Children get plenty of benefits from music lessons. Learning to play instruments can fuel their creativity, and practicing can teach much-needed focus and discipline. And the payoff, whether in learning a new song or just mastering a chord, often boosts self-esteem.
But Harvard researchers now say that one oft-cited benefit — that studying music improves intelligence — is a myth.
Though it has been embraced by everyone from advocates for arts education to parents hoping to encourage their kids to stick with piano lessons, a pair of studies conducted by Samuel Mehr, a Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) doctoral student working in the lab of Elizabeth Spelke, the Marshall L. Berkman Professor of Psychology, found that music training had no effect on the cognitive abilities of young children. The studies are described in a Dec. 11 paper published in the open-access journal PLoS One.
“More than 80 percent of American adults think that music improves children’s grades or intelligence,” Mehr said. “Even in the scientific community, there’s a general belief that music is important for these extrinsic reasons. But there is very little evidence supporting the idea that music classes enhance children’s cognitive development.”
The notion that music training can make someone smarter, Mehr said, can largely be traced to a single study published in Nature. In it, researchers identified what they called the “Mozart effect.” After listening to music, test subjects performed better on spatial tasks.
Though the study was later debunked, the notion that simply listening to music could make someone smarter became firmly embedded in the public imagination, and spurred a host of follow-up studies, including several that focused on the cognitive benefits of music lessons.
Though dozens of studies have explored whether and how music and cognitive skills might be connected, when Mehr and colleagues reviewed the literature they found only five studies that used randomized trials, the gold standard for determining causal effects of educational interventions on child development. Of the five, only one showed an unambiguously positive effect, and it was so small — just a 2.7 point increase in IQ after a year of music lessons — that it was barely enough to be statistically significant.
“The experimental work on this question is very much in its infancy, but the few published studies on the topic show little evidence for ‘music makes you smarter,’” Mehr said.
To explore the connection between music and cognition, Mehr and his colleagues recruited 29 parents and 4-year-old children from the Cambridge area. After initial vocabulary tests for the children and music aptitude tests for the parents, each was randomly assigned to one of two classes, one that had music training, or another that focused on visual arts.
“We wanted to test the effects of the type of music education that actually happens in the real world, and we wanted to study the effect in young children, so we implemented a parent-child music enrichment program with preschoolers,” Mehr said. “The goal is to encourage musical play between parents and children in a classroom environment, which gives parents a strong repertoire of musical activities they can continue to use at home with their kids.”
Among the key changes Mehr and his colleagues made from earlier studies were controlling for the effect of different teachers — Mehr taught both the music and visual arts classes — and using assessment tools designed to test areas of cognition, vocabulary, mathematics, and two spatial tasks.
“Instead of using something general, like an IQ test, we tested four specific domains of cognition,” Mehr said. “If there really is an effect of music training on children’s cognition, we should be able to better detect it here than in previous studies, because these tests are more sensitive than tests of general intelligence.”
The study’s results, however, showed no evidence for cognitive benefits of music training.
While the groups performed comparably on vocabulary and number-estimation tasks, the assessments showed that children who received music training performed slightly better at one spatial task, while those who received visual arts training performed better at the other.
“Study One was very small. We only had 15 children in the music group, and 14 in the visual arts,” Mehr said. “The effects were tiny, and their statistical significance was marginal at best. So we attempted to replicate the study, something that hasn’t been done in any of the previous work.”
To replicate the effect, Mehr and colleagues designed a second study that recruited 45 parents and children, half of whom received music training, and half of whom received no training.
Just as in the first study, Mehr said, there was no evidence that music training offered any cognitive benefit. Even when the results of both studies were pooled to allow researchers to compare the effect of music training, visual arts training, and no training, there was no sign that any group outperformed the others.
“There were slight differences in performance between the groups, but none were large enough to be statistically significant,” Mehr said. “Even when we used the finest-grained statistical analyses available to us, the effects just weren’t there.”
While the results suggest studying music may not be a shortcut to educational success, Mehr said there is still substantial value in music education.
“There’s a compelling case to be made for teaching music that has nothing to do with extrinsic benefits,” he said. “We don’t teach kids Shakespeare because we think it will help them do better on the SATs. We do it because we believe Shakespeare is important.
“Music is an ancient, uniquely human activity. The oldest flutes that have been dug up are 40,000 years old, and human song long preceded that,” he said. “Every single culture in the world has music, including music for children. Music says something about what it means to be human, and it would be crazy not to teach this to our children.”
The study was supported by funding from the Dana Foundation, and inspired by the work of William Safire.
Posted in Children, Cognition, Culture & Society, Dana Foundation, Elizabeth Spelke, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, FAS, Harvard, Intelligence, Mehr, Music, music lessons, music study, music training, News Hub, Peter Reuell, PLoS ONE, Psychology, Reuell, Samuel Mehr, Science & Health, smart, Smarter, Spelke, William Safire | Comments Off
It’s unlikely that Sugata Bose’s classroom discussions begin with a serenade, but on Monday afternoon his audience needed a little musical inspiration. So in a rich tenor voice, the Harvard historian happily obliged.
“I have a great passion for music,” Bose said in Radcliffe’s Agassiz Theatre, where the mood was nothing like the dreary weather outside.
To the delight of members of the Silk Road Ensemble, he sang a selection of late 19th- and early 20th-century traditional Bengali songs, and explained how they might inform a new composition based on the sacred Ganges River.
Bose, a native of Kolkata, India, and the Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs, was one of several Harvard faculty members who participated in a recent three-day residency with Silk Road, Yo-Yo Ma’s collective of international performers. The ensemble was back on campus to develop and perform new music based on some of the world’s rivers, and to explore the intersection of arts and academics.
“We are trying as an organization to go just beyond the Silk Road trade route and think about it more as just a metaphor,” said violinist and composer Colin Jacobsen. “Rivers are another useful metaphor for cultural exchange.”
As part of a Harvard discussion in 2011, the group began investigating the theme of rivers as both musical inspiration and a means of exploring cultural crossroads. Bose took part in that conversation and was struck by the idea of using music to make a difference in communities “that are often divided.” The theme of rivers, he said, “seemed to be a very creative way of … making something uplifting for people who inhabit the banks of the rivers.”
On Monday, following the showing of a brief documentary about Varanasi, an ancient city on the edge of the Ganges in northern India, Bose offered suggestions to Sandeep Das, who grew up in Varanasi, and Tokyo native Kojiro Umezaki. The Silk Road musicians are using the Ganges as their muse to create a new work, one that might also help raise awareness about the river.
In a clear, resonant voice, developed from an early age with the help of his grandfather, Bose sampled snatches of well-known Bengali songs. He evoked nostalgia with a popular Bengali tune that included the line, “The Ganga is flowing as before, but where are the people of yesteryears?”
The song describes the river as representing a type of ancient glory of India, said Bose, one that “seems to have been sort of lost.”
“You obviously want to create something that is contemporary, [but] there are some resonances from history that could figure even in modern compositions,” he told Das and Umezaki.
Bose also encouraged them to think of their work as a bridge that could help unite people in India, who are often divided along religious lines.
“There is no distinction between Muslim and Hindu when a musical performance is held in a city like Varanasi, or even anywhere along the banks of the river.”
Das, whose musical career blossomed in Varanasi, said he hopes he and Umezaki can develop an interactive map of the Ganges that plays music associated with different regions in India, and possibly an exchange featuring musicians from Varanasi, to create “some sort of awareness.”
“What we heard from Professor Bose was very meaningful,” said Das, “that we could approach the theme with such distinctive ideas.”
As part of its artist-in-residence role at Harvard, the Silk Road Ensemble returns to campus annually to collaborate closely with students and faculty from across the University.
The smartphone is dead? Long live the smartphone!
In the fast-moving world of high tech, you’re up one day and down the next. Desktop computers were bumped aside by laptops, and tablets are now returning the favor, grabbing laptop market share.
Basic cellphones gave way to feature phones, which now fill the middle of the market, having ceded the high end to smartphones.
Since the only unchangeable thing in the tech industry is change, some observers are wondering not if smartphones will get knocked off their perch, but when, and looking toward Google Glass and a wave of smartwatches as potential successors.
Business watchers, meanwhile, are worried by the possible disruption of the business model, and an end to the dominance of Apple and Samsung as multiple other players enter the fray.
Woodward Yang, the Gordon McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a University Fellow at Harvard Business School, has had his finger on the pulse of the industry since his work developing the CMOS image sensors common in cellphone cameras; more recently, his expertise was sought in Apple’s patent infringement lawsuit against Samsung over technology created for — you guessed it — smartphones. The Gazette asked him about prospects near and far in personal tech.
GAZETTE: The smartphone seems to have comfortably reached the top of the market, but with technology disappearing as fast as it appears today, this can’t last. What do you see happening next?
YANG: The smartphone is now a burgeoning business for big players and the two big players are Apple and Samsung. They’re fighting over it, but what’s happening is that the features and functions have become more commoditized.
It’s classic in what you see with technology. It rises very fast, it becomes more mature, it becomes a commodity, and as it becomes a commodity, more and more people can do it.
But what’s happened is that the technology — [though it’s] quite sophisticated —has become so commoditized, now almost anybody can just buy the parts and put together a reasonable system. So Huawei does this, HTC does this, while Google provides the key Android software. They just have to put the pieces together now. This has even happened in the automobile industry and especially with electric vehicles.
GAZETTE: Do you see a disruption in this technology coming?
YANG: That’s exactly what you see. As the technology matures, you get a disruption. It’s not a disruption of technology, though, but a disruption of the business, the high-margin business.
The high margins that Apple and Samsung get on the smartphones are going to be eaten away by companies like HTC, Huawei, and others to be named. They’re going to introduce smartphones that are almost as good and most people are not going to be able to tell the difference.
So Apple and Samsung, and maybe Motorola-Google, are trying to innovate to make sure your smartphone stays special and doesn’t become a commodity. They’re going to do that by trying to create a web of devices — like a smartwatch, the Google Glasses, the iCloud, and Samsung can connect to your TV.
That’s what they’re trying to do, so you feel like you’re getting extra value for your phone. That’s what people are talking about. It’s a classic thing that happens to tech all the time. This is the motivation behind the relentless innovation in tech and the differentiation that it gives your products so that you can command higher margins and larger market share.
GAZETTE: Have you seen earlier disruptions, where new technology wipes out old?
YANG: I’ve seen this happen several times already. I did a lot of the fundamental work on the CMOS [complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor] image sensor, that little camera inside your phone. It actually wasn’t very good technology. CCD [charge-coupled device] was a better technology — this was about 20 years ago.
CMOS came out and for various reasons started to replace CCDs. CCD cameras were big and bulky, used a lot of power, and were expensive, which was fine when it was a video camera. CMOS cameras are smaller, use less power, are cheaper, and now it is even possible to put two or three cameras into your cellphone.
As that happened, it not only eclipsed CCDs, but it literally crushed film photography. I was on the science and technology board of Polaroid and warned them for many years in the late 1990s, “You guys are going to get your lunch eaten by CMOS image sensors.” They said, “No, we still have a good margin on Polaroid instant cameras and film and we can’t just throw away that business.”
GAZETTE: Do you see anything similar happening with the smartphone?
YANG: I’ve lived through this enough times that I realize nobody really knows what’s going to happen. All I can tell you is that what’s going to happen is probably not what you expect.
But that’s in the long run. In the short run, people are still going to have smartphones. The business is going to get more complicated, you’re going to see new entrants coming in with smartphones.
Whether Samsung, Apple, Motorola-Google, and Nokia-Microsoft will be able to innovate to the next stage, I don’t know. But I think you’re going to see this further evolution. The idea that a smartphone just does your phone stuff, a little Internet browsing, and email — if that’s your definition of smartphone, it’s going to change. Your smartphone is going to do more and more things.
GAZETTE: What about things like Google Glass and smartwatches?
YANG: In the short run, I don’t think they are any [danger to] smartphones. What people don’t talk about is those form factors aren’t big enough for the processor, data storage, cellular communications circuitry, and especially the battery, so you still need a smartphone. The watch still connects to your smartphone, and I believe the glasses will still need to connect to your smartphone, because you still need someplace to store the data and provide a communications link to the Internet and the rest of your stuff.
People predict the demise of things, but it doesn’t happen as immediately as people think. It takes a long time to dismantle something. But once it starts to happen, it can happen very rapidly.
Digital cameras were around a long time together with film cameras. And all of a sudden — I think it was within a span of five years — nobody bought a film camera anymore. So they’re kind of a traveling along slowly and boom, it’s gone. I think laptops and desktops were going along pretty smoothly, and all of a sudden people stopped buying desktops. And so that’s the kind of thing that happens.
Feature phones, the ones replaced by smartphones, were going along with smartphones, which had been around since 2000. They were always there, but never took off. A few years after Apple introduced their first iPhone was when smartphones just started to take off.
I don’t like to talk about “cool gadgets.” I prefer to talk about: What is the job that needs to be done? Why did smartphones take off? Because I have this necessity to be connected to my email as well as be able to talk to people. And I have necessity every now and then to look at stuff on the Internet, which is annoying, by the way, because it’s such a small screen. But sometimes, out of necessity, I have to look for my reservation code number, for example, because I have to check in at the airport.
Because of that, I choose to buy a smartphone, since it is able to do those jobs. You can think of all sorts of other jobs and once people think [a technology] is important enough and does that job well enough, people will elect to use that device. In the end, it’s people using the technology to do a job. People buy it to do a job.
Posted in Alvin Powell, Apple, disruptive technology, Engineering & Technology, feature phones, Google, Google glass, HTC, Huawei, iCloud, Motorola, News Hub, Samsung, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Science & Health, Smartphones, Woodward Yang | Comments Off
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Dean Nitin Nohria called Tata Hall “a gift that will transform our campus for decades to come,” one that represents “a significant moment in the evolution of our business School.”
“Although our School has welcomed international students since its very first class in 1908, Tata Hall represents by far the most significant gift made by an international alum,” he said. “As such, it signifies our institution’s status as a truly global institution.”
Nohria noted that although HBS may be best known for its M.B.A. program, the School educates many more people through its various executive education programs.
Named in honor of Ratan Tata, a 1975 graduate of the advanced management program at HBS, the building was funded through gifts from the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and the Tata Education and Development Trust.
Dean Emeritus Jay O. Light, noted alumnus and benefactor C. Dixon “Dick” Spangler, and Senior Associate Dean of Executive Education Das Narayandas all spoke of the profound impact the new facility will have on future executives and leaders who travel from around the globe to study and collaborate at HBS and then return to their businesses with fresh insights and advanced skills.
Designed by Boston-based William Rawn Associates, the elegant, seven-story, glass-and-limestone building offers sweeping Charles River vistas and includes 179 bedrooms, two classrooms, three gathering spaces, as well as conference rooms, for some of the more than 9,000 students who participate in the executive education program each year. Built with state-of-the-art sustainability and energy efficiency in mind, Tata is expected to receive the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Platinum certification, its highest rating.
Rawn said Tata, himself an architect, presented the firm with two design challenges: to make the building warm and welcoming to visitors and to make it as open and transparent as possible. “Can the building touch the ground lightly?” Rawn recalled of Tata’s charge, to explain the walls of glass.
Tata was the chairman of Tata Sons Ltd. in Mumbai, India, until his retirement in 2012. He jocularly recalled his first weeks on the Harvard campus as “confusing” and said he felt “humiliated” by the daunting caliber of his fellow students.
“It was the only time in my life where I sat and crossed out day by day how many days were left before I could return to the normal world,” he said. “But what it did do for me, as I soon found out, the confusion sort of disappeared, and you understood the magnitude of what you had learned in a manner that I believe is not possible to do in places other than at this business School.
“As I look back, those 13 weeks were probably the most important 13 weeks of my life. They transformed me and my perspective.”
For anyone hankering to join an upside-down basketball fantasy league, Harvard seniors Henry Clausner and Neal O’Hara can help.
The government concentrators developed the software underlying the “Bad Basketball” league during a marathon, 21-hour session closing out a semester’s work in the course CS50, which provides an introduction to computer science for budding programmers as well as for students, like Clausner and O’Hara, whose futures lie elsewhere.
“Everyone’s taking it, everyone’s learning it. It’s so necessary for so many professions,” Clausner said of the coursework.
Clausner and O’Hara, whose “Bad Basketball” league urges participants to draft the worst team in modern history, showed off their creation on Monday in the annual CS50 Fair in the basement of Harvard’s Northwest Laboratory Building.
Laptops clogged tables that filled the expansive space while students stood nearby, ready to explain and demonstrate the computer programs, Web pages, and mobile apps developed during a semester of learning and doing.
The fair, an end-of-semester tradition for CS50, had something for everybody: free candy, popcorn, and cotton candy; thumping music; a video game on a giant touchscreen; even squeezable stress balls for anyone the hubbub made anxious.
“Our directive to [the students] isn’t so much innovation as it is problem-solving, creating something of interest to them that addresses a need they or someone else has or, as we like to say, changing the world,” said David Malan, the course’s lead instructor. “Any of these are valid projects.”
CS50 is Harvard’s second-largest undergraduate offering, Malan said, with some 700 students taking it this fall, including some from Harvard’s graduate schools. The course has more than 100 staff members in it and, in addition to those taking it as a traditional campus course, another 150 took it through the Harvard Extension School. Some 150,000 enrolled worldwide for last year’s online offering through Harvard’s collaborative edX venture.
The course’s attraction, Malan said, is that students are “interested in understanding the increasingly technological world around them. I think it’s a very empowering field. It allows you to use a computer you’ve had on your desk for years to actually create something, not just use something someone else created. I think it’s a lot of fun. It’s a very visual world, a very audio world, a very interactive world, and it’s fun to make things.”
The fair, which ran through the afternoon, drew hundreds, perhaps thousands to the Northwest Lab. By early afternoon, Malan said, the crowds appeared similar to last year, when 2,200 people visited.
Beyond Monday’s flash was plenty of substance. Projects ranged from the functionality of interactive campus maps created by freshmen Laura Chang and Avinash Saraf to the musically rocking “DJ50: Music You Can See.” Created by sophomores Jessica Ewald, Katja Lierhaus, and Eliza Hale, “DJ50” combines two functions. The first is an app that saves partygoers from having to shout song names to a DJ over a party’s din. Instead, it facilitates sending songs directly to the DJ’s email address. The second function connects a set of lights to the music, allowing them to flash to the beat.
Though popular, CS50 is also tough. In addition to two lectures and a weekly breakout section, students have to complete problem sets that take an additional 10 to 20 hours a week, and an end-of-semester project. Ewald said the problem sets, while challenging, taught her as much, if not more, than the lectures themselves.
Damien Rudzinski, an Extension School student, said he was surprised at how challenging the course was, even for someone like him who has worked in the tech industry. “It’s an intense and extremely demanding course,” he said.
Rudzinski, a tech consultant and a teacher at Year Up, a nonprofit that provides skills training and college credit for talented but disadvantaged young adults, decided to use his project to answer a Year Up need. He created a video game that parallels the contract Year Up students must sign when they join the program. The several-page contract outlines behavioral and programmatic goals and expectations, as well as a 200-point system of merits and demerits that, if a student gets to zero, can result in dismissal. The game, Rudzinski said, provides a creative way for students to familiarize themselves with the contract’s details.
Rudzinski completed three of his intended 21 game levels and tested it on students in his class, who liked it. He hopes to continue work and offer it to Year Up’s national organization within a few months.
Harvard Business School M.B.A. student Ansaf Kareem created a website called “Barge” that aims to help companies assess different countries as places to do business. Kareem, who worked at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., said that in today’s business climate, companies are constantly assessing the global marketplace and where best to locate. The site provides one-stop shopping for analysis of factors including local taxes, trade agreements, and currency exchange rates.
Though he has a business focus, Kareem took the course because he believes that more than a passing familiarity with computers is important in today’s business environment.
“We all know the world is moving in that [increasingly technical] direction. It’s like learning how to write well,” Kareem said. “This class brought me from zero to a lot in a short period of time.”
Posted in Alvin Powell, Ansaf Kareem, Avinash Saraf, Barge, Computer Science, CS50, Damien Rudzinski, David Malan, Eliza Hale, Engineering & Technology, Harvard Business School, Harvard Extension School, Henry Clausner, Jessica Ewald, Katja Lierhaus, Laura Chang, Neal O’Hara, News Hub, Northwest Laboratory, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Science & Health, Year Up | Comments Off
Harvard scientists have devised the first method to measure the push and pull of cells as embryonic tissue develops. The cells’ tiny forces are measured in 3-D tissues and living embryos.
The new research method, which involves injecting tiny oil droplets, could lead to new tools to diagnose cancer, hypertension, connective tissue diseases, and more. Scientists from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) reported the work online Dec. 8 in Nature Methods.
“Now that we can quantitate cellular forces, we can find entirely new ways to diagnose the extraordinarily wide range of diseases that alter cell contractility and tissue stiffness,” said Donald Ingber, founding director of the Wyss Institute, professor of bioengineering at SEAS, and senior author of the study. “Just as important, we can answer crucial questions about development that have lain dormant for decades.”
Biological tissues don’t just sit inside the body; they are constantly in motion, with cells tugging on and nudging other cells and the extracellular matrix — the molecular scaffold that knits cells together into tissues. As a result, tissues live in a state of dynamic tension, like a partially stretched rubber band.
Such forces are particularly important as the body develops from the fertilized egg into tissues and organs with specialized shapes and functions — a process known as morphogenesis. Biologists studying morphogenesis knew that as an embryo develops, mechanical forces direct cells to multiply, steer to their proper locations, and specialize. But they had long focused on detailing the genes and cellular pathways that direct and coordinate this process, rather than the role of cellular forces — simply because they did not have the tools to measure those forces, said Otger Campàs, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Campàs is a former postdoctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute and SEAS.
“Shaping tissues and organs involves an interplay between genetics and physics. If you can’t measure the physical side of it, you can’t completely understand the problem,” Campàs said.
Scientists had previously developed several methods to quantitate how cells push and pull on each other while growing in a dish in the lab. But they had no good way to measure these forces while the cells were building 3-D tissues in their natural environment.
Campàs decided to invent one. As a doctoral student, he had used oil droplets to measure forces exerted by a network of protein filaments that drive cell movement. Inspired by that work, he decided to try using oil microdroplets as force transducers in living tissues.
Campàs and Ingber identified a special oil called a fluorocarbon that remains separate from the cell membrane, like oil does from water, and is safe for cells and tissues. Then they devised a special coating for the droplets to make them stick to cells or to the extracellular matrix. This enabled the scientists to measure how cells push and pull within living tissues.
They also coated droplets with a chemical that made their surface glow when illuminated with a laser, then videotaped cells under a microscope in 3-D as they tugged and pressed on the droplet. The oil droplets on their own are spherical, but squeezing or stretching them deforms them like squeezing or stretching a water balloon. By measuring how deformed each droplet was, the scientists could precisely calculate the force exerted on it by the neighboring cells that adhered and by the extracellular matrix.
Using the new method, the scientists were able to quantitate the forces within lab-grown 3-D aggregates of mouse mammary tumor cells, and within living 3-D tissues from embryonic mouse jaws. They found that an individual cell exerted huge forces — 24 times as much pressure on the droplet as the jaws of an ant — and that the cells exerted the same amount of force in cultured aggregates as in tissues, lending confidence to the method’s accuracy.
In his new lab at UCSB, Campàs now uses the method to determine the spatial patterns of forces that shape different embryonic structures in fish, chicken, and other organisms.
Posted in 3-D, Donald Ingber, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Health & Medicine, Nature Methods, News Hub, Otger Campàs, Science & Health, University of California, Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University | Comments Off
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The fact is, that the public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands. — Oscar Wilde
Gripes about the dismal prospects of the Fourth Estate are probably as old as the printing press itself. News consumers are uninformed and ill served by journalists who focus on the superficial, too often delivering a narrow and inaccurate portrait of the nation’s public affairs, protesters typically declaim.
Pioneering journalist and scholar Walter Lippmann, Class of 1909, was an early and influential critic of the press. Writing in 1919, he said newspapers are “the bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determines its conduct. It is the only serious book most people read.” And as such, Lippmann posits, journalists have a sacred duty to distinguish for citizens what is news and what is truth.
Now, using Lippmann’s critiques as his guide, Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), has lobbed a philosophical hand grenade at today’s moribund news business.
In his finely researched new book, “Informing the News,” Patterson catalogs the historic and systemic problems facing journalists concerning information, sources, knowledge, education, audiences, and democracy, and urges the profession to blaze a new path toward what he calls “knowledge-based journalism.”
“In some ways, it amazes me some of the things that have fallen through the cracks in journalism,” said Patterson in an interview. “It’s an old problem, but I think there’s a new urgency.”
With the proliferation of people and organizations claiming to provide news in the digital age, the public is inundated with information, but little guidance to distinguish what is useful and trustworthy. While journalists are still the best positioned to provide trustworthy information, Patterson says, increasingly they aren’t equipped to do the job properly.
“You would like journalists to function like a profession,” said Patterson. “Professions tend to run off of specialized knowledge that gives the professional the leverage that’s different, and makes them special in dealing with that situation compared to the layman. But when you look at journalism, there’s no knowledge base that underpins journalism.”
The book is an outgrowth of a six-year study of 11 top journalism schools led by the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to improve journalism education and practice, a study in which Patterson and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics & Public Policy served an evaluative role.
Given the reliance that journalists have on PR-savvy official sources to generate news stories, reporters without a deep and independent grounding in the subjects they cover are easily misled and more prone to pass along inaccurate or superficial explanations of complicated issues, he argues.
“Unfortunately, official sources are becoming less trustworthy,” said Patterson. “There’s a lot more political spin. People in politics are much more conscious of the importance of the frame in which something is presented and the facts that are put in. It’s gotten very sophisticated, and it’s all-around trying to shape a version of reality that serves the purposes of the official.”
A recent “60 Minutes” report purported to tell an inside account of what happened the night of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four people, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. The report was a glaring example of this sourcing breakdown. The story was quickly discredited, and later retracted by “60 Minutes,” after The Washington Post and then The New York Times revealed that the reporter’s primary source had given contradictory accounts of his whereabouts the night of the attack to his employer and the FBI.
Patterson says adding to challenges for reporters today is the growing complexity of policy matters, which makes it difficult to accurately report on issues without a sophisticated understanding of a given subject that isn’t solely based on the work of other news reporters. In an editorial echo chamber where topics are overly simplified or given unwarranted prominence relative to their intrinsic value, such as the current focus on technical glitches related to the Affordable Care Act website, nuanced and thematic reporting is often crowded out.
“When that bandwagon is rolling, that’s what their editors want. Attempts to broaden the frame get shot down. It’s a problem,” said Patterson. “There’s expectations about what the story is at a given moment in the newsroom. And any expectation of that kind really tends to shrink down the parameters of the reporting.”
To help journalists expand their intellectual horizons, the Shorenstein Center has launched the “Journalist’s Resource” project, a free online repository of scholarly materials on a variety of public interest news topics. Patterson is the project’s founder and research director.
Journalists need to give greater consideration to why they use one storytelling framework over another, and they need to choose in a way that will bolster the overall quality and context of individual stories and journalism as a whole.
“There’s a tendency for journalists to look at developments and interpret them, [and] to tell the story through personalities. We see this all the time in Washington,” said Patterson. But those narrow frames often preclude broad and important thematic explanations of issues, he said. “That’s what we need journalists for: They are our sense makers. We depend on them connecting the dots.”
How to fix the industry’s shortcomings? Patterson urges change start by teaching journalism students more than the basic craftwork of, for example, how to write a great lead or how to conduct interviews. Insist they learn critical skills like statistical literacy, how to master a subject area, and what Patterson calls “audience literacy” — knowing what matters to an audience and how to best deliver material to them so they correctly understand what the news is about.
Opinion research has long shown that stories about personalities and process, a staple of Washington political coverage, tend to be easy to produce and hold strong appeal for editors, sources, and other journalists, but rarely for citizens.
The top two news stories of 2007 were the perjury trial of Vice President Dick Cheney’s aide, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and The Washington Post’s investigation into patient neglect at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Patterson writes. Although the Libby saga received twice the media coverage as the Walter Reed revelations, it attracted only half as much attention from audiences.
“Journalists need more understanding of how their audiences operate and how they derive conclusions from the information they get,” he said.
Patterson urges news organizations to make ongoing training, like that offered in the medical or legal fields, and midcareer training, like that at business schools, an expectation of the profession. “That ought to be the norm, not the outlier,” he said.
By lifting the standards of journalism, the press would move closer to fulfilling what Lippmann saw as its democratic calling.
“Journalists are in the business of making the unseen visible, of connecting citizens to the world beyond their direct experience,” Patterson writes. “Citizens look to journalists to do what they do not have the time, inclination, or training to do for themselves. It’s the reason that the path to a better-informed public, as it has for more than a century, runs through the nation’s newsrooms.”
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