A Critique of Context-Free Journalism

Journalism is the act of taking facts and expert opinions, putting them together with the context required to make them meaningful, and producing a piece that consumers will learn something from1. This is the basic framework I use to understand and evaluate news organizations. Newslaundry is an Indian subscription-based independent news organization that I started following with the hope that their “indie music” approach to journalism was the refreshing breeze that Indian news media desperately needs. My findings were disappointing, a recent episode of their daily news briefing podcast had a story which was read out with none of the required context. This symbolizes the problems media organizations face and have left unresolved. I will continue to read the work that Newslaundry produces, albeit with lowered expectations when compared to what I have for the New York Times, NHK or Bloomberg.

These are the three major stages in the reporting of news:

  1. Discovering information: Something happens: a report is released, an expert says something in an interview, a research paper predicts that the world as we know it will no longer exist in 2012 etc. Wire services like the Associated Press have existed since the widespread use of the telegram in the late 1800s and their goal is to produce the “official” version of events, which will be used as a jumping off point by news organizations such as the New York Times or local papers that rely on them for national or international news
  2. Gathering context: “Understanding what happened yesterday, requires you to understand what happened a week, a month or several years ago” (Matthew Yglesias, one of the founders of Vox). This is the crucial step in reporting the news and the best organizations do this well. They take different approaches to this problem: Bloomberg employs a bevy of columnists with expertise in various niche topics who publish informed, well-researched, opinion pieces. New York Times takes a neutral approach which relies on a reporting network that spans the whole world and employs people from every country. These reporters have a native understanding of the events that they are covering. Vox does this through meticulous research on wonky topics which are mostly centered on America but occasionally global. Everyone agrees that this part is important but a lot of news organizations simply ignore this step, resulting in pieces that readers scroll past.
  3. Writing an article: The final step in the process is deceptively simple. It involves an ill-defined mix of the skills of a writer and the skills of an editor to produce an article that is self-sufficient and is long enough to convey the right amount of information. The final product is not always an article: It can be a video (a script + visuals) or a podcast (a script + answers from an expert or opinions from the host). Some organizations excel at this step: Magazines are particularly good at this because they have the ability to spend the kind of time that would appear unreasonable to news organization focusing on the “outrage of the day”2. Bloomberg Businessweek’s feature-length article about Tim Cook, New Yorker’s profile of Apple designer Jony Ive3 and Guardian’s Long Read about freewill are brilliant examples of well-reported, beautifully written pieces that cover an open question and give the reader the space to ruminate about what is written long after they initially read the article.

What is Newslaundry?

Newslaundry started with the goal of being independent and subscriber funded and they have stuck to this model. There have been a large number of reported pieces in which their reporters have talked to people on the ground and broadcast these conversations as video features or as articles on their website. Newslaundry also has a really good Hindi section with articles that cover a whole variety of topics and I appreciate that they are doing this despite the limited audience for online Hindi news4.

I started listening to Newslaundry’s daily news briefing podcast “Daily Dose” around 6 months ago. A new episode is released every day of the week. Each episode is about 8-15 minutes long and contains the top news stories from India and the world. The episodes also inevitably contain one message placed somewhere in the middle which urges the listener to subscribe to their service (the podcast is free and can be streamed on your favorite podcast app). Most of the episodes also contain references to a reported piece or a ground report on the website and I tried to read as many as I could manage to get a sense for both the podcast and the written pieces.

The written pieces are thoroughly researched and well-written. I have found that most of the pieces don’t have the depth that is required to understand the historical context, but this is a pet peeve and doesn’t hinder the reader from understanding what is being said or why it is important. No piece that I read over the past 4 months stood out particularly either for the content or the writing and I have only one cutout from the website during that period. The stories that were being covered were solidly in the current affairs realm. Their value stems from the fact that no other news organization in India is covering these topics with this steady regularity and journalistic integrity.

Context-free journalism

In Episode 715 of the “Daily Dose”, I found an example of context-free journalism that left me rather disoriented and cross.

(01:53) Indigo has transported a total of 4142 Oxygen concetrators, weighing nearly 72,500 kg, across India. 2717 concentrators were airlifted from Thailand, China, Qatar, Hong Kong and Singapore; while 1425 were transported domestically between 36 airports.

The Allahabad High Court …

The story about the oxygen concentrators has no context. The story before it was about diagnostic testing advisories to states and the story after it was about the judiciary criticizing the UP state government. In particular,

  1. The listener has no idea what to make of this number: 4142 concentrators. How many concentrators are there in India right now? How many were transported yesterday by other airlines? Why is Indigo the only airline that’s being pointed out here?
  2. The listener can’t make sense of the other number: 72,500 kg. How big is this? Is it the size of a single airplane? Is it multiple airplanes? I don’t know what this number is even doing in this sentence. Ratios and comparisons put big numbers into context.
  3. What does the detailed split tell the listener? Nothing. 4142 = 2717 international + 1425 domestic. Sure, that sounds good, but what does it mean? All I understood was that a majority of the concentrators were imported. But why were they imported? Why aren’t more being manufactured in India? How many were imported yesterday? Are more going to be imported tomorrow? … so on.
  4. Why is this important? I know that there is a shortage of oxygen concentrators right now. But assuming that the listener already knows a part of the news is counter-intuitive for a news podcast5.

The segment left me disoriented and with more questions than I had. And I was cross about it because I believed that this was an important news story but I didn’t get the information I wanted.

This segment with more context would probably sound like this: “About N concentrators were transported yesterday by the 3 major airlines, A, B and C. Of these, X% were imported from Country D, Country E and Country F among others, while the remaining were manufactured in India, mainly in the cities of G, H and I. India has been facing a major shortage of concentrators during the ongoing Covid19 wave of infections. Experts say that Y% more concentrators are required to prevent adverse outcomes due to the lack of this life-saving device”.

Clearly, this is a cherry-picked example. I had been thinking about writing a critique of Newslaundry for the past couple weeks and this podcast was simply the trigger to write it today and not put it off. But this is emblematic of a deeper problem that is either misunderstood or ignored by the practitioners of this profession, journalism: The listener always needs more context than experts do.

Someone who has worked in the logistics industry would know that transporting 72,500 kg of cargo in a single day is a huge achievement, or maybe they know that it’s just a drop in the ocean and not worth mentioning at all. I don’t work in that industry and I have absolutely no idea what it means.

As a great recent counter-example of journalism which has just the right amount of context, I would present the episode about Aleksei Navalny on The Daily, a New York Times podcast. I have never been to Russia and I knew little about Russian politics or geography before I heard this episode. After listening to it, I understood what was going on, why it was important and what Navalny’s role in it precisely was. The context was vital in my understanding that. I can easily imagine this episode botching the presentation up by reducing the context just a little bit (such as naming the cities where there were huge protests but not mentioning their geographical importance, or the historical rarity of wide-spread protests in Russia) which would have left me confused and tuned-out.

Other Critiques

Newslaundry also does “media critique” in the form of articles on their websites and a YouTube show called “Newsance” which points out the problems in the way other news organizations covered news stories. I have found this part of their reporting problematic because it gave me the feeling that they were playing both sides of the news business: they are an organization reporting the news and an organization criticizing other news organization who are in that business. Some of their media critique blends uncomfortably into plugging the way that they covered the news story that is being talked about. I haven’t seen or read a lot of their media critique articles due to this reason. I would much rather rely on non-profit groups and think-tanks to play the role of the “media watchdog”(like Media Matters for America in the US) and have news organizations only report the news.

I intend to continue to subscribe to Newslaundry and listen to their daily briefings podcast. However, I will re-calibrate my expectations and expect less context and more current affairs news, which is valuable in its own right, but is less valuable than a fully-formed product with the appropriate context. In a media landscape over-run with propaganda machines like Times Now and Republic TV, Newslaundry is one of the few organizations that publishes a wide-variety of coverage, a large part of which is critical of the government.

  1. The “something” is intentionally ill-defined: People are different and they expect different things from the news they consume. 

  2. A phrase that is often used by Ezra Klein on “The Ezra Klein Show” when talking about whether journalists should cover “current affairs” or focus on evergreen topics. 

  3. Archive retrieved 2020-12-29 

  4. This is a hunch. I don’t know that the audience is limited. If I find data out there which says that the audience for online Hindi news is actually larger than the audience for English news, I will update this section. 

  5. I have left out “What is an Oxygen concentrator?” in this list. I don’t know what they are or how big they are etc; I was not expecting this kind of context from the beginning because my expectations were already lowered. If this was a popular podcast like NYT’s The Daily or a Bloomberg QuickTake, then I would have expected an explanation of what a concentrator, what it looks like and why it saves lives.