Complexity and news: The Financial Crisis

One of my biggest criticisms of my profession, journalism, is that we don’t do complexity or nuance very well. My friend and colleague Bobbie Johnson once referred to this as ‘binary journalism’. I always found it odd that many media commentators criticised George Bush’s Manichean world view (a view that is in itself simplistic) when the media delights in over-simplified stories of good versus evil that seem have more of a place in comic strips than journalism. However, whether it’s climate change or the global financial crisis, journalism needs to deal with complexity. We need to explain it to our audience in ways that engages and adds to their understanding.

Unfortunately, I fear that journalists are leaving this job to GAB – the Global Association of Bloviators, well-paid commentators who make a helluva lot of money not explaining a complex world but rather engaging in polarised shouting matches on talk radio, cable television and comment sites. It can be greatly entertaining and distracting, but it’s the information equivalent of professional wrestling while Rome burns. We can’t have binary journalism in an analogue world where often things exist not only on a continuum but in complex, multi-dimensional inter-relationships.

But therein lies the challenge. How do you Jedi mind trick people who might prefer the theatre of cable news or the simple morality tales of tabloid newspapers into caring about something that in the end is really complex but have a real impact on their lives as the global financial crisis has? I think that engaging readers using social media and creatively telling stories is the way forward, and we’re starting to see some great examples of this.

During the financial crisis, the collaboration between US National Public Radio’s Planet Money and This American Life have produced some of the most enlightening and entertaining programs on the subject. One of the programs, The Giant Pool of Money, has rightly won a Peabody Award. Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab has interviewed one of the creators, Adam Davidson, about a model for complex news.

NPR’s Adam Davidson on “The Giant Pool of Money” from Nieman Journalism Lab on Vimeo.

Adam says that journalists need to acknowledge their own ignorance in covering complex stories, and he talks about other lessons he learned in creating what has become a series of some of the best journalism on the financial crisis in any medium. The full transcript is on Nieman’s site if you’d prefer to scan it.

More than this, I think that Adam hits on why I prefer to blogging, in particular, and digital news in general to traditional print or broadcast media, which is that news can be a process of learning that the journalist shares with the audience. Also, as Rob Paterson points out, digital media can be much better than traditional linear media in dealing with complexity, although Adam has done a wonderful job dealing with complexity during a long-form radio program. I appreciate this in Rob’s explanation:

The POV was always going to be – EXPLAIN! The presenters of the show would be representing us. They would start from a position of NOT KNOWING and not understanding the jargon. The irony is that even the so called experts have told Adam that they too have learned from the show.

They got rid of the voice of authority and took their listeners on their own journey of discovery.

I understand all too well the illusion of the ‘VOICE’ that Rob is talking about. The deep bass voices of presenters are meant to represent authority, but the presentation cannot overcome the fundamental superficiality of sound bites, the same interview aired in heavy rotation and minute-thirty packages. Why not just dispense with the theatrics and focus on finding out what we all wanted to know? How the hell did this mess happen? What led us to here?

The global financial crisis is now being packaged into media theatre complete with two-dimensional villains and victims that do a disservice to the real story: The West has maxed out our personal and collective credit cards. Politicians and commentators on the right point to irresponsible borrowers while those on the left point to irrresponsible greedy lenders and financiers. The crisis is here, and while the media retreats into a comfortable narrative that places responsibility on some other segment of society, it will only put off a little longer the hard choices that all segments of society will have to make. This is a moment when journalism can shine, even during this time of industry and individual anxiety. The global financial crisis cries out for great intelligent story-telling. Let’s do the story justice, and hopefully in doing so, we’ll find solutions to the crisis sooner rather than simply putting off the hard choices.

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