500 Words, Day 11 / by dan turner

Lately I've talked about Michael Schudson's Discovering the News. In it, Schudson spends some pages on "interpretive reporting", which seems to be a key conceptual step from "yellow" to objective journalism, but he seems never to quite define the term. Since the devil's in the connotation, it'd be nice if we could avoid the confusion (some honest, some intentional) like what perpetually arises around the word "theory" when it comes to talking about evolution; after all, "interpretive" could mean an emotional, Fox&Friends-like, subjective gloss on otherwise factual news. I'll try to fill in a definition.

This seems especially relevant as data-driven journalists dive into mammoth data sets; is this "interpretive"? Data don't lie, but we all know what sits close with lies and damn lies.

Schudson begins his talk of interpretive reporting by listing examples of weekend summaries appearing in papers such as the New York Sun, Washington Post, the AP, the Richmond News Leader, in the 1930s. Schudson cites Herbert Brucker's 1937 The Changing American Newspaper as saying that readers wanted more "background" and "interpretation" as a response to "the increasing complexity of the world". But it's still not clear what made summaries equal to interpretation.

Curtis MacDougal's 1938 book Interpretive Reporting is also quoted by Schudson, to show how what was then the newest ethic of reporting set one of the bases for today's objectivity. MacDougal said that this involves the "direction of combining the function of interpreter with that of reporter after half a century during which journalistic ethics called for a strict differentiation between narrator and commenter"; this suggests that pre-interpretive reporting, journalists either wrote about things they knew or things they witnessed, not both. You can see how this would prohibit contextualization: a single murder report could not bring up the crime rate for the year, or similar cases.

Does this mean interpretive reporting subsumes opinion writing? Fortunately, no. Lester Markel, former editor of The Sunday New York Times, said it is "reporting news depth and with care, news refreshed with background materials to make it comprehensive and meaningful"; other editors have said that it involves not just the facts of the story, but the "essential facts" that places the news within an environment. Rather than opinion, the "interpretation" must be fact-based and relevant.

Steven Maras, in his book Objectivity in Journalism, notes that this trend has been in tension with objective reporting, and was in part a reaction to editorial limits on advocacy journalism. Reporters wanted more impact and creativity; Maras said that Markel synthesized the often opposing desires by noting that "interpretation is an objective judgment based on knowledge". Much as data journalists interview their data with rigor.

So, "interpretive reporting" shares a lot with the precepts and practices of today's data journalism that seeks to provide context, analysis, and conclusions that help improve the reader's world. It's nice to know there's more continuity in the mission of journalism than we might sometimes fear.

And that's 500 words.