Old-School Values and New-School Technology are the Keys for Journalists and Writers

In an age of fake news and digital deception, journalist and biographer Larry Tye says that reporters and researchers need to keep a firm grip on “old-school values” – including critical thinking skills.

Tye, a former Boston Globe reporter and author of the bestselling Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, speaks about the new challenges facing journalists and writers in the latest installment of Dig Deeper, MindEdge Learning’s podcast on critical thinking and digital literacy.

“New technologies give you enormous new opportunities to find information – and enormous new opportunities to be deceived by people who are putting out bad information,” he says. “The old-school values of how to go about researching things carefully and deeply, and with many sources to make sure you’re really getting it right, are essential.”

A self-confessed technophobe, Tye nonetheless says he has come to depend on online technology as an important part of his researching routine. “I am hugely impaired in terms of technology generally,” he confesses with a laugh. “I’m pathetically ignorant about how to make technology work. But once I figure out how technology can help me do something better as a researcher, I consider myself very savvy, because I depend on it so much.”

Tye has written seven books, including biographies of baseball great Satchel Paige and public relations pioneer Edward Bernays, and is currently working on his eighth, a biography of the late Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. He personally conducts hundreds of in-person interviews when researching a new project, while assigning research assistants to search for relevant books and articles – both in libraries and, increasingly, online.

For the Kennedy book, Tye says he conducted between 400 and 450 interviews. “They were on the one hand done with old-fashioned techniques – either face-to-face or they were done by telephone,” he explains. “On the other hand, they would not have been possible without online technology, meaning that they were done with my recording it over the phone, in a digital recorder, and then sending it immediately online to the transcribers.”

With each new book project, Tye says, advances in technology have sped up the research process and allowed him and his assistants to be more productive. “If it weren’t for the online world I’d be writing fewer books – and everybody else would, as well,” he says.

The downside of conducting research online, he says, is the chance that he and his research assistants may miss out on valuable information that they might have unearthed through the old-fashioned process of personally wading through library stacks and reels of microfilm. Looking for books in the stacks at, say, Harvard’s Widener Library, Tye says he would often “go in and look for the book that you were trying to find, and see the five books around it that you never knew – I wasn’t smart enough to know they existed. And in those five books, on subject matters that were related, I would often find things that were incredible gems.”

Now, he says, when he asks “a researcher [to] go look for this book – or even more likely, the researcher doesn’t have to go look for the book, because Google or some other library system has it online – they’re not going to find, and I’m not going to find, the books that are next to it. And when we know precisely what page to go to because we can do a digital search of exactly the wording we’re looking for, or the name we’re trying to find, it means we’re also not spending the time looking at other pages around that.”

Tye says that he expects his research assistants to be appropriately skeptical about content they find online, and he says that on a personal level he’s more careful dealing with online content than with books or journal articles. But he also thinks that approach may be a mistake: “It’s a mistake not in terms of being skeptical of online material – it’s a mistake in assuming that if something is in print form, and it’s a book that’s been out there for a long time and has sort of somehow held up, that that means it’s right,” he says.

Many of the books he consulted while researching his own projects contained errors large and small, Tye says. The solution? “I would suggest people ought to have skepticism about everything they look at, ever,” he advises.

In the final analysis, Tye says, journalists and researchers should embrace online technology because it provides access to so much information – but they also need to embrace the traditional journalistic values of accuracy, thorough research, and multiple sourcing. “If you take the old-school values and the new-school technology, you can do something really brilliant and fast with it,” he says.

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