Communication Currents

Known Unknowns: In Praise of Journalistic Naiveté

June 1, 2014
Mass Communication

Communication scholars regularly ask how journalists could do a better job of telling the public about the things that matter. Often this involves criticizing the media for focusing on trivia or confected controversy, and it sometimes means lambasting audiences for their ignorance and base prejudice when it comes to politics and economics. But there’s a bigger question here that tends to get overlooked: who decides what these “things that matter” are, and how they’re thought and talked about? Specifically, I ask whether journalism has a role to play in shedding light on the very foundations of what counts as meaningful in public life.

This rethinking of journalism’s public role starts from a lesson we’ve learned from philosophy: the vast majority of our everyday experience is taken for granted, so self-evident that it never would occur to you to put it into words. And this assumed obviousness, which makes life less laborious and more seamless, is generally shared by those around us. Think of the hundreds of questions you don’t have to ask to get through a day’s work. But to outsiders there’s nothing self-evident about any of this, and the result is that exchanges between those inside and outside this bubble are likely to be characterized not so much by disagreement as mutual incomprehension.

This is where the journalist can step in, acting as a kind of cultural translator—as well as a literal translator if a lot of jargon is involved—between different parts of society. Take finance, for instance. Instead of starting from the assumption that people working in finance are intelligent people who know what they’re doing or they’re a bunch of greedy, amoral narcissists, the journalist would seek to lay bare the assumptions about what just is that make the routines and attitudes of daily life in the financial world seem more or less normal to those inside it. This doesn’t quite mean empathizing with financiers, though one revelation is likely to be that few of them wake up in the morning with a burning desire to make society less equal and more unjust. Instead, it means explaining and exposing to scrutiny the basis upon which their working lives and the decisions they make are meaningful.

The likely implication is a growing awareness that there’s nothing natural—or neutral—about the way financiers think about finance, or educators about education, and in democratic terms, it’s not a bad thing if outsiders start piling in to suggest alternatives. In truth there are limits to translation, aspects of different professional or cultural worlds that will remain obscure not because we lack the vocabulary to describe them, but because they’re just too deeply embedded for us to notice them. Often these have to do with what we see as professional instinct, or talent, or what kind of people go into one line of work or another—all things we could easily accept at face value and question no further. The principle here, however, is that journalists should be simultaneously self-effacing about what they don’t understand and relentless about getting to the bottom of what makes that same thing so obviously understandable to the insider.

And this is where we hit an obstacle in the form of journalistic professionalism. Journalists have to be thick-skinned and tenacious, and few lack self-confidence in dealing with people from all walks of life, however powerful. But underlying this recognizable professional demeanor are twin fears. The first is a fear of appearing naïve. Journalists are used to asking incessant questions to compile as comprehensive an account as possible of what has happened and why, but there are certain questions that risk exposing them as not understanding how the world really is. Think about politics: finding out what happened behind closed doors and revealing motivation, ambition, and hypocrisy. All these are fair game. But ask a question that shows you don’t understand how politics actually works, and suddenly you’re an ingénue, someone who just doesn’t get it. And to a journalist, this is professional suicide.

The second fear revolves around being seen as earnest. It’s simply not the case that all journalists are cynics, but experience teaches the journalist to regard the “stuff” of their work, however serious or dramatic, with a kind of detached irony. This isn’t meant to disparage the whole journalistic trade—indeed, it’s no different from the gallows humor surgeons often develop around the “stuff” of their work. But a whiff of bleeding-heart worthiness also can fatally undermine a journalist’s integrity, which means that asking “deep” questions about the values and assumptions underpinning different parts of society presents a significant personal risk.

However, there are responses to each of these fears, and I’ll take the second first. We’re not talking here about journalists probing every interviewee about his or her deeply held principles, still less philosophizing about the nature of truth and morality in a feature article. That’s a turn-off for most readers and viewers. Instead, it’s something less grand and more methodical: a commitment to responding to every statement, every observation, with this question: “What has to hold in order for that to be meaningful, or normal, for this group of individuals?” Instead of calling on journalists to change the world for the better, or to advocate for this or that cause, this question is about something less earnest and more modest, but still potentially profound: a relentless excavation in pursuit of what makes the meaningful meaningful.

The fear of naiveté also can be overcome through the realization that actually, all of us know very little about how different spheres of life “work” in our own communities, let alone abroad. There’s really little to be lost by asking a gauche question of an economist or research scientist. Further, in doing this excavating work, it soon becomes clear that all of our assumptions about what’s obvious, of what just is, are pretty rickety when you look at them. This could turn the journalist into nihilist, merrily going from one group to another telling them that there’s nothing inherently meaningful about the way they see the world and live their lives. But perhaps there’s an opportunity here instead for journalists to communicate to the public that much of what appears to be settled and immovable—about politics, economics, or anything else—is actually surprisingly precarious.

About the author (s)

Tim Markham

University of London, Birkbeck