Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Ever notice how, whenever you read a newspaper article on a subject you know something about, it always seems that half the facts are wrong?

Recently I was introduced to a "writer", as she was described to me. I asked her if she did any creative writing. She answered that "As a journalist I am often accused of writing creatively, but I can assure you that I never do."

Why does her writing elicit such a response, if in fact she always writes nonfiction? Surely part of the reason is that she takes the "wrong" position on, say, political questions about which there is no universally agreed answer. But if she is like many other members of her profession, that is not the sole reason. I and other people routinely notice mistakes even in non-controversial articles. Why is this?

Once upon a time Western civilization spoke of "Renaissance men" who were knowledgeable in every subject. Such an ideal could only have existed for a short time after the invention of the printing press. Later than that, the growing body of human knowledge quickly became too much for any individual to master. Since the amount of knowledge a person can acquire is limited, and new discoveries keep raising the threshold for intellectual accomplishment, the breadth of an expert's knowledge necessarily decreases. As time progresses, we move steadily towards the limit in which people know everything about nothing.

One profession is immune to this trend: journalism. The journalist's very job is to gather information on subjects that people know nothing about. Often the information is simple to understand, and the challenge lies in exposing as many people as possible to it. The journalist's essential goal is breadth rather than depth. So while most intellectuals tend toward the extreme of knowing everything about nothing, the journalist comes closer to knowing nothing about everything.

Nowadays a person can be an expert on fewer and fewer subjects than in the past. But, in those few subjects, the gap between his knowledge and the journalist's knowledge necessarily grows greater and greater. No wonder the journalist's writing so often comes off as uninformed. Intelligence and education count for relatively little when your lifetime of experience in a narrow specialty confronts the journalist's mere day or week's worth of investigation.

No comments: