A new New Precision Journalism
November 3, 2009
Fascinating though it is, and despite the leading adjective in the title, Philip Meyer’s classic New Precision Journalism is sorely in need of an update.
Of course, a book written over 18 years ago can’t help but be overtaken by events. Some of the examples, and in particular the details, have dated badly. Even more glaring is what is missing – no mention of mobiles, no email and (naturally) no Web.
Now it’s certainly true that the principles of sound research and data analysis that Meyer champions are timeless. There is still more than enough practical advice and common sense to make it an essential addition to any journalist’s bookshelf.
But we are living in a different, more connected world. Not only are the raw data out there in far greater quantity and in more convenient formats, and not only are the tools to delve into them far more sophisticated and easy to use, but the very inter-connectedness of that data is itself a new avenue for exploration.
For example, an experiment by MIT reported by the Boston Globe found that it was possible to predict a person’s sexuality simply by examining their list of friends; researchers at the University of Texas found that even when websites stripped out the personal details of their users, it was often possible to identify them by a technique of cross-referencing.
An article earlier this year from ComputerWorld (headlined “What the Web Knows About You“) rang alarm bells for the reporter who discovered a wealth of personal information about him freely available online – not all of it accurate.
These new forms of info-mining, taking advantage of the multiple, often unintended, connections between data sets, should form the focus of a new New Precision Journalism; true to the values and strengths of the original, but alert to the fresh horizons opened up by communications technology.
And who knows – it may throw up some great stories!