining rapidly, while trust in data is increasing.
A media environment where journalism is routinely structured and accumulated could potentially provide society with a dramatically enhanced collective memory. News and journalistic information would be organized and contextualized just once, at the time of reporting, and be available to everyone via a variety of interactive interfaces. The knowledge content of archives would become accessible and useful, and therefore valuable and sustainable. Journalism organizations would have an opportunity to rebuild public trust using new forms of transparency, specificity, verification and objectivity. Transitioning to such a media environment would likely be a decades-long effort, but a diverse array of experiments, prototypes and products are already appearing. Some, like PolitiFact, are already improving the functioning of our society.
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