Spring 2010

Political observatories, databases & news in the emerging ecology of public information

Michael Schudson

Michael Schudson is a Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Previously he was Professor of Communication and Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego. His recent publications include Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press (2008) and The Sociology of News (2003). He is a past recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Mac-Arthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship.

The database is to the digital age what the narrative was to the modern era of the novel and the cinema, according to the oversimplified but brilliant and provocative formulation of Lev Manovich.1 This idea implies quite a lot, I believe, about the future of news.

But the implications of the database for news do not begin with the Internet or with Google, but with the proliferation of data-gathering and data-assembling institutions in the 1970s. Even earlier, the role that data could, and should, play in journalism was considered by Walter Lippmann, a journalist and freelance intellectual. In 1920, in Liberty and the News, Lippmann complained (as he would do with even greater fervor in Public Opinion two years later) that American journalism was failing to serve the needs of modern democracy–and that it would continue to fail without help from forces beyond itself.

Why? Lippmann cited two reasons. First, journalism was in the hands of “untrained amateurs,” and though the amateur “may mean well . . . he knows not how to do well.”2 Lippmann expressed some hope for expanding “a professional training in journalism in which the ideal of objective testimony is cardinal.”3 By deepening the curricular riches of journalism schools (the few that then existed) and making them intellectually more ambitious, each crop of new recruits to journalism could, over time, raise the standards of the news.

Second, the world had simply become far too complex to be adequately reported by the conventional tools of journalism. The news from which the reporter “must pick and choose has long since become too complicated even for the most highly trained reporter,” Lippmann wrote. The problem was not simply the inadequacies of individual reporters or newspapers, but “the intricacy and unwieldiness of the subject matter.”4 Lippmann, thinking only of government and not of the rest of society, observed that administration had become more important than legislation but much harder to follow. The work of administration spreads out across time, and its impact is not visible in a way that reporters are able to measure. Journalism could report the complexity of the modern world only by making use of other agencies where “a more or less expert political intelligence” provides the journalist reliable maps of the world.5 Lippmann referred to these agencies as “political observatories” to imply that . . .


  • 1Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001). On page 218, Manovich holds: “After the novel, and subsequently cinema, privileged narrative as the key form of cultural expression of the modern age, the computer age introduces its correlate–the database. Many new media objects do not tell stories; they do not have a beginning or end; in fact, they do not have any development, thematically, formally, or otherwise that would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as any other.” Manovich argues also, on page 225, that “database and narrative are natural enemies. Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right” to make meaning. I do not know what sort of evidence supports this hyperbole. Nevertheless, if Manovich’s self-assurance gets the better of him here, his boldness in articulating the narrative/database contrast is stunning.
  • 2Walter Lippmann, Liberty and the News (1920; Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008), 45.
  • 3Ibid., 48.
  • 4Ibid., 53.
  • 5Ibid., 55.
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