“Context” is the new flavor for journalism

the onion provides context for its layersSome of the best minds in the world of new media have been exploring the concept of “context” as it relates to journalism, and the seed of something pretty significant is being birthed. It’s an area that local media companies should explore, because the discussion primarily centers around national and global events, but the application certainly applies at the local level as well. The discussion has already been labeled “the context movement.”

What is context? Context is viewed as the missing element in reporting today and something that the audience not only needs, but according to this group of thinkers, wants. We can argue about that all day, but the subject is compelling and thought-provoking, and it deserves our attention. Context is what, the discussion concludes, reporters tend to take for granted when they’re writing, because they assume that their audience — whether print or broadcast — already knows the background information necessary to fully understand the latest development in an ongoing story.

This lack of perspective is the major contributing factor to shallowness in journalism — to the surface, horse race aspects of the news. That, these thinkers conclude is one of the things wrong with “the press.”

Jay Rosen asks, “Why are we serving people the news without the background narrative necessary to make sense of the news?”

I first became interested in this problem after listening to The Giant Pool of Money, the awesomely effective one-hour This American Life episode that finally explained to me what the mortgage banking crisis was, how it happened and why it implicated… well, just about everyone. I was grateful, because up to that moment I had absorbed many hundreds of reports about “sub prime lenders in trouble” but had not understood a single one of them.

It wasn’t that these reports were uninformative. Rather, I was not informable because I lacked the necessary background knowledge to grasp what was being sent to me as news. On the other hand there was no easy way for me to get that background and make myself informable because the way our news system works, it’s like the updates to the program arrive whether you have the program installed or not! Which is rather messed up. But what do we do about it?

Matt Thompson writes that if you’re like most people, you have a certain amount of ambient knowledge that health-care reform is happening.

You pay attention to headlines, and you see a lot of stories about Nancy Pelosi saying this, or Mitch McConnell saying that. You catch a line or two about it in a Presidential address. You’ve watched some headlines about it in the evening news.

Chances are that most of the information you’ve encountered about this subject has been what I’d call episodic. Over time, you may have heard a lot about budget reconciliation, insurance premium hikes, the public option, the excise tax, the Wyden-Bennett bill, the Stupak amendment, and on and on and on. You know that Democrats are trying to do something to the health care system, but it’s either a government takeover or an insurance industry giveaway. Hard to tell.

This constant torrent of episodic information is how many of us encounter information about current events. This has been true for as long as any of us has been alive, but in the wake of the real-time Web, it’s become ever more constant and ever more torrential.

These thinkers are trying to come up with ways to create permanent storage vaults of “context” to which writers can link or otherwise draw from in order to better inform people about the nuances and intricacies of big or small issues. Of course, this is fraught with problems, because whose perspective (subjectivity) will be presented as “the truth” in complex matters such as this. As I told Jay, “context runs aground on the shoals of absolute truth,” but that’s a topic for another day.

There is also the discussion as to whether today’s journalists are even capable of providing context, but that, too, is another discussion entirely.

The reality is that there is an opportunity here for your most experienced people to write documents — hopefully filled with supporting links — that offer your audience context on matters of importance to your community. If subjective analysis is the best we can do, let us be the “subject” and not the guy across the street. It’s a great opportunity to showcase experience and serve the needs of your audience at the same time.

This is a subject I’ll be watching in the months ahead.


  1. […] too long ago, I read an essay about context in journalism from Terry Heaton’s PoMo Blog. It’s very much in the same vein as the Popshifter […]

  2. […] would argue that journalists take context for granted in their […]

  3. […] Contextual journalism is picking up steam as a global movement. As Terry Heaton explains on thepomoblog, “Context is what, the discussion concludes, reporters tend to take for granted when they’re writing, because they assume that their audience — whether print or broadcast — already knows the background information necessary to fully understand the latest development in an ongoing story.” Context is especially crucial now that local news stories from different parts of the world are being reported and talked about globally; it can encourage reporters and analysts to avoid making generalizations about a culture they may not be a part of. At the same time, context does something political: it gives previously-unheard voices, and the speakers of those voices, a platform in a story, making multiple perspectives count. […]

  4. […] an extent, we’re talking about contextual journalism. It’s not just what we say and what new information we bring to the table, but the relevance […]

  5. […] “Context” is the new flavor for journalism, The Pomo Blog […]

  6. […] the interpretation by themselves. Context provides relevance to a story, depending on the subject. Terry Heaton, in an article, described context as the new flavor in journalism. According to […]

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