Armchair journalism

Miffed at being criticized over a news coverage, a reporter once juxtaposed his “real journalism” of being out on the field with “armchair journalism.”

The attempted put-down betrays a dated outlook on journalism, one that’s stuck in a different era. It is the journalism romanticized by the 1976 film All The President’s Men. For the unfamiliar, the film tells the story of how Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward pursued the story on the Watergate break-in that ultimately led to the resignation of President Nixon.

For generations of reporters, the Watergate series was something to aspire to, shoe-leather investigative reporting that uncovers government misdeeds. When I was with The Freeman in 1996, I had a scoop on how an official running a supposedly free training program was actually illegally collecting fees. I had to go through a thick stack of documents including bundles of unofficials receipts for that reporting. A colleague described it as our paper’s “Watergate scoop.” I think not (but I was able to hold my tongue better then.)

Armchair as an insult means lacking “real world” experience. But times have changed and “armchair” has become a diss of a bygone era, when sitting on an armchair meant you’re disconnected from the field and the world.

If you fixate on the armchair, you lose sight of what the journalist is working on – a supercomputer that’s connected to a world of data. When you look closely and lose the blinders, armchair journalism is computer journalism, data reporting.

And that reporter could very well have improved his story by spending time on an armchair and using data to provide context to his story.

Our connected world is swimming in data and by not tapping it in reporting, journalists fail in one of their important roles, which is to provide better context on issues and events.

An example of this is the reporting on people’s compliance with quarantine restrictions. Many of the stories were limited to anecdotal snippets and he said-she said exchanges between officials. Journalists missed out on actual data that could have painted a more accurate picture of community compliance – the mobility data released by Google, Apple, and Facebook. Some armchair journalism, in hindsight, would have helped.

What was the impact on travel of advance announcements of changes in quarantine levels? Facebook’s Data for Good laid it out on a map – people left the National Capital Region in huge numbers for different parts of the country. A team could have then correlated these patterns with the number of cases through time.

Last year, there were stories about shortages of paracetamol in parts of the country. One data point that could have added context to the story was the increase in search volumes for the drug, as monitored by Google Trends.

When I was still on the field, documents were often difficult to obtain and then photocopy. Government audit reports, for example, were yearly targets that were a deep source of scoops. At City Hall, I used to swipe documents through a contact who would meet me in the toilet, where we exchanged folders or brown envelopes. Former Mayor Alvin Garcia once asked during a meeting where two other contacts were present, “diin man ni siya ani?” (Where did he get this?)

Now, audit documents are available online and you could set up alerts for when these are up. Not only that, tools like Google Pinpoint allow you to quickly process a large set of documents for your reporting. For the first time, a single reporter can present a full picture of audit findings of an entire province. Pinpoint helped me do that in these stories:

And if you know how to find your way, unsecured folders in government websites allow you to browse directories and check on uploaded documents. (This used to be prevalent in the past, especially among LGU websites.) This isn’t hacking – this is just editing the web address on your browser.

This outdated outlook on journalism and reporting, this disinclination to work on an armchair (i.e. work with new IT such as AI, machine learning, and big data) is our generation’s equivalent to the typewriting curmudgeons of old.

I think journalists, especially in the communities, should go all-in on new IT because of the help it provides in gutted newsrooms. Consider the time and effort saved in using the cloud to automate transcription of interviews or of the improvement in news operations with a cloud-based archive system that is intelligently indexed and available from anywhere.

Of course being out on the field is still important. But informed with data, field work vastly improves.

(PS, if you’re interested in “armchair journalism,” we sometimes hold New Media Bootcamps that discuss tech and journalism. Last year, we had one with Amazon Web Services that had speakers from AWS and Google. It’s typically held in September.)

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