This is episode is the full, unedited interview with Scott Lewis. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, we strongly encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined.
Guest Starring Scott Lewis, CEO of San Diego’s “Voice of San Diego”
Produced & Hosted by Adam Greenfield
Executive Produced by Patrick Yurick, Instructional Designer – MIT OGE
Executive Produced by Heather Konar, Communication Director – MIT OGE
Special thanks to the following editors who provided us invaluable feedback that aided in the development of this show:
Christopher O’Keeffe, Co-Founder of Podcation
Kristy Bennet, Manager – MIT Women’s League
Jennifer Cherone, Phd Candidate – MIT Burge Laboratory
Erik Tillman, Phd, Formerly of the Kim Lab & Currently A Fellow at Vida Ventures, LLC
The Great Communicators Podcast is a part of Gradcommx. Gradcommx, targeted at enhancing research communication, is the first offering of Gradx – a professional development project created for the graduate student population at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the Office For Graduate Education.
MUSIC & SOUNDS
“Divider” by Chris Zabriskie is licensed under Attribution 4.0 International License (http://freemusicarchive.org)
Hello, Adam Greenfield here, host of The Great Communicators podcast series. What you’re about to hear is the full, unedited interview with one of the guests we spoke with. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, I definitely encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined. You can find them all at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.
The idea behind these longer, unedited conversation is to give you an opportunity to hear the entire talk, warts and all. This is not only a fun way to hear the full flow of the conversation but it also emphasizes the importance of the points made in the shorter, produced episodes, which again, can be found at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.
Thanks for listening and enjoy the conversation.
Adam Greenfield: First question.
Scott Lewis: Yes.
A: Name and occupation.
S: My name is Scott Lewis. I am the CEO and editor-in-chief of the Voice of San Diego, an online- mostly online news investigative service for San Diego. And I’m a journalist.
A: So in your hierarchy of necessities in life, from personal to professional, where does communication come into play?
S: I mean, it’s my essence, really. It’s like the thing that I mostly think about in life. You know, it’s the thing- for instance, I can’t watch a show where the plot is driven by miscommunication without crawling out of my skin, you know what I mean? The communication is everything I have… striven… strove? (laughter) It’s everything that I have really pushed myself to learn the most about and to perfect, whether it’s learning another language or in telling stories and learning how to tell stories with the perfection of a plot line and, you know, sort of kicker. All of that has sort of really driven everything in my personal life and luckily it’s been the focus of my career, as well.
A: What other languages do you speak?
A: Ok, just Spanish?
A: Have you perfected it or have you….
S: Ha. No, no. I can maintain a conversation several levels deep but I certainly don’t come off as a native speaker at some point. I can fake it for a while and then when it starts getting into more interesting subjects I obviously run out of vocabulary and, you know, it’s just not that perfect.
A: Do you find faking it works in getting your point across most of the time?
S: Faking it….
A: Well, maybe not necessarily faking it but more like sort of piecing everything together.
S: I studied in Spain for a year and a half. The second time I was there I fell in with a lot of college students from Spain and I adapted their- I adopted their accents mostly from- the group I was with was mostly from southern Spain. And I found that I was very good at mimicking the way that they spoke and, especially some of the initial phrases and such in conversations, and so I could go out, and they loved doing this with me, where I could go out to a bar and talk to girls and, my complexion and everything, I fit in very well. And so I could talk and hold a conversation for a while with a girl and they would assume I was Spanish for the first little while and then my friends loved saying, “You know this kid’s an American, not even a native Spanish speaker.” And then it would break down. Usually I would get to a point where the topics were so much more intellectual than my vocabulary could handle or something like that but I really- I did think there was some value in not always trying to translate and manage a conversation but in mimicking it, you know? It was one of my great challenges, actually, to stop pretending like I understood things to keep the conversation going and to acknowledge that I didn’t and learn from that. So that was one of my great challenges of learning, because I so enjoyed holding up the façade of being such a good Spanish speaker that that was actually a maturity thing I had to work through.
A: And you probably at some point reach- well, I guess you reach a point where you have to actually know what you’re talking about.
S [4:08]: Absolutely, yeah, and, you know, that’s the fun part of multi-cultural exchanges and experiencing a different world, is to go into somebody’s world as far as you can that’s very foreign to you. That, I think, is only made possible when you allow yourself to be vulnerable about what you don’t know and allow yourself to be willing to be taught and not have to put up a façade that you are perfect.
A: Was there a specific event or moment that led you to journalism?
S: In college I always thought I would- well, I was very directionless in all school, high school and college, and it took a few professors and experiences in college to kind of rattle me a little bit. But I never was a writer and wasn’t even that big of a reader in high school. When I came back from my first trip to Spain, I was really fired up politically and in other ways. So I read a letter to the- or, an op-ed in our school newspaper and I thought it was terrible. So I wrote a big, long response and their response to me- they published it, but their response was, “You’re so smart, why don’t you come in and write?” And I just sort of hung out until they gave me a gig writing news for the paper. It was very easy to just sort of walk into that situation and I was just hooked. It was an amazing experience. Challenging one, too, you know, to go cover the president of the university’s speech or something. That’s not a skill you just know. So I started doing it and got more and more sucked into it. I still always assumed I would go to law school or I would go to grad school of some kind, even though I never prepared myself grades-wise to succeed in that path but I just never pictured journalism as the career until I kept doing it. Then I was offered a job at- I had been freelancing for a local alt-weekly and they offered me a full-time job when I got out and I took it and that was it. That got me.
A: Ok, alright. Now, you mentioned earlier that Voice of San Diego is online and all kinds of, I guess, methods to get it out there.
A: Do you have a preferred one?
S: So, no. I, uh…. I guess the reason I hedge when I say it’s online is there’s obviously podcasts, there’s TV, there are other- social media and there are other tools that we use to engage people and so I just think of the website as one tool. Obviously I love writing and I love my own writing and I love editing and helping other people tell stories but I really love social media and I’ve grown to love podcasting, too. I think that as a storyteller I’m just- I’m overwhelmed and excited by how many different tools we have to tell stories and to, you know, kind of tell the same story sometimes with five different media. And so I think that I- I just find it to be really exciting if not a little bit overwhelming time because you have so many options and you don’t know if you’re pulling all the right levers. I still think writing, just writing a simple story, is still my preferred but I think that anyone one of them, if you required me to just be on TV or just be on podcasts or to just be on social media I’d do that, too. That’d be fun.
A: Have you found any of those to be more effective than the others?
S: No, I think they all do something special in their own way. TV, you can tell things visually in a way that you can’t in any written word. You can explain things with good sort of documentary graphic style on TV and in a format that is as powerful as it gets as far as getting across a concept. On podcasts I think that you have an intimate connection with people unlike anything else. I think it’s a- the people that listen to our podcasts seem to feel like they know us more than any other connection I have with folks. Social media is wonderful and the connection there is also really strong. Various forms of radio that I do, like sports radio and other people I talk to on the radio, that always seems to create a connection that’s very powerful, too. And then writing, though, there’s no, obviously, form that you can explain so many things and take people through such an imaginative process as just a good writing experience. So it’s not that anyone’s better. I think they just all have attributes I like to play with.
A: I want to actually keep going with the writing.
A: I want to dive into a little bit of that. So, basically, in all my years of writing, I found myself creating an outline for what I’m about to write and just spilling my guts. Or editing later; that’s another option of doing it. Do either of those sound familiar to you or do you have a different way you go about this, sort of, beginning process of writing?
S: Only on my most ambitious projects do I outline them. My process is more about- the writing actually helps me think. I often don’t know exactly how a story’s going to go until I start writing it. So my process is to do as much research and there’s just a moment in my brain where I know, ok, this is- I’ve checked a lot of my boxes, I’ve checked with people that I’ve wanted to check with, I think I’ve been fair to the sources and to the targets and the protagonist in the story, and so at this point I think it’s time to start writing. And often as I write, questions will come up or, wow, it’d be great to figure this out so I could put this here and then I’ll do some more research or call some more folks. So no, I’ve never actually outlined but I don’t really consider it spilling or stream of consciousness writing at that point. There’s still something that I- it’s all there. It just needs to be articulated. I find that the hardest part about writing is actually well before you start writing. It’s just, are you confident in the idea and the insight that you have. Once you cross that threshold, for me, it’s very fast.
A: So you don’t come at it as, this makes me uncomfortable because I don’t know much about it and I want to know about it so I’m going to write about it. Is that an angle you tend to avoid?
S: No, I wouldn’t say that. I find that there are topics that I recognize right away if somebody explained would be well received and valuable. And so I then seek it out and I think I’m in a position now where I just feel so confident about that instinct that I have that it’s never a question. It always works out. Obviously some stuff is not as good as others but I think that it’s- I think the hardest part that young writers and other writers have is trusting that their insight, that whatever they’ve- they think is interesting is actually interesting. And, you know, that’s not easy. That’s a very difficult, sort of, muscle that you have to work, is this idea of if you think something’s interesting, it will be interesting to others and you just have to work on that and you have to test it when you find that something’s just not that interesting. You know, there’s been countless topics I’ve delved into that just never generated the discussion that I thought they deserved and it’s not their fault, you know? It’s not the audience’s fault. But you still have to try and then test it and then come back and re-evaluate whether that was the right pursuit.
A: So repetition will really give you that- sort of that instinct, it can build up that instinct for you, just doing it over and over whether it’s comfortable or not.
S: Yeah, it’s a confidence. I think that confidence is not about knowing you’re good. It’s not about knowing you’re valuable. It’s about going through it even when you don’t. Do you know what I mean? It’s like you’re still pushing, you’re still going to write it, even though you don’t have the data that proves that you’re valuable or attractive or that your insight is going to work. When I think of confidence- when you public speak, for example, I found you’re never going to not be nervous about it. Maybe Bill Clinton’s not nervous about it. But most people, I think, when they get in front of a crowd are going to get nervous about it. The difference is that some of them keep going and other let it, like, really, you know, paralyze them. And it’s the same thing with writing. You’re never going to feel perfect and perfectly confident that you are in the perfect position to tell a story, but you do anyway.
A: Would you consider investigative journalism similar or different than publishing scientific research?
S [14:45]: I think it’s different in that it is much more loosely defined and evaluated and held accountable. I think, and I may not be correct, but I think that scientific and academic- mostly scientific- publishing is peer reviewed in a more systemic way and emerges as accepted in a more system way and a more formatted situation. There are steps it has to go through to become part of the consensus in a way investigative journalism doesn’t. Also, investigative journalism, its success, its impact, its influence, its value is really dependent on how much it captures attention, too, and how much it tells a good story. And so I think that there are- there’s a lower bar for storytelling with scientific publishing but a higher bar for accountability and method. So investigative journalism is about explaining why something is the way that it is or finding something out that people didn’t want you to find out and that is not a perfect- there’s not a perfect machine for doing that. There’s not a perfect template for doing that. It’s a very messy experience. And the accountability is often- the last step for that accountability is often in the head of the reporter and the editor. There’s no, like, council or vote or academy to vet- or sort of jury to decide whether you were right or wrong. Maybe there should be, you know? But the ultimate accountability with, I think, with scientific literature is that others test it and then render some sort of verdict whether it continues to float to the top of the theories of discussion. In journalism, though, it’s still rests on the integrity and the brains of the editor and writer.
A: Where does the public come into play as far as holding the journalist accountable?
S: Well that’s an interesting- I think everybody in our business has a different way of doing that, of incorporating them. The public, I think, demands to be a part of it more than it may have in the past so how that feedback comes in…. You know, we’ve done many corrections based on feedback we got through Twitter or anger or different critiques that made sense and that really is the way you hold yourself accountable. You publish a story and you grit your teeth and you see how it- you try to anticipate everything people are going to say about it, all the critiques that will come, but you can’t anticipate it all. You’d never publish if you were going through every possible thing people would say. Now, to what level- I’ve found investigative reporters and editors are some of the more stubborn people on Earth so once they publish something, getting them to reevaluate the assertions they made is a very high bar and I think it has to be because you reveal something about a politician or about a business leader and they’re not going to like it and they push back, you can’t be immediately swayed by their response, you know? You have to apply the same skepticism and investigative standards to what they say to you in response as you do when you’re publishing or producing the story. And yet you also have to be willing to listen to their point and maybe you missed something. So it’s a weird brain you have to have. You have to be extremely stubborn and yet flexible when it does matter. That’s why I think it’s a pretty difficult skill for people to master.
A: I think in scientific research, also, you’re constantly testing a theory.
A: You’re always going over it and over it and over it and trying it in different ways. Whereas with journalism, you do the research and you kinda keep going forward. You may- it seems like you may step back a little bit to gather more information but you keep going forward as opposed to going in a circle until you reached that point where you feel like your trajectory can move forward.
S: I think in a way- although the best investigative journalists and editors are ones who aren’t determined to prove a certain theory, right? Like, they in many ways do act like- or should act like- scientists in that they have a hypothesis that they test and if it keeps surviving that test then it’s a great story. However, they have to be strong enough and flexible enough to identify when that hypothesis has been proven wrong. And that’s when the really interesting discussions come aboard about, well, is there still a story and what is that story? And that’s just, again, a very difficult skill to master.
A: Do you think it’s easier for a scientist or a journalist to evaluate their… after getting feedback?
S: I don’t know. I can’t speak for the experience of a scientist. I think that they are probably- you know, they are working on a much longer cycle than journalists are, I think, and obviously some of the theories scientists are working on are sometimes decades in the making so I think that changing course or admitting that you’re wrong after twenty years of research on something is probably a little different than what we deal with. But I think it’s- I think journalists just live in a world of fluidity and stories that I’m not sure I understand where scientists are in that.
A: So one of the MIT professors that we interviewed, he was once a journalist and eventually became this cultural anthropologist, is what he calls himself. And we talked a little bit about the-
S: Who is he?
A: His name was- is Ian Condry.
A: He studies now- he’s very big into Japanese anime and culture.
A: He dove into that pretty- headlong into that. But he talked about the comparisons between research and journalism and even said research could be considered long-form journalism.
A: Would you agree with that?
S: Oh, absolutely. I think that journalism is a- nobody has a strict, perfect, universally held definition of what journalism is. Basically, in my opinion, it’s the act of trying to figure out why things are the way they are and then communicating that. A lot of people say it’s the first draft of history, blah blah blah, all these clichés about what it is. But really, yeah, it is the initial attempt of us to understand where we’re at, what’s going on, and why. To an obvious certain extent it’s a more messy, quicker beginning version of hopefully what is the cycle of knowledge, which is then more intensely investigated more and more formally presented in a discussion after that. I think that the biggest distinction is that journalists compete in a world of entertainment, as well. I know that they hate that discussion. “Oh, we should never be in the world of entertainment.” But even more so now we have to compete with so many different inputs that people have throughout their day that we have to be compelling and interesting to stand out in that and I’m not sure that academics and scientists live in that world right now and I’m not sure that’s good. I think that they need to probably identify their lack of salience in the culture as a lack of crisis to address rather than just to lament all the time. There’s so much, like, “Wow, short attention span.” There’s just so much hand wringing and anger and resentment about the new world that we’re in but that’s not going to change. People aren’t going to put their phones down. They’re not going to suddenly get better attention spans. So how are we, people who establish truth and thought, going to compete in that world? And I embrace that challenge and I think we should all embrace it.
A: I’m actually glad you brought that up, especially the word truth, because that kinda brings me to the next subject. I want to talk more about ethics in communicating. So what role, then, since you are trying to reach the audiences through all the various different methods, what role does truth play in the Voice of San Diego’s mission?
S: Well, it’s everything. I mean, it’s- the problem is that like a point in geometry, there’s actually no point- you know, it just keeps getting smaller and smaller. Like there’s no- I don’t know if we can ever stab perfectly at truth but we have to try. So we have to build system to make sure we’re always trying to get there and always holding ourselves accountable. I think that what we’ve tried to do is be a little more- well, a lot more transparent about our algorithm and how we figure out truth and that means we are open about our ways of doing investigative journalism, ways about funding that investigative journalism, because so much of that suspicion about journalism is rooted in that, you know, where are you- what’s your agenda? And then be open about our agenda. I think one of the major problems that journalists have had is this sort of cult of objectivity that they’ve lived under for several decades now, which is that- this theory that they are merely mirrors reflecting society dispassionately with actually no bias. Which is attractive because as people would say they want to listen to people who have no stake in the game, that is just coolly analyzing a situation. But I think it’s naïve and disingenuous to say that you’re objective because I think that you, as a person living in a community with kids and houses and whatever, you are a person in this world and you have biases. Journalists will admit, even the people who will say they are the most objective people on Earth, will admit they have a bias against murder and against domestic violence and against racism and against a lot of things that they’re not- literally objective about. So I think to say we are objective is to also- they say, they are implying under that they’re- “Oh, we’re objective after we accept a bunch of facts, after we accept a bunch of values.” If they were truly objective they would hold he-said, she-said stories about whether murder is good or not. They are not- they’re not having that. They’ve accepted that. So what we’ve tried to do is gather all of the things that we’re- that we carry with us to these discussions. Things like we believe housing should be affordable in San Diego and school and quality education should be available to all and things like that that we’re going to carry with us. We also just want to be a little bit more open about where we’re coming from on a lot of stories because I think that authority- and Clay Shirkey at NYU is the one that really identified this- that authority in research and writing is now going to be derived from your transparency about how you do this and why your algorithm, not from your institution, right? It used to be that if you were just at the New York Times, you could call somebody and say, “I’m the New York Times,” and with it came an authority. It still does, but with it came an authority that was just unquestioned, that was just there. And now I think that authority, while there’s still some remaining institutional authority, the authority that we’re trying to build is more of an algorithmic authority like Shirkey identified, which is that this is how we do our jobs, this is where we’re coming from, this is how we’re funded, this is who we are, these are our- this is our agenda, and so take it or leave it. After that point, hopefully you trust us. The second thing I would identify is that the journalists that are going to survive in this culture right now are not the ones that rely on institutional authority or their name but rely on that but not only demonstrate what they find but what they’re trying to find and what they’re trying to do and that the more connections they make with people to prove that they are- or to show them what they’re trying to do, their quest that they’re going on, the more people will want to know what they find and trust them along the way. That’s literally the only answer for what I think is a major crisis in trust of the news organizations, of the news business, news media, and the culture of truth. The only way we’re going to build that is to build mass audiences of people who deeply trust you because they are part of your quest.
A: You mentioned authority, coming off as an authority on something. Is that- so that is necessary to get people to see you as an authority to be able to communicate?
S: [29:46] A vulnerable authority. I don’t think you can say, “This is the truth,” and be a hard ass about it. I think you have to be an authentic seeker and somebody they can identify as trying to work for blank principle. You know, truth or some sort of principle in local public affairs or whatever. But I think you have to- you do have to communicate authority but only after you have identified a vulnerability and a lack of knowledge that you are trying to pursue. I think at that point your authority is not so much in “I am above other people” and lecturing but “I am with you, trying to help provide a service that you’re- that you respect and support.”
A: I have a few more questions. Do you have time?
S: Yeah, sure.
A: One of Voice of San Diego’s values is, and I quote, “A well informed, well educated community ready to participate in civic affairs.”
A: So as a journalist, someone who’s tasked with communicating this information to these communities, do you feel that there’s a moral obligation with the way that you’re getting that information out to the people in your community?
S: [31:07] I don’t like the word “moral.” I think that a lot of what we deal with on a local and national level is- has to do with lack of knowledge, ignorance, and I don’t mean that as an insult. I take the challenge of ignorance on as an opportunity, as a- just a thing we have to deal with. When I look at the community, I find that- it’s very rare that people know who the mayor is or know who their city council rep is or knows how a school board election takes place. You know, who votes, how does the primary work versus the runoff, what the Port of San Diego does, what the county does. I find these are- there is vast ignorance about how those work. And I don’t mean ignorance in like “these people aren’t trying.” There are no systemic academic institutions or pathways to teach people about these things. In order for you to understand how public affairs works in San Diego, you just have to dive in. And that’s a huge, very high bar for people to have to go through. They have to- for us, as reporters, you go through it because you’re a reporter, that’s your job. But if it’s not your job, if you’re not a lobbyist or getting into public affairs or you’re not running for politics or political office or you’re not a journalist, you are not going to go through that until there’s a crisis point in your community. A lot of people go through it when a school is getting closed or when a development is getting build by their house they don’t like or whether there’s some sort of oil spill or something like that. Then they go through this crash course of trying to understand how things work. What our basic principle on that is is that we need to do whatever we can to help prepare people preemptively before the crisis hits so that they can be ready to understand how these systems work so they can participate in them. You can’t participate in the public-facing part of the Port of San Diego unless you know that the Port of San Diego exists and what it does and when it meets and who the commissioners are and what kind of decisions they make about the land that they manage and about the police force that they manage. You can’t be a part of those discussions until you understand those things. And so that’s what we mean there. Let’s do everything we can to explain that. So we sort of have two parts: we investigate and reveal things but then we also explain and help people understand things. Those are two parts of the same coin, I believe. Those things that we investigate and reveal aren’t going to be powerful unless people understand the underlying realities and facts about how those organizations and institutions and leaders actually function.
A: So it’s not a moral thing. You just want people to be on a good starting base to be able to be informed.
S: It’s an assumption that [34:11]- at the heart of it is an assumption, that I think you could challenge, that more people being better informed and participating in community affairs would produce better results. So I believe- personally I believe that as humans we are perennially dissatisfied. Like, we could look at all these stats that say there’s not as much war, there’s not as much poverty, there’s not as much challenges as humankind has dealt with throughout its history. However, we are still anxious about it. And I think at that- that instinct is good. That makes us better because we continually try to improve things. It gets a little out of hand when we overemphasize how bad things are versus how good things are. But I think that at that heart, there is a drive there. That’s the human drive, to- that’s what’s propelled us through civilization and through technology improvements and all that. And so I want to help facilitate that with a more common understanding of truth and facts and I think that- with that we have opportunities, we have growth, we have progress. So that is an assumption. That is a guiding assumption that I carry that I think you could challenge. I think you could argue with me that that’s not actually the best way to run things, maybe progress isn’t good, all those kinds of things.
A: A large portion of this podcast’s audience, or series’ audience, will be grad students in these highly detailed scientific arenas. The research papers could actually mirror dictionaries, they’re so think, you know?
A: But in journalism, you don’t- you only have a limited amount of space-
A: -or area to put it in there. Um, how do you decide what information or knowledge or facts are important enough to go into this small amount of space in order to communicate the ideas you’re trying to get across?
S: That concept is called “news sense” and it’s an art. It’s an instinct that editors, you know, adapt and evolve over time about what is news and what is not and the very feel and look and approach of a newspaper or news outlet is defined by how those editors and leaders of those institutions make those decisions and how they’ve evolved that sense, that news sense. And so, what we do here is we have those principles about the things we care about: about the environment, about local housing, about local education, and all those things. So we- first of all, it has to fit in those things so we’re not going to cover a kidnapping or whatever, unless it has a broader meaning for some of those areas. And so then we have to say, like, ok, is somebody else covering it? If so, are we going to do it better or different than they are? And then, we make other- are we able to explain why it’s important? Can the writer explain to me why it’s important? If they can, or if they are committed to it, then I go through another process of like, ok, is it a story or is it a message? So the difference is is that a story is a story about how something happened, right? It would be a character, it would be a bunch of characters, maybe a villain, a plotline, a challenge, a conflict, leading to a climax, leading to a resolution. There’s a way we’ve told stories in civilization for thousands of years and that’s a story, right? A message is something that’s- that is more common in journalism, that is the harder part but if you clarify it then you actually have a successful story. And so that is something like, “Somebody has embezzled $100,000 from a local public agency.” That sentence is a message and proving that message can take months or years or a lot of research, and the whole story should be about supplementing that and proving that message is true. But they have to be able to clarify that message or else I’m not going to let them go forward. And so that is how we do that. You have to be able to identify your message and I think that stories that are successful have one very clear message, and prove it. The ones that aren’t successful are ones that slalom through message and story and multiple messages and other things, and then you’re left not understanding the concept. When I think about academic research I think, well, there needs to be- even if it’s a 500 page book- you kinda need a message of that book to be able to- you know, that people can take away from it. The whole process of proving that message or of establishing it is something that could be exhilarating and wonderful to go through as a reader and a writer. But I think that if you aren’t able to identify the messages, at least in each chapter, then I think that you lose people and that’s where the Venn Diagram of research and journalism probably crosses and that middle part is like, we have to still communicate clearly why something’s important and what we did this for. I think that’s the process we go through. Does it fit with our areas? Is it important? Are we going to do it different and add value? And is it a message or a story?
A: It almost sounded like you were bordering on the scientific method of- you know, you’ve got your theory, or message or question, then you’ve got your research, and then you’ve got your results.
A: It almost sounds like you were heading that way with journalism but there’s a difference in- it’s just that story.
A: With a scientific paper, you’re not really telling a story.
S: I think that scientists have- look, I don’t want to put myself in their position. I don’t know what kind of challenges they deal with. But I think that it is a luxury to be able to stop at the point of proof and results and not have to continue through with audience engagement. I think that that’s a luxury that exists in the academic world that they should both appreciate and challenge because I don’t know how long that’s going to last, you know, to rely on the rest of society to prove and explain why your stuff is important. I think it’s dangerous because I think that we are entering a period of post-truth discussion where there’s- just because of the institution you’re part of is not going to be enough to establish your authority and value in society. So leaving the marketing and engagement and promotion of your work to a 3rd party or a PR person or whatever is very dangerous for anybody, whether they’re a journalist or not. I mean, journalists deal with this all the time. One of the frustrating things I have is even young journalists are often reluctant to promote their own work and to be proud of it and to share it and widely try to promote themselves on TV or whatever. I have to tell them, if you don’t do that nobody will and you’re going to lose.
A: Alright, so, I’m actually going to do something that you do with the people you interview. I’m going to play an audio clip for you but I want to kind of set it up first. So about five years back there was an NPR journalist named Brooke Gladstone and she wrote a book called “The Influencing Machine.”
S: Sure, I know Brooke.
A: You know her?
S: She’s the “On the Media”…
A: Yes, exactly.
S: I’ve met her before.
A: You have?
S: Mm hmm.
A: She seems-
S: Great voice.
A: Absolutely. I’ve listened to some interviews with her. She’s really great. Now in this book, “The Influencing Machine”- I don’t know if you’ve read that?
A: Ok. It basically posits that the media is a reflection of society, for better or worse. In an interview with KPBS, she was asked if there was an answer to one of her questions in the book, which was why there’s so much crap in the media. I want to actually play her reply to that.
Brooke Gladstone: Part of it has to do with the fact that our culture is the way it is. Part of it has to do with the fact we are wired to like narratives, to like conflict, to like visuals, where we have an almost genetic predisposition to be interested in celebrities that we can project upon, and all of this triviality is kind of baked into the business, just like it’s baked into us, and it’s a kind of vicious circle. And I don’t absolve the media of blame for being trivial, of rushing to judgment, of being full of garbage. But I also know that at the very moment when the media are just rife with crap, it’s also full of some of the best reporting we’ve ever seen. Across the board. And then, in every phase of American journalism, we have come to what a lot of people think is the brink of apocalypse. The society is coming apart! And at every phase, we’ve pulled away from that brink, if in fact we were ever there at all. There has been brilliant reporting and dreadful reporting at every single phase of our culture, throughout the invention of journalism, in fact since the invention of the written word.
A: Alright, so. Just as researchers need to communicate their work in order to get funding, you need to be able to sell what you’re doing in order to both continue that journalistic process and also make a living. Where, then, is the line drawn between entertainment and that commitment towards reporting that truth that we talked about earlier?
S: Well, I talked about it a little bit but to go a little further on that point, I… I am tired, so tired, of the hand-wringing about the debasement about our discussion, the “oh, how banal is this” and “stop being so click-baity” and blah blah blah. Like there is just a fundamental frustration and it’s couched in nostalgia, as though there was a golden period of truth in journalism and formality and everything was great now we’ve descended to this cultural pit of idiocy and I’m tired of that. Baked into it is this idea that we could somehow go back or that we…. It frees the people who make the complaints from the responsibility of dealing with it. They’re just like, “Well….” Nostalgia is really toxic in that it poisons the discussion about what to do. It’s like, “Well, we can’t do anything because everything’s so terrible and banal and not good.” And so, what I think has to be done is we have to recognize that the marketplace for ideas and writing and research has been completely democratized. There is now one voice per one person. You can now make your case as an individual. You don’t have to have access to the printing press, you don’t have to the newsroom. You are now- you have all the tools that every journalist has. In that world, we have to compete, we have to thrive. So we have to recognize that you can be as snobby as you want about entertainment you now compete with other people who are willing to do different things to be more entertaining or to be more engaging. You can’t just lament that all the time. You can’t just be upset that that’s what’s happens all the time. You can be upset about it but stop being so paralyzed by it. You know what I mean? You have to accept that that’s the world that we’re in now and so what are we gonna do? What are we gonna create that is as attractive, as engaging but has the standards but has the standards and the ethics and the integrity and the transparency build into it that we need in order to keep that cohesive discussion going? Because democracy simply doesn’t run on- we can’t run when there are disparate facts out there, when there’s disparate interpretations, disparate realities. The whole point of self-government is that we can all get together on certain shared principles and ideas and knowledge to make better decisions. We have to embrace that and we can not just stop at nostalgic concern about it.
A: So I want to talk, really quick- you mentioned bias earlier.
A: How does that- how do you- is bias a good thing in journalism or is it a bad thing, or even in communication, is bias a good thing?
S: I mean, it’s kind of like saying, is- are humans a good thing or a bad thing? Bias- I don’t quite understand obsession with it. What I think it is is a suspicion- at the heart of it, people that are concerned about bias are concerned that they are being told something in order to think something and not being told actually that that’s what’s happening. Do you know what I mean? That what they’re trying to identify is something hidden that is being- that they’re almost being poisoned with, as opposed to something transparent, that is something more acceptable. They want to be able to make up their own minds. They don’t want to be led naively through a path where they find out they were misled. But bias- we all are invested in our communities, you know. We are all- we all have homes. We have concerns, we have kids in schools, we have kids that might go to war, we have all kinds of things that make us biased as humans and I think that we need to- in order to address the concerns about bias- be more explicit about what we think it is versus what, you know, is the concern. When people- I have so many people come up to me and say that the reason they love what we do is because we’re not bias, or it’s nice to have- it’s refreshing to have somebody who’s not bias cover these things, and I always laugh. I don’t always challenge them because I’d never claim that we’re not bias. Ever. We are bias, we have a stake in this community, we’re trying to be as explicit about what that is as possible. And I think that what I have learned what they actually in many cases mean by that is that they feel like with our work they have learned things genuinely and authentically, not been, again, sort of pied-piper led somewhere, you know, where they weren’t aware of where they were going. And I think that that’s the concern we have to address and be- you know, I think that you can inoculate yourself from the concerns about bias by being as open and obvious about what you’re trying to do as possible because then they can go along on the journey with you or not. That’s the thing we have to aim for.
A: And it goes back to you saying that it’s almost impossible to be objective.
S: It is. I mean, the moment you decide to do a story you have made a subjective decision. You have said that this story is more worth than something else to cover. A truly objective coverage would be just a- thousands and thousands of pages of data reflected back to the community about what’s going on and no filter of what’s important or not. You literally lose all objectivity the moment you decide to cover something. You’ve made a subjective decision. Now look, I think you can be still objective or not partisan about particular solutions or discussions going on, and we strive for that. I think that you don’t have to take a side on everything. In fact, I don’t. We don’t take a side on the vast majority of things we cover. What we do is take a side on whether something’s a problem or not. If a school’s failing I’m not going to host a discussion about whether failing schools are good or not. But what they do to fix them is not necessarily something we’re going to take a side on. I think that you can still be- I don’t know if objective is the right word, but you can still be fair and balanced about solutions as opposed to being just completely, as Jay Rosen calls it, completely embracing a view from nowhere. Everybody has a view from somewhere, and it’s colored by their experience, their background. That’s why diversity in news rooms is so important. It’s not because you want racial justice in the world. It’s because people from other backgrounds sometimes have much more valuable perspectives on things that you might cover than you do because they come from different places. I think that we have to recognize that we’re all human.
A: Do you think someone’s background, when it comes to at least data or scientific research, do you think someone’s background can bias- can create a bias for them as far as their understanding of something goes or their dissemination of that information?
S: Oh, of course. I think that everything that makes us who we are is going to make us- you know, color our decisions for how we present things. I think that- I think we just have to be as conscious of it as possible so that we can accommodate for it and use it to our advantage, too. There are things that people see because of their background that make them more valuable as contributors to this marketplace of ideas. So they need to consciously, and with vulnerability, embrace it.
A: Ok, last question, then I’ll let you get back to your journalistic ways. Do you have any tips or lessons that you’ve learned about communication for grad students or any listeners?
S: People are always more interesting when they talk to their friends and family about what they do than when they produce it. There is a- they need to step back and be able to just explain things and why they care about them in a way that they would when they meet their friends at the bar. And I think there is a value in practicing that. I think that anybody struggling with writing needs to identify what would make them go off about it at a party, maybe with a few drinks, even, that would free them up to sort of just talk. What part of that can be captured as they write? I think that, obviously, there are very compelling writers out there and find the people that communicate the way that you think it should be done, the way that communication should work, and just dive into it. I remember listening to an interview with Judd Apatow, the director and comedian, and he described how he used to transcribe Saturday Night Live episodes because he just wanted to understand exactly what was happening because it was so brilliant in his mind. There’s something in that, in identifying what you think somebody’s doing really well, and just immersing yourself in it. Because if you’re ever stuck you can turn it and say, like, just experience it for a second and apply what you are trying to do to the same sort of approach.
A: I heard you speak at- you talked about love at this Creative Mornings thing.
A: Do you find it’s harder to communicate vocally in front of an audience than it is to communicate in writing?
S: It’s different but no, it’s not harder for me, no. It’s- I enjoy it a lot, making people laugh and telling stories and engaging them. That’s something I enjoy quite a bit. I think that people- when you publically speak, you know you have done a good job when people leave feeling like they understand something better, when you’ve taught them something. And I think that people who don’t successfully do that- I think you can look at the political campaigns we saw in 2016, that there’s three major candidates: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton. Obviously there’s a bunch more but let’s just take those three. I think that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, when they spoke, helped people understand their world in a way that they could fathom and replicate and they could leave there with messages. You know, those clear messages. Now, I don’t like the way that they did that, you know. I don’t like the realities that they laid out in some ways. But I think that- and I think that socialism on the left, for example, has a way of explaining the world that makes a lot of sense, and has for centuries, or a couple centuries now, and I think that it is a very powerful theory about why things are the way they are. So when you leave a speech where somebody’s doing it well, then they can identify who the villains are, they can identify who- you know, what the challenges are, they can identify who the victims are, and they feel better about their understanding of the world. And I think the same thing happened with Donald Trump. You can- you leave a Donald Trump speech and you feel like you understand the world better, about who the bad guys are, who the good guys are, who the victims are, and what you should do about it. I think when you left a Hillary Clinton speech, though, I don’t think- I think that the problems she laid out, she didn’t explain them as much as she just emphasized how big and gnarly they were. And it was probably a more accurate view of the world than either of them. But it’s so overwhelming and scary when you leave those- you could only make incremental progress on these big, gigantic, overwhelming problems.
A: It all sounded monotone. Like, when I listen to Obama speak, he’s got inflection, he’s got- he speaks fast sometimes, he speaks slow to emphasize points. Same with Bernie Sanders and even with Trump. But like you were saying, with Hillary Clinton, it’s just- she’s just talking.
S: Well, and more than that, I think it’s a recitation of facts and ideas, which as sentences are- could be well written and wonderful sentences. But they were just constant recitations. I think Ted Cruz would do this too when Ted Cruz spoke. I’ll never forget the Nevada caucuses, after Nevada, and I watched Donald Trump speak and then I watched Ted Cruz speak. And at that point I was like, Donald Trump’s gonna win this whole thing. I didn’t know he was going to win the final election but this nomination process because he was just into it and he was talking from the heart and he was explaining the world. And Cruz was just going fact by fact by fact by principle by fact, you know. It was just this list. And whenever you find yourself listing things I think you’re losing. When you find yourself explaining something, then you’re winning.
A: But emotion comes into play. I mean, there’s-
S: Yeah, you have to care about it.
A: Yeah, but can you do that with fact, too?
S: Sure. I think facts ostensibly, if you’re in this sphere, are what are guiding your passion. And so when you can identify the string of facts that make you feel the way you do, and then try to communicate that to people who are listening to you, I think you’ve struck the chord, you’ve hit what you want to hit. But when you find yourself just reciting things and not entirely knowing where that fits within their emotional storytelling, then you’re lost, you’re drifting, and I think so many speeches we watch- you know, I’m actually grateful that church was so boring when I was a kid, that there was so many recitations of facts and of principles, I think it facilitated my quick evolution into an atheist because it just never captures me. It never helped me understand the world and I’m glad that I didn’t have to go through the process that I had to had it been more compelling, had it been more explanatory, more passionate. You know, I think that in any situation, an election or a church or a- if you’re sitting there just rambling through facts that you might find interesting in some deep part of your soul but you don’t actually communicate why they’re interesting, you’ve lost.
A: Alright, very interesting. Well, I appreciate your time. Thank you.
S: Thank you.