Perspective on Knowledge: Journalism’s new landscape

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Greater complexity

We look for these large-scale, singular causes often because we want to know how to fix things. If computer-based trading caused a market meltdown, then we could change the rules, or if the problem was corruption, then we could pass new laws. But each of these single causes could only have their effects because of complex, intersecting sets of institutions, assumptions, power relations, individual needs, cultural norms, and so forth. Addressing the single, proximal causes can easily lead to blindness to the situational causes. As we as a culture become more used to sensing the overwhelmingly complex networks in which a single factor can’t be taken as “the cause,” the sorts of stories the media tell us may come to seem like useful simplifications.

Perhaps the most important change all this brings is to the very concept of “the news.” That idea made more sense when we were all being presented with the same highly curated set of stories that had to fit within a daily newspaper or a half-hour broadcast. Furthermore, we expected the news to be relatively consistent in its world view and assumptions. And it was, thanks to the dominance of the news media by a culturally and socially coherent set of people—to be blunt, white men of a particular class. (Disclosure: Like me.) In such a world, the idea of “the news” made sense.

More than that, the news had a political role. Central to the concept was that the news was limited enough that a person could “consume” it each day. It thus could be taken as an informal social requirement: You needed to be up-to-date on the news to be a responsible citizen. The news could be mastered each day.

The news and knowledge overall

All of this is now in flux. For all I know, the flux is not going to end soon. Nor do I know how it will end.

But, what’s happening to news is a microcosm of what’s happening to knowledge overall, right down to the challenge to our traditional ideas about whether knowledge has any internal boundaries, the political implications of mastery, and our obligations to know some determinant body of knowledge.

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