Hindsight Journalism

In an earlier post I picked apart Ted Koppel’s graduation speech to the students at UMass Amherst. However, I wanted to return to his remarks briefly and take a closer look at one portion of the speech that I didn’t contend with in my earlier post.

For quite some time I’ve been wondering if we are entering an era of “hindsight journalism,” where some of the most important stories of our time emerge after the fact. This kind of journalism shines a spotlight on critical issues, but serves as more of an autopsy than an antiseptic. It dissects issues like specimen, instead of shining a light on problems before or as they emerge. Hindsight journalism emphasizes having an explanation for how a problem happened – the chain of events – over why a problem happened – the structural forces and power dynamics that created the problem. It dissects rather than illuminates.  

Here is how Koppel put it:

Much of our journalism is a catalogue of what just happened, without any regard to its impact or importance. We have a greater capacity to communicate more, further and faster than ever before. Rather than using information to illuminate the world, though, we consume it like fuel. The more we burn, the faster we go. The faster we go, the less we see and understand. We slow down only for the accidents along the side of the road; and the biggest accident still lies ahead.

Only, I fear, when that occurs – only when the combined impact of too many unemployed, too many foreclosures, too much debt, exacerbated by two undeclared and unfunded wars; only when the human and social costs of a crumbling education system and a flawed health care system, leave us wondering where and why we lost our footing as a nation, will we come to realize that WHAT is communicated to us is vastly more important than the medium by which it is conveyed.

For Koppel, the stakes are clearly high. As I have been developing this idea of hindsight journalism a few examples have come to mind:

  • Stories about gun violence and gun laws that emerged after Columbine, the Gabby Giffords shooting and the Trayvon Martin killing.
  • Stories about the financial and housing crisis and the complex systems at play there which emerged after the worst of the crisis had come and gone.
  • Stories about the safety and security of nuclear power plants after the Japanese tsunami caused a major emergency at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant.
Photo by Mr.Thomas via Flickr

After the fact, journalists have done admirable and important work explaining how we got here, but what if those investigative pieces had come out beforehand? Could they have helped changed the course of events? Perhaps. But, what more could we be doing to foster the kinds of journalism that can help us address problems before they become a crisis?

In his remarks, Koppel asked a similar question:

One day, most Americans will point at us in the news media and say: ‘Why didn’t you tell us? Why did you encourage all that bile and venom? Why did you feed us all that trivial crap, when so many terrible things were converging?

(Side note: I appreciate and admire the emerging genre of “explainer” journalism, and see it as helpfully adding context and clarity to complex and unfolding events around the world. This is not what I mean by hindsight journalism.)

Some of the blame for the rise in hindsight journalism can be laid at the feet of journalists who have gotten too cozy with the the powerful, or too embedded within the industries they are supposed to be covering. In these cases, the hard questions aren’t being asked ahead of time because doing so would risk a journalist’s access or imperil some sense of false objectivity.

In reality though, we should look at the overall culture of newsrooms, not at individual journalists. A key factor in the rise of hindsight journalism is structural, rooted in job cuts and budget cuts. Many news organizations don’t have the resources, or won’t dedicate the resources, to investing in long-term stories that need to be tracked or developed over time (think for example of the Guardian’s dogged coverage of the News of the World hacking scandal over the course of years). It is risky for a newsroom to invest in a story that might go no where. There are no page views in the hypothetical. The FCC Information Needs of Communities report touches on how this has “shifted power away from citizens to government and other powerful institutions, which can more often set the news agenda.” Instead of breaking news, our newsrooms are too often waiting for news to happen and then trying to explain it.

Part of the answer to hindsight journalism is located in emerging ideas and practices around “solutions journalism.” Jonathan Stray has written, “The modern world is built on a series of vast systems, intricate combinations of people and machines, but our journalism isn’t really built to help us understand them.” Hindsight journalism only seeks grapple with these systems in-depth once the systems are breaking down or in crisis. Solutions journalism tries to be more proactive. In a response to Stray’s post Blair Hickman wrote “For people and systems to change, people have to know both what’s broken and what’s working… Exposing problems is one half of the story. Exposing solutions is the other half.”

It is not enough for journalism to simply report and explain where we have been. We are at a moment in history when we need journalism that also forges ahead, scouts the possible paths forward. We need a journalism of exploration and investigation, a journalism not afraid to wander or to fail. For in those forays into the wild, the complex, the unknown, we may find something that we need to know now, not after the fact.

UPDATE: 5/16/2012

This post originally ended here. I was on the verge of publishing it when Jonathan Stray posted a new post of his own. The post, “The hard part of solution journalism is agreeing on the problems,” is an important contribution to the discussion around  solutions journalism. Specifically, I think Stray helps outline the concrete ways in which solutions journalism can help avoid the pitfalls of hindsight journalism.

“The solution journalist ought to be well informed,” writes Stray, “perhaps they ought to report and write on possible solutions to social problems, but I dont think that’s their primary responsibility. Rather, I see the solution journalist as responsible for the process of public discussion by which problems are defined and turned into plans for the future.” Stray draws on the ideas of Horst Rittel to pair this moderation role with the practices of design, “an iterative process of imagining future worlds and investigating the tools available to reach them from the actual present.”

Using Stray’s framework, my concern about hindsight journalism is that it is unconcerned with defining the problems or helping communities develop solutions. In many ways hindsight journalism does not seek to instigate or facilitate democratic dialog, but instead seeks to be the final word on a set of problems. Hindsight journalism does not open up discussion, it closes it down. If, as Stray argues, “the work of solution journalism is not to propose solutions, but to help a community come to a shared understanding of what its major problems are, which is the first and possibly hardest step in solving them,” then we cannot do that by only looking backwards.


  1. Greg Linch says:

    A key part of all this — solutions journalism and beyond — is the need to quantify the impact of that work (more on that here http://bit.ly/GLimpact). Solutions implies something is being solved, or that the work has been successful. This means you need to clearly define the goal and purpose of the journalism, how you’d measure it and then actually measure and analyze to determine success, failure or another type of outcome.

    All in all, lots of good thoughts and a reminder that I need to write a comprehensive follow-up to my January impact post. So many ideas floating around that sync with your and Jonathan’s posts around these topics!

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