What Journalists Can Learn from a Sociologist and a Psychologist

By Jack Limpert

Two recent posts here were critical of a report from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies that seemed to emphasize the importance of team play in journalism, advising journalism schools that “Educators might want to think about how they can help students understand that journalism is not a ‘lone wolf’ profession.”

The first post made the point that the best journalists I worked with as an editor had a lot of lone wolf in them. I said: “The writers who did great pieces—the kind of stories that resonate for months and years, not minutes—spent a couple of months reporting, thinking, and writing. I always thought great journalism was 25 percent reporting, 25 percent writing, and 50 percent thinking. That’s not the deadline-every-minute wire service journalism where I began my career and it’s not today’s digital journalism, much of which is closer to robot writing than real writing.”

The second post said: “Journalism is not the right profession if you like to be nice to people. Most of your relationships with fellow journalists will be at best irrelevant and at worst get in the way. Writing to win applause from other journalists, rather than from readers, is a fool’s errand. As an editor, my relationships with writers had nothing to do with likability or friendship or team play. It’s the story, not the relationship.”

For me the early appeal of journalism was that it seemed like a no-bullshit job where your goal was accuracy, honesty, and truth. My thinking was shaped by a book, The Lonely Crowd, by sociologist David Riesman. He made the distinction between people who are inner-directed, who make decisions based on their internal gyroscope, and people who are other-directed, who make decisions based on what others expect of them. Here’s a summary of The Lonely Crowd from the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences:

Writing in the post–World War II (1939–1945) period, Riesman sought to understand what kinds of character structures were being encouraged by the social institutions of modern society, including capitalist corporations, political institutions, and the mass media. He proposed three different character types. The tradition-directed type was the product of unchanging societies in which social patterns were rooted in the past. The traditional character was rigid, insular, and not open to innovation.

The development of industrial society, however, required a new character type. The nineteenth century saw the rise of what Riesman called the inner-directed type. This character received its essential structure in its youth, through strong family and community socialization. Unlike the traditional type, the inner-directed person could change and develop, but only following the direction of his or her inner gyroscope, whose essential pattern had been determined in youth.

Riesman argued that in the mid-twentieth century the inner-directed type was being replaced by a new character type. Modern organizations demanded people who took their cues from what other people expected of them. These other-directed individuals used their social radar, rather than an inner gyroscope, to guide their values and actions. They preferred to be loved rather than esteemed. Their character was not shaped primarily by family or religion, but rather was strongly influenced by peer culture and the mass media.

Over the years I then learned that some journalists are better thinkers than others. The differences in thinking became clearer when psychologist Daniel Kahneman published Thinking, Fast and Slow. He said there are two ways of thinking: Fast thinking operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort, and that thinking often is wrong. Slow thinking gives attention to what he called effortful mental activities that can override the impulses of thinking fast.

The best journalists I worked with went beyond fast thinking and thought things out. Phil Merrill, the longtime publisher of the Washingtonian, was a strategic thinker, good at what Kahneman called slow thinking. Phil had seen a lot of mistakes made in journalism and government, and his conclusion was that the most damage is done “by bright, articulate people with very bad judgment.”

What I learned from the two books and 50 years in journalism: The best journalists are inner-directed—they have Riesman’s internal gyroscope and it’s more important to them than what others may think. And the best journalists override Kahneman’s fast thinking—being quick, being clever—with slow thinking that searches for honesty and truth.


  1. K. Cooper says

    Terrifying, a News product directed at the people who are “other directed.” Basically most “Journalism” is now a filler products for advertisers. The use of Positive Psychology techniques, now so ubiquitous, is creating a dumbed down world, as shown in the Movie Idiocracy.

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