Editor’s note: The monthly milestone column, which appears on the second day of each month – the anniversary of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s Sept. 2, 2008 launch – is an opportunity for either the publisher or the editor of The Chronicle to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication. It’s also a time that we highlight, with gratitude, our local advertisers, and ask readers to consider subscribing voluntarily to The Chronicle to support our work.
Description. Analysis. Explanation. Remember those three concepts.
Last month I participated in a video teleconference with students who are members of Bowling Green State University’s Online News Association. It’s a group that’s advised by department of journalism and public relations faculty member Dave Sennerud. The focus that evening was on hyperlocal news sites, which is a specialty of BGSU’s Mike Horning. Horning recently completed a dissertation on that topic at Penn State University.
I view any interaction like that video conference as a chance to evangelize a bit about The Chronicle’s approach to writing the news – which prioritizes description over storytelling. And that chance came when a general question was posed about advice to journalism majors who will be entering the field.
My advice: Got a journalism degree? That’s great, but I’d prefer that you were a scientist.
As we used to say back in Indiana, that is currently a mute point. Right now, although the amount of advertising and individual subscriber support continues to increase each month, not enough readers subscribe voluntarily and not enough advertisers purchase ads for us to contemplate hiring additional full-time staff. But that’s the direction we’re working towards, to supplement our freelance reporters and to make our own workload more sustainable.
So while we’re not in a hiring mode now, we do anticipate a time when we’ll be making those decisions, and it makes sense to think about the type of skills we’d like a reporter to have.
The main skill a Chronicle reporter needs – and the one I think the entire field of journalism has largely forgotten – is the ability to describe, in detail, an event or an issue in a way that is designed mostly to engage the intellect of readers, not their emotions. It’s actually a scientific skill. But that approach to writing the news contrasts with the way institutional journalism has evolved to train its next generation of practitioners.
If basic description is a part of traditional, institutional journalism, it’s typically well-hidden, behind attempted analysis and attempted explanation – in the form of “stories.” And when I write the word “stories,” I put those scare quotes around it consciously. That’s so it’s not confused with other ways of referring to items that might appear in a journalistic publication, like “articles,” “briefs” or “reports.”
Most items that are written by traditional journalists these days are attempts at “stories” in that term’s literal sense – a narrative with a conflict, a plot, and characters who say interesting and provocative things. But as a reporter, if you begin with the idea of a story you want to tell, you’ve ordered your task backwards.
As a reporter, if you’re injecting description (i.e., facts) into your story only in service of your preconceived narrative, then you might miss the fact that a complete and comprehensive description actually contradicts the conclusion of the story you decided in advance you wanted to write.
As a reporter, if you’re asking yourself, “Can I get a ‘story’ out of this board meeting I’m attending?” then you’re asking the wrong question. The question you should be asking is, “Should I write up a report of this board meeting from the notes I’m taking anyway?”
As a reporter, if you’re idling at a public meeting waiting for the participants to say something quotable, so that the characters in your “story” have interesting lines to deliver, then you’re probably squandering an opportunity. That’s the opportunity to write down and describe all the boring and not-very-quotable, possibly even barely coherent remarks of public officials. Writing all that down could inform a far richer and deeper understanding of your subject matter – for yourself and for your readers.
Now, reports filled with description are not typically rewarded within the field of journalism. But competent news writing depends on the ability to render comprehensive description in the same way that good science depends on good data. Good science understands the difference between description, analysis and explanation. And most science consists of the work of description, which many people find boring.
I’d like to illustrate more specifically what that means by taking a look at two scientific fields – linguistics and chemistry.
Linguistics: Descriptive Work
My experience in the field of linguistics culminated in a failed (undefended) dissertation with the title, “Syllables, Schmyllables.” Among other ideas, it proposed a theoretical notion of the “schmyllable” in addition to the more familiar “syllable.” The schmyllable, I argued, could help analyze familiar phonological puzzles in a way that actually explained the existence of sound patterns across several different languages. It was filled with all sorts of “mathy” talk about sets and 1-1 correspondences and partial orderings.
While that work was long on attempted analysis and attempted explanation, it was short on description. It introduced no new data. It relied exclusively on examples in the published literature. But that’s not what doomed the dissertation to languish undefended.
In fact, based on what I saw – from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s – the field of linguistics actually preferred attempted analysis and explanation over “mere” descriptive work. That’s partly based on a “story” in the form that I recall hearing it from Philip LeSourd. At the time, I was a graduate student and he was a visiting professor at the University of Rochester sometime in the mid-1990s.
In the narrative I’ve preserved in my head, LeSourd had worked on a dictionary project for the Native American language called Passamaquoddy. Now, along the continuum of description, analysis and explanation, creating a dictionary is closer to the descriptive end. For example, the work involves describing the set of sounds used in the language, cataloging them, inventorying words and the like. That’s not to understate the fair amount of analysis required as well. For example, should we consider those noises as one sound that has two predictable variants? Or should we consider them as two separate sounds, which we represent with separate symbols in the alphabet?
But the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did not deem that descriptive endeavor to merit the award of a dissertation, and LeSourd had to produce additional analyses of Passamaquoddy – in the predominant formal phonological framework of the day – in order for the work to qualify as a significant contribution to the field of linguistics.
It’s from David Perlmutter – now professor emeritus at University of California, San Diego, who was one of LeSourd’s mentors – that I learned to appreciate the difference between description, analysis and explanation. I remember it, because he would often say to me things like, “See now, there’s description, analysis, and explanation. Which, if any, of those things are you trying to do here?”
For readers who are unaccustomed to thinking of linguistics as a science, it’s worth considering a field more commonly thought of that way, like chemistry.
Chemistry: What Do You See?
The lab manual for my first course in high school chemistry was called “Merrill Laboratory Chemistry,” co-authored by my teacher, David Haines. As I recall it, the first laboratory experiment involved lighting a candle and then watching it burn for an entire class period. The laboratory task was to record in the lab manual just what we saw happening.
That was a quintessentially descriptive task. And it’s not as easy as you might think, once you grasp what’s meant by “description” in this context.
For example, here’s the effort of a hypothetical student at this descriptive task:
Candle is burning.
Burning candle, wax is starting to melt.
Liquid wax is dripping down the sides of the burning candle.
Candle is getting shorter.
Flame is flickering.
I think it’s a poor effort. It’s not a poor effort by dint of a lack of detail. It’s a poor effort because it uses words that are already analytical, instead of purely descriptive. A possible commentary on that “description”:
You’ve used this word, “burning.” What do you mean by that? Do you mean to be talking about phlogiston leaving the candle? Or do you mean to be referring to a chemical reaction involving oxygen? Do you really mean to be describing the three-dimensional orangish, yellowish area above the white cylinder that’s shaped roughly like a teardrop and that moves around a bit?
Or take these words “melt” and “liquid.” What’s that exactly? Why are you convinced that the translucent stuff you’re seeing at the top of the white cylinder that tends to move around a bit is made of the same stuff the white cylinder is made of? Is that something you can see? Or have you already analyzed this situation, because you think you know what’s going on? What if that translucent stuff is being created by the orangish area out of some stuff in the air and deposited there on top of the white cylinder?
Of course, any words we might choose as a description are likely vulnerable to the criticism that they reflect some prior analysis that we’ve brought to the exercise. “Orangish,” you say?
Journalism: Let’s Be Scientists
The point of the candle-burning example is not to encourage journalists to start describing burning candles as “white cylinders with three-dimensional orangish areas above them.”
The point is that journalists need the ability to recognize where their language sits along the continuum of description, analysis, and explanation. For most general purpose descriptive writing, “burning candle” is probably perfectly benign.
It’s a sorry reflection on the profession that people who are trained as scientists have a better shot at grasping the difference between description and analysis than people who are trained only as journalists.
So when we start hiring reporters, the main question I’ll have is not about an applicant’s ability to write or to tell a good story.
The question I need answered is this: How good a scientist do you think you can be?
About the writer: Dave Askins is editor and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle. The Chronicle could not survive to describe, analyze and explain each milestone without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of local government and civic affairs. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!