Good Journalism Is Like a Science: It Tries to Disprove Its Hypotheses

Public Relations and Strategic Communications

What is good journalism? For one thing, says PR strategist Matthew Hiltzik, it's responsible and it doesn't play into our cravings for instant gratification. When Hiltzik visited our video studio, he remarked that attention has become the currency of the digital publishing world. In order to keep site traffic peaking, some sites may prioritize the quantity of stories being published over their quality. The side effect? Reader fatigue. "I think that there's less of an understanding in the media about how damaging that potentially can be when they're dealing with serious subjects. Because they talk about them too many times. The minutia of every single tree being discussed instead of the actual impact of the forest can actually be very damaging," says Hiltzik.

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TRANSCRIPT

Matthew Hiltzik: It's unfortunate when anybody, not just the journalists, determines a storyline before they actually consider all the facts. The only time that it's good to have an ending and work backwards is if you're writing a screenplay or a book. Or maybe a poem or something similar to that.

In general it's much better—if you're in a journalistic environment—to be able to make sure that you actually are considering all the facts, and very often some of the best stories and the best reporting comes where the actual facts don't jive with what the original hypothesis was, because it actually can be more revelatory, it can be more insightful, it can be deeper and it can be more impactful if you're not going with the conventional wisdom.

That's especially bad in our environment when you have reporters who are writing about similar topics and trying to find some new way to be able to discuss the same thing that we hear over and over and over again.

One of my pet peeves is the fact that you have this tendency, and I won't point fingers at that specifically who, but in general it's too frequent that outlets and individuals are pressured to focus on the quantity of the stories that they're writing as opposed to necessarily the quality; because it really hurts themselves and it hurts the perception.

When you're looking at reporting on really serious issues, whether it be in government or local issues or energy or education or any of the things that really are very—foreign policy—that matter in our world, it's really unfortunate if you have someone who feels the need for click-bait or for other reasons to do ten stories on something when two or three of them were actually really strong, excellent reporting, but the public sort of tired of them because if they weren't the first or the second or the third and maybe they were the 68th and the 10th, by the time they get to those they're tired of the subject, they're less likely to read it and it won't have as much of an impact. There's a fatigue about subjects and I think that there's less of an understanding in the media about how damaging that potentially can be when they're dealing with serious subjects. Because they talk about them too many times; the minutia of every single tree being discussed instead of the actual impact of the forest can actually be very damaging.

Our world moves very quickly. The instant gratification is there. Anybody who has children sees the way that they're used to a world where they can have information or gratification in the form of games or purchasing things online or whatever it might be, at the touch of a button. It's much faster and so people have those expectations. If you think about how long dial-up used to be when you would go online and the patience you would have to have and if someone told you that you were going to wait 10 or 20 seconds now before everything was going to work then, that was fantastic, because you had cut it down from maybe a minute or longer, and now people expect it to be instantaneous; you see ads that are focused on the fastest speed, and the differences between a lot of them are ones that regular human beings cannot notice at all.However, being fastest and best and first is something that's critical.

And I respect that. I understand the competitive nature of things, I understand why reporters who put a lot of time into it who may get shafted by somebody then trying to jump ahead in line by just throwing up something right before, but I still believe that there is a place for the longer, more in-depth insightful pieces.

And then you could have the short-form analysis, and you can have the response and you can have the explanation and you can have the feedback on that. But I still believe that it's important to give time. And the truth is, there is short-form that can also be very substantive. I believe it can come in all forms. A sound-byte may be very effective because it may be very insightful into someone's feelings about something, it could tell a real story in itself. So I don't think it's one or the other, I just think there needs to be more of a responsibility about both.