Friday, May 22, 2009

Epistemology of Storytelling

Robert G. Picard has an interesting article, Why Journalists Deserve Low Pay, in The Christian Science Monitor. There are parts of the article with which I agree and some other parts of his analysis which I believe to be off-base. However, he does have a description in the middle about the function of the journalist AKA the storyteller.

Journalists are not professionals with a unique base of knowledge such as professors or electricians. Consequently, the primary economic value of journalism derives not from its own knowledge, but in distributing the knowledge of others. In this process three fundamental functions and related skills have historically created economic value: Accessing sources, determining significance of information, and conveying it effectively.

Accessing sources is crucial because information and knowledge do not exist as a natural resource that merely has to be harvested. It must be constructed by someone. The journalistic skill of identifying and reaching authorities or others who construct expertise traditionally gave journalists opportunities to report in ways that the general public could not.

Determining significance has been critical because journalists sort through an enormous amount of information to find the most significant and interesting items for consumers.

Effective presentation involves the ability to reduce information to its core to meet space and time requirements and presenting it in an interesting and attractive manner. These are built on linguistic and artistic skills and formatting techniques.

Today all this value is being severely challenged by technology that is "de-skilling" journalists. It is providing individuals – without the support of a journalistic enterprise – the capabilities to access sources, to search through information and determine its significance, and to convey it effectively.

In reading that, I was struck by the parallels with children's books. There are some wonderfully gifted story-tellers and illustrators working today. Even more than in the past. Yet one of the challenges is to sort the wheat from the chaff and there is an awful lot of chaff. As described by Picard, the barriers to entry for writing children's books fall and fall. The technology of creation and or self-publishing have unleashed a tide. These declining barriers mean that some voices that might once have been overlooked or ignored now have a chance for expression. But it also means a tide of mediocrity, didacticsm and self-absorption.

Our challenge as parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers is to sort through that flood (25,000 - 35,000 new children's books each year) and find the few gems scattered in the grit. At least we are all in it together as a community of readers.

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