Opinion: Personal experience in journalism

Rain Kooli.
Rain Kooli. Source: Author's personal collection.

There are two topics in the current media sphere where the conflict between personal experience and research results and statistics is particularly acute. Among other reasons, this is because the issues are artificially hyped by some politicians, scientists and journalists, noted ERR journalist Rain Kooli on a recent Vikerradio broadcast.

From the late 1990s, a genre appeared in the Estonian media sphere which we could term personal experience.

In most cases, these personal experiences manifested themselves in readers' letters, which could be both authentic and, in the case of entertainment products such as Delfi's Naistekas portal, aimed at women readers, pure fiction.

A man leaves his wife, a woman doesn't consent to sexual relations, a bullying boss, poor service, agitated behavior of passengers on public transport. Very occasionally, positive things appeared: a pleasing concert, a smiling kiosk salesperson, or a village setting up some swings.

Increasingly, personal experience has found its way into the press as news. The source of the story is often journalist's experience, or that of an acquaintance, but not always.

From a societal perspective, this can be considered at one extreme in collecting and gathering information, due to the small size and subjective nature of its scope.

The opposite end of the scale would be survey results or statistics corresponding to the entire population profile.

It is far from impossible for us to find ourselves on the receiving end of the only unpleasant sales representative in a store which otherwise has very good service.

At the same time it is not inconceivable for it to be revealed that the vast majority of teachers at high school X are nasty, especially in their relations with female students.

Treating media content based on personal experience thus poses the risk of a single incident being pushed into the limelight, giving the false impression that this bad situation is the norm, even though objective data does not support that view.

However, at the same time, statistics can be used for example to overrule personal experience in cases where the problem is an extreme conspiracy of silence, or where people are unaware of things happening under the surface. Proper journalism should do neither.

If you look higher and further than your own feet, both in terms of time and space, there are two topics in the current media sphere where conflict between personal experience and research results and statistics is particularly acute, not lease because it is artificially heightened by some politicians, researchers and journalists.

These two phenomena are first, climate change, and second, digitalization and the onward march of smart tech and artificial intelligence.

Both these things are crucial, because they can change our lifestyles faster and in unexpected ways. Plus existing research does tend to point towards change not being positive in either subject.

At the same time, in both topics, a wealth of personal experience of the kind which says "global warming? Take a look at this snowstorm," or "my child's brain is not being harmed by their smartphone – look how successful a student they are."

While we can still argue about the anthropogenic nature of climate change, today we can say with scientific certainty that the climate is changing and that this could make our planet almost unrecognizable during this century. But smart technology can also alter the brain and the ability of our children to cope with the same degree of the unknown. Either way, no preamble to the constitution, or militarized border, can shield us from this, in this small country.

As the scope and impact of both developments are enormous, the press should take both issues more seriously than it has been doing. We could start with the bringing to every respectable media house editor(s) with the special responsibility and conscience in specializing in climate issues, and smart technology and artificial intelligence.

The original Vikerraadio segment (in Estonian) is here.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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