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Two types of journalism

There are no shortage of ways to divide journalism into different categories: data journalism, service journalism, investigative journalism, solutions journalism, visual journalism, literary journalism, and so on.

But I have increasingly come to think of all journalism as falling into just two buckets: creating rational understanding, and creating emotional understanding. You could call it left-brain and right-brain journalism.

The bicameral mind

Rational understanding

Left-brain journalism seeks to convey information in the most efficient and effective manner. It tells you what happened, analyses why it matters to you, and perhaps even teaches you how to use this information. Imaginative left-brain journalism connects the dots into a formal framework. Its value is in its usefulness, and since usefulness is always relative to the user and what she is trying to accomplish, the ultimate goal of this time of journalism is to deliver information personalised to the needs of each person.

This type of journalism is reductive: it takes the complexities of the world, abstracts from them, and reduces them so they fit into paradigms that can be grasped and manipulated. Left-brain journalism might be summed up in the promise to provide trusted answers to your most pressing questions at any given time.

Some examples of this type of journalism:

Emotional understanding

By contrast, right-brain journalism seeks to create meaning by transporting you into someone else’s shoes. It tells stories, ‘paints a picture’, and might even ask you to make meaningful choices as someone else and experience the consequences. It deals in human intentions and its value is in inducing empathy. To paraphrase Jerome Bruner, the ultimate goal of this type of journalism is to translate timeless, universal epiphanies into the particulars of experience; to locate those experiences in time and space.

This type of journalism is expansive: it asks questions by inviting you to inhabit the story and make it your own, rather than telling you what to think. Right-brain journalism might be summed up in the promise to give you questions you never knew you had.

Some examples of this type of journalism:

The pendulum swings

As with any classification system, the lines dividing the two types are often blurry and there are many stories that accomplish both with aplomb. But it is still useful to identify the two ends of the spectrum because technological changes in the way we produce and consume journalism is swinging the pendulum towards left-brain journalism.

This can be seen in the twin obsessions of digital journalism: how to convey relevant information most efficiently, and how to measure the value of journalism. Both are important — and quintessentially left-brain — endeavours.

Efficiently conveying relevant information

Digital news is fuelling advances in left-brain journalism at both the systems level and the story level.

On a systems level, machine learning algorithms promise to improve the quality of news as well as improve efficiencies in its delivery. This will be done through personalised news feeds and news ‘Particles’ that can be extracted from articles and reassembled as necessary. So far, the algorithms don’t work very well, but there is little doubt about where the trend is headed.

Left-brain advances are also happening on an individual story level: in debates, for example, over whether stacked bars or line charts are better for showing part-to-whole relationships, and in discussions around when interactivity should be used.

I classify these as left-brain debates to the extent that all participants agree that the goal is to lower cognitive load on the reader, ensure the intended message is conveyed accurately, and increase efficiencies in conveying information by eliminating elements, such as tooltips, that are not fit for that purpose.

Measuring (and valuing) journalism

The business of news has a big impact on which of the two types of journalism are valued, and therefore produced.

As a business, journalism is no different from any other: it provides a service to its customers and therefore must know whether its services meets its customers’ needs.

In that respect, online audience metrics are an important advance. It may not allow publishers to read the minds of their readers, but even as blunt a tool as unique visitors per article is a surgical scalpel compared to printed circulation numbers that were all newspapers had.

This has an impact on what journalism is funded, and therefore produced. Yes, experiments in using audience data to inform reporting on a granular level have largely failed. Yet the indirect effects, through staffing decisions and media company bankruptcies, are already being felt.

This is favouring left-brain journalism (although it doesn’t have to!). The crudeness of existing metrics and the inscrutability of the human mind means that it is much easier to measure utility rather than emotional impact. The positioning of journalism as product frames the discussion in the language of market economics which, as Lewis Hyde pointed out more than three decades ago, has always been bad at organising certain [read: right brain] spheres of life that are nonetheless important to us.

So what if the pendulum swings?

Why does this matter? Many would argue that only left-brain journalism is journalism. After all, isn’t the whole point of news to help people gain rational understanding of what’s going on in the world?

Perhaps, but there is at least some evidence that people do not understand the world through rational thought alone, and that narratives and worldviews play a central role in how we construct reality.

Facebook’s ‘blue feed, red feed’ reflects this, as does the rise of truthiness in political discourse. The vast gulf of understanding between Remainers and Brexiters in the UK, or Clinton and Trump supporters in the US, is a clear indictment of the limits of rational analysis.

The master and his emissary

I am indebted to Iain McGilchrist for my understanding of the difference between the two modes of thinking, but I am not as pessimistic as he was on technology’s effects on which mode we favour and develop.

I could point to virtual reality and games-as-journalism as new digital tools that push the boundaries of right-brain storytelling.

I could point to research showing that despite near-complete failures in the market economy, the democratising force of web publishing means that there is more right-brain journalism being produced now than ever before.

Right-brain journalism is far from being dead. The challenge, as it has always been, is simply to find new ways to create the conditions where such journalism can thrive, and celebrate the works that will inevitably be undervalued by the market economy.

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