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The Limits to Explanatory Journalism

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorApril 7, 2014 9:42 PM


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In recent years, as I have paid closer attention to how our individual biases influence the way we think about everything from climate change to gun control, I have periodically been overcome with a sense of futility. I blame Dan Kahan for this. His research at Yale, along with the pioneering work of Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and his long-time collaborator Amos Tversky, have revealed the limitations of the rational mind. I am not the only one in my profession who has wondered if journalism can penetrate confirmation bias. The findings of social scientists and cognitive researchers has also led Andrew Revkin of the New York Times to call himself a "recovering journalist." His "denial," he wrote several years ago,

lay in my longstanding presumption, like that of many scientists and journalists, that better communication of information will tend to change people’s perceptions, priorities and behavior.

If our evolutionary brain functions in a way that filters information subjectively and how we view the world and, say, the science behind climate change or genetically modified crops, then how can journalists penetrate a lens already colored by politics or ideology? (For example, ask Grist editors how its core audience responded to this deep dive into the facts surrounding GMOs.) According to the Pew Research Center's Journalism Project, "journalism's first obligation is to the truth." Not in an absolute sense, but in a practical sense, the Center says:

This “journalistic truth” is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts.

Of course, we know that not everyone is deriving their facts from the same pool of knowledge. Otherwise, there wouldn't be so many people who believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago. In an explanatory piece on Kahan's research, Ezra Klein writes at his new Vox site:

Perhaps there are some kinds of debates where people don’t want to find the right answer so much as they want to win the argument. Perhaps humans reason for purposes other than finding the truth — purposes like increasing their standing in their community, or ensuring they don’t piss off the leaders of their tribe. If this hypothesis proved true, then a smarter, better-educated citizenry wouldn’t put an end to these disagreements. It would just mean the participants are better equipped to argue for their own side.

If this hypothesis is true, then the implications are obvious for the noble pursuit of journalistic truth, including new start-up operations that put facts in an easier-to-understand and more nuanced context, as science journalist Carl Zimmer observes in a tweet:

[2/2] Does this @voxdotcom piece on the limits of explanation undermine the explainer model of @voxdotcom? — carlzimmer (@carlzimmer) April 7, 2014

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