C.W. Anderson wants to know what makes data journalists tick.
The ethnographer and assistant professor of media culture at the College of Staten Island is working on a new research project to examine the cultural history of computational journalism and understand how reporters in this field have used changing document analysis technology to assess truth.
During a talk at the Mary Junck Research Colloquium Thursday at UNC-Chapel Hill, Anderson outlined the framework of his research, including a focus on three major eras in the history of data journalism: the social survey movement of the early 20th century, the advent of “precision journalism” and the launch of the AP’s Overview Project for document mining. [Editor's note: We'll post video of the talk when it's available on the Colloquium's YouTube channel.]
I caught up with Anderson after his presentation to talk about the potential impact of his research. Questions and answers have been edited for style, clarity and brevity.
Why do you think now is the time for a study like this?
In journalism, I think everything is changing right now. When things aren’t changing in journalism, journalists think things are just like they’ve always been forever and always will be forever.
I think we only get a sense of history, a sense of things having once been different and the possibility of being different again at a moment when things are changing a lot. We become more interested in history when stabilities are upended. So I think journalists are at a moment right now when they’re possibly a little more receptive to a historical approach, because it could help them think intelligently about what their future is when their future is so unclear.
There really is this palpable fear and excitement in the industry right now.
Right. I think it’s really reassuring to remember that things have always been changing in journalism. The journalism of 1800 was not the same as the journalism of 1850, which is not the same as the journalism of 1900, which is not the same as the journalism of today.
When we remember that it’s always been something that’s never been the same forever, it may not make us completely feel better, but it can add some sense that this is how it’s always been. It’s always been in flux.
It was interesting how you whittled everything down to these three eras. Your first two eras are fairly broad, but you’ve specified the Overview Project. Why do you think Overview and Jonathan Stray’s work there is so representative of this “third era?”
I don’t know if it is yet. One of the things about ethnography is that you pick particular moments that are relevant, but that you also have access to. Jonathan has been very generous with his time and with helping me think through my research.
I do think the way he processes documents is representative of something on the horizon. It may be an outlier. It may be an exception. It may never end up taking off. But I do think it’s an interesting potential road that journalism could go down.
I need to narrow the historical eras to things like the Overview Project. I need to look really at one thing going on in each of those time periods, I just haven’t done it yet. It’s the difference between ethnography and history.
You talked about the difference between common practices and exceptional practices in journalism. How do you think your work could help journalists bring the common practices more in line with the “gold standards?”
Journalists don’t always know about these things. They don’t always know these things are even being done. A lot of journalists I know have never heard of the Overview Project. They have no idea what it is, despite Jonathan sort of publicizing it and making it public and transparent. So on the one hand, they can learn that these things are out there.
Sometimes they often see them as foreign or weird or not really what they do. I think when it’s put in terms they can possibly understand and they can see it themselves as part of the history of journalism, then maybe they’ll become more receptive to it. Maybe they’ll see it as less strange and less weird and less foreign.
Is journalism unique in that way, in having an inability to talk to itself about these things? We hear about the stories, but not the techniques.
One of the things that interests me so much about this is that it’s the opposite of academia. In academia, all anybody wants to talk about is method. Method, method, method and then you kind of get to the findings at the very end and you’re like, “Oh yeah, this is what I found. The end.” But 75 percent of it is method.
Journalists, they don’t want to talk about method at all. All they want to talk about is what they found. With an academic paper, you’ll see multiple pages of, “This was my methodology, this is how I set it up, this is how I know I’m not full of shit.”
And your conclusion is two paragraphs long (laughs).
I mean, I’m exaggerating. But journalists are like, “Look at all the stuff we found. This is interesting. This is relevant to the public.” You have no idea what the method is. You don’t know if they interviewed people or if they did document collection. You don’t know at all. I think that’s an interesting difference.
Do you feel like your work has the potential to impact journalists?
You know, it’s interesting. Academia has its own internal conflict about whether it wants to have an impact or whether it wants to be relevant or not. To some degree, traditional academia didn’t care about having any impact at all. Ivory tower, right? That’s the idea.
I don’t feel that way. I hope it can have an impact, but have an impact in an honest way.
Sometimes to have an impact, you have to boil your talk or your findings down to a tweet. Or to a TED talk, where you go up there and you talk for 10 minutes and you have flashing lights and smoke.
That’s not really my style. I hope that what I can do — if it has an impact, it can have an impact as a complicated thing, not an overly simplified thing.