The view on note taking in journalism textbooks

The study ““Disastrous to Take a Single Note”: Memory and Materiality in a Century of U.S. Journalism Textbooks” by Perry Parks from Michigan State University investigated how journalism textbooks discuss an emblematic practice in journalism: taking notes (during interviews).

Taking notes is often romanticized in popular presentations of journalism, and the reporter’s notebook has become a synecdoche of the process of dogged questioning and diligent reporting. However, particularly in the early decades of the twentieth century, many journalism pedagogues discouraged the practice and suggested that it was a popular fiction – and argued that a real journalist uses charm, discretion and memory instead.

For this study, 75 textbooks on journalism dating from 1894 to 2016 were studied. This sample had been used in previous studies by the author and is based on bibliography assembled by Mirando in 1992. There is also an autoethnographic component: the author is a former professional newspaper reporter who was schooled and trained in the late twentieth century, who was, according to his own words, taken aback by the textbooks shunning of notebooks and notetaking.

The author notes that a common characteristic among the textbooks when discussing notetaking is the frequent use of unattributed  common sense, sweeping assumptions about memory capacity, sources feelings, and the material effects of the tools such as notebooks or tape recorders. Combined, this is described as ‘folkloric’. Contradictions and ambiguity are also common.

Although the human memory is fallible, there is a distinct lack for it regarding eyewitness statements and even more so about the reporter’s own memory. The earliest textbooks insisted that the reporter’s memory is the primary tool for recording interviews, often presenting unrealistic expectations, as this quotation from an early (1894) textbook by Shuman shows:

“[W]hen your man2 begins to talk, impress his words carefully upon your mind, or rather his ideas; afterward, when you get to your desk whether you took any pencil notes or not, you will find that you can reproduce the conversation almost word for word from memory. (Shuman 1894, 73–74)”

In the same textbook, anecdotal evidence for particularly talented memorizers is also offered. Also, it appears that an impressionistic approach to truthtelling is preferred: rather than perfect accuracy, the outlines of the social encounter should be remembered instead.

In the following decades, there were both ‘memory optimists’ and ‘memory pessimists’. Many optimists argued that a reporter could train their memory to ‘“exactly” remember what the interviewed person has said even an hour later, as in a book by Harwood (1927).

At the same time, memory skepticism appeared, but still, even those pessimists suggest that the reporter should “cultivate his memory” so that only an outline, names and particularly important facts need to marked down.

As the century progressed, concerns for faulty memory increased – with some authors even changing their position in subsequent editions. Metz in 1977 is particularly critical of memory and advice to rely on it, and suggests that one should never trust their memory and suggests taking many notes. Textbooks in the twenty-first century mainly agree with this.

Even if the general trend has been increasing skepticism of memory and more positive tone on notetaking, there have been what the author calls ‘contemporary holdouts’ such as Kershner (2009) who suggests that careful and attentive listening, combined with a short prompt such as ‘dog story’ is enough for accurate reporting after the interview.

The textbooks also extensively discuss the notebook both as a material obstacle that may scare off potential interviewees and contrastingly, as a marker of credibility. Early textbooks emphasize that only in stories and plays do reporters use notebooks, and half a century later, Charnley (1959) asserts that waving a pencil and a note pad “just isn’t done”. As part of the ‘notebook as an obstacle’ discourse, it was claimed that notebooks would cause the interviewees to become guarded or that they distract from making a connection. Tape recorders were discussed with some enthusiasm, and it was suggested that they could also naturalize the presence of a notebook.

In contrast, some textbooks took the position that a notebook conferred seriousness and credibility to the reporter and helped against the common complaint of being misquoted, as suggested by Williams & Martin in 1922. Later, some suggested that the interviewees in fact preferred a notebook, as it ensured that the statements are reported accurately. 

Metz  in 1977, who we remember was critical of memory, quotes the former AP writer Douglas P. Starr to assert that taking out the notebook should be done matter-of-factly and if the interviewee balks, the reporter should simply explain the benefit of notes. This became mostly common sense in the twenty-first century – and the modern textbooks present this fact as being always the case, not noting previous controversies.

There is also a great deal of ambiguity in the textbooks, apparently particularly in the mid-twentieth century. For example, Bond in 1961 both asserts that many reporters take too many notes but also that the “best speech report” contains full sentences and paragraphs in direct quotes. 

Hohenberg in 1962 claims that having a record is imperative, yet also acknowledges the earlier concerns that interviewees become nervous when discussing politicians and diplomats – and later backtracks almost completely from the pro-notes position and claims that a reporter need to cultivate their memory and the ‘average person’ becomes and nervous which inhibits talk.

Some later books contain contradictions in the advice offered and the pictures used to illustrate the work: the advice on notes is ambiguous but the pictures contain notebooks and there is no evidence that it is off-putting nor a prop

In conclusion, the advice on notebooking generally became more supportive of notebooks as time passed. The author notes in ending that the journalistic interview is a ‘complex ritual’  with both human and nonhuman components. The author also suggests that the fact that contemporary textbooks present notebooks as embedded common sense highlights how journalism has become more social scientific and the epistemologies more data-centric.

The article ““Disastrous to Take a Single Note”: Memory and Materiality in a Century of U.S. Journalism Textbooks” by Perry Parks is in Journalism Practice. (free abstract).

Picture: Untitled by Mike Tinnion @m15ky

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