Macroscopic Journalism?

I just had another fascinating conversation with Peggy Holman, author of THE CHANGE HANDBOOK who has been working with journalists for about 8 years in a project called Journalism that Matters and is writing a book on the dynamics of emergence in social systems.
Peggy had commented to some journalists that their profession might usefully think of their work as providing citizens with a “macroscopic” view of events and issues. She wrote:
“As I’ve thought about new ways of  structuring information, one of the insights from the AP [Associated Press] research… comes to mind: the [public’s] hunger for context. There’s an image I like for thinking about making context visible and understandable.  It is the “macroscope” [a term…] coined by Joel de Rosnay, author of The Symbiotic Man [who notes that microscopes are for seeing what’s too tiny for ordinary seeing, telescopes are for seeing what’s too far away for ordinary seeing, and macroscopes are for seeing what’s too complex for ordinary seeing]. One way to provide context is to create macroscopic views into stories, a contextualized understanding of the relevant  interconnections… [for example] Something that enables us to see the complexity of the health care debate or how the financial meltdown happened.” Peggy said that the AP research about hunger for context in the news was focused on young people, but it probably applies to all of us.
Journalists could be providing a macroscopic view where we can see ourselves in context, in the complex world we live in, but understandable. That’s an important emerging journalistic skill. Tools for doing that are getting richer. Metadata and tagging can help uncover patterns in data. She said “My own work with diverse groups has taught me there’s a turning point when people see themselves in context. They begin to behave in ways that are not only good for them but good for the social body. Journalists are well positioned to help that trend towards increasingly diverse groups of people understading their interconnections. Journalists offer tremendous potential in increasing our capacity to get along and make informed choices that serve our quality of life and the health of the planet, the ability to get along with the Other — all the qualities that make for a better world.”
I asked her what she thinks are diverse ways of seeing ourselves in context, and she came up with this list:
* Chris Jordan photographic art
* Jane Stevens’ link to a niche news site for people with AIDS 
* Minnesota Public Radio’s “Balance the state budget” interactive online “game”
* A young woman who did a site on the financial meltdown
I offered her my own sense of media through which we can see ourselves in context:
* through systems – e.g., “The story of stuff” video
* through multiple viewpoints – e.g., the early work of dramatist Anna Deavere Smith – Journalists could tell the stories that people who played (or are playing) different roles in an event are telling themselves, stories which influence how they act in the event, stories which (in relationship with each other) largely explain how the event unfolded (or is unfolding) the way it does, and even the role the viewer / reader played or is playing in that (this final bit is based on the assumption that we all play some role in everything, and it would be useful to be more aware of that — one might call it “the journalism of engagement”; “we are all participants”)
* through conversation – e.g., Macleans magazine’s remarkable 1991 initiative (Journalism That Matters is already considering how journalism could sponsor and report on public affairs conversations and, ultimately, BE more of a conversation than a broadcast, such as happens within and among blogs)
We then added some more examples of media that help us see ourselves in context:

* Games like the budget one mentioned above, Second Life, Sim City
* Stephen Spielberg’s MUNICH, a movie that contextualizes Israel’s tit-for-tat revenge for the murder of Israeli Olympic athletes
* Evolutionary and historic context
* “Possibility journalism” — in which Peggy imagines a reporter not only asking the standard who, when, what, where, why, and how questions, but “What is possible now?” — in which the context is the future

And Peggy then noticed a pattern of patterns in what we were listing:
* patterns over time (past, present, future)
* patterns of relationship (which I note includes power, politics, and economics)
* patterns of space
* patterns of ideas
Peggy wondered: WHAT IF THIS IS ULTIMATELY ABOUT SHIFT? – What if journalists started to tell stories in this kind of contextualized way that engaged people so they could see themselves and respond to that? Does groundwork need to be laid for that to happen? Is interaction of diverse entities in a given context (Peggy’s and my statement of the fundamental evolutionary dynamic) enough? Can this be done without creating containers (safe spaces for generative interaction), by simply creating artifacts that show the interactions among diverse entities in a given context in a way that I as an audience can take it in? Is that how we scale-up turning points — i.e., catalyze major cultural shifts?

I suggested that this possibility is intimately related to my idea of “imagineering” — which basically involves immersing people in a story that has implications for how they live their own lives, so that some/many will shift attitudes and behaviors because of that. To the extent it does this, journalism — and all storytelling — has a power to take a turning point to scale. Journalism’s ability to do this is impeded by its traditional bias towards “objective balance” in reporting, which reduces its power to engage people and can even feed an alienated sort of spectatorism. We don’t need one-sided bias, but neither do we need an unengaged “here is the Republican position and here’s the Democratic position”. Like MACLEANS did with its 1991 conversation, we don’t have to balance positions so much as show a living dynamic through which diverse people find useful understandings or common ground. That contextualizes what the viewer/reader thinks and feels in a productive way and can inspire other such conversations around the community or country. And if events are reported in a way that people can see the (sometimes totally passive) role they played in it — and what role(s) they COULD play in a “What is Possible Now?” set of scenarios — they can be activated without advocating some position in a biased way.

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