As I read through Jay Rosen’s piece on the Las Vegas Review-Journal, it occurred to me that I was reading a new kind of investigative journalism. No, that’s not right. It isn’t new so much as it isn’t employed often, certainly not by mainstream news organizations. I wish it were.
Take a few moments to read Jay’s article. Look at the structure. He identifies gaping holes in a story of public interest in Nevada and possibly beyond. He summarizes what is public knowledge and lists 11 questions that are hanging out there like the chads in Florida. (He provides links to every piece of information, of course.) Then he writes:
“In this portion of my post, I am deliberately engaging in speculation (based on what’s already been published) and offering you my opinion about what went down— again, based on what has already been reported. Just to be crystal clear about it: I am not saying I know what transpired. Rather, in the absence of any decent explanation from GateHouse executives or Michael Schroeder I believe we are entitled to hypothesize and fill in the gaps with explanations that are at least plausible. #
“Working with limited knowledge — because the people who know won’t talk — I may well guess wrong on some points. My remedy for this: whenever possible link to what has been reported in the press or publicly stated by key players and let readers devise explanations alternative to the ones I have offered. Don’t buy my hypotheses? Come up with your own! That’s what comment sections are for.”
It’s a beautifully transparent explanation to readers what he is doing and what he’s asking. He doesn’t know, and the people who do know won’t say. But smart people can and do hypothesize. That’s what he’s about to do. And he’s clear about one thing: “I may well be wrong on some points.”
In effect, he’s given us his mind map. He is showing his work. How many times have you seen news reporters do that?
Then he states his hypotheses and provides the explanations for each. It’s clear, understandable and, to me, sensible. Then the news ecosystem starts to work: people read his post, they comment, he gets more information and he updates what is known. Rinse, repeat. Things get clearer. For instance, compare the updates to his post and the story in the New York Times this morning. You decide which has more insight into the appointment of the Review-Journal’s new publisher.
Now, imagine if the reporters for your favorite news organization used this technique when appropriate. There are plenty of news stories in every community that public figures want to obscure or manipulate. It’s the nature the beast. Good reporters usually know more than they publish or broadcast. Some information they can’t prove. Sometimes they have pieces of information but choose to wait to have the entire puzzle assembled. Sometimes they are constrained by only having “one side” often because people won’t talk to them.
But good reporters who’ve been on a beat for a while become authorities on their subject area. They can often “connect the dots,” as Jay calls it. But I’ve rarely seen such a transparent explanation to news readers and viewers of what is known, what is not known and how it all could — repeat, could — fit together.
Journalists who want to serve readers and viewers will follow Jay’s lead more often. You can cut through the haze of public double-talk and zigzagging. You can differentiate your work from everything else out there. There will be justifiable criticism that this puts opinion on the news pages. (In truth, opinion is already there in the way of columnists, sportswriters and, often, political writers.) (I don’t know what the broadcast equivalent is.) In any case, my thought is to get over it. The news model is changing. Lead the change.
Ask yourself, would this method give citizens “information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments”?
My answer is yes.