In a world where we feel that we have insufficient understanding of new developments, the journalist is increasingly emerging as a clarifier of the near future. Well-founded speculative journalism is required.
This article originally appeared in Dutch in ‘Ontwerpen aan de Journalistiek’, published by the research group Journalism and Responsible Innovation (Lectoraat Journalistiek en Verantwoorde Innovatie) of Fontys School of Journalism.
“Bioprinters aren’t toys, so stop printing unicorns,” headlines The New York Times. Now that toy manufacturers are launching child-friendly printers that allow the printing of living material, the time for regulation seems to have come. Rest assured: printing live animals is not (yet) possible. The New York Times anticipates the distant future. The article begins with a message from the editor: “This is part of the ‘Op-Eds From the Future’ series, in which science fiction authors, futurists, philosophers and scientists write Op-Eds that they imagine we might read 10, 20 or even 100 years from now. The challenges they predict are imaginary – for now – but their arguments illuminate the urgent questions of today and prepare us for tomorrow. The opinion piece below is a work of fiction. “
The article is an example of speculative journalism, a new genre that takes events that have not (yet) happened as a starting point. In classic journalism, the emphasis is on events that are usually behind us and substantiated by facts to be verified. The latter is impossible in speculative journalism. After all, it is all about imaginary situations. The emergence of this form coincides with two social developments. First of all, the role of social media as disseminators of news has grown. Networked media have also created a situation in which everyone produces news, a previously exclusively reserved task for the journalist. Secondly, significant developments are taking place at an increasingly rapid pace, or we have that idea. It is increasing the need to look ahead, to know what is about to happen.
Speculative journalism offers the opportunity to meet that need and to look beyond pure news production. “By sketching future worlds, speculative journalism can help the public think about what might happen in more concrete terms,” said Eryn Carlson in Nieman Lab, a Harvard research group and think tank. She cites the current situation surrounding the Covid19 virus as an example. Reports on the possible consequences of an epidemic – working from home, closing the catering industry, keeping our distance, social polarization – would have prepared us better for this. There is also a danger in these possible consequences: speculation can be fueled by ideology. Not the facts, but your interpretation then forms the basis. In such a case, the line with fake news becomes thin and possibly crossed.
In times of declining trust in institutions, including journalism, that is not a smart move. On the opinion page of The New York Times, Christy Wampole, associate professor at Princeton, describes one such situation: the coverage of Donald Trump’s presidency. There is a lot of speculation about this, says Wampole, and usually, this is not based on facts but wishful thinking. She sees growth in what she calls speculative journalism since the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York (9/11): a traumatic event triggering moralistic speculation.
Sam Greenspan agrees in the Columbia Journalism Review: that’s why speculative journalism deserves just as strict rules as regular ones. He sets an excellent example with his podcast show Bellwether in which he tells well-founded stories about possible future. For years, Greenspan worked for the successful podcast 99% Invisible that he co-founded. At Bellwether, Greenspan uses the same principles: he relies on verifiable facts and actual events. He extrapolates this to the near future. Speculation takes place within the boundaries of the expected and possible. Compared to the ‘Op-Eds From The Future’ series in The New York Times, Greenspan remains close to mainstream journalism. Too much speculation can lead to journalism that has no substantiation anymore. He warns, “we need better practice around speculative journalism to ensure that what we do is responsible and ethical.”
This better practice can draw inspiration from the design world. There, speculation has been an emerging phenomenon for some time, especially since the book ‘Speculative Everything’ (2013) by designers Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunne. They propose using design to debate potential ethical, cultural, social and political implications of new, primarily technological developments by placing them in imaginary but credible everyday situations. It makes it possible to think about and experience the consequences of changes before they occur. Classically trained designers, in particular, criticize this approach. They have a valid point. Speculative design is removed too far from everyday practice, often gets lost in science fiction and offers designers the opportunity to let their morality predominate.
Justified criticism. Speculative Futures Amsterdam, a regional division of the international Design Futures Initiative, is working on an approach that ensures that speculative design can avoid these pitfalls. In this so-called intervention design approach, the process is divided into three components: Explore, Imagine and Make. The Explore component is all about thoroughly researching the new development. Here, social scientific research is a crucial element, and artistic research is carried out. The aim is to arrive at a strongly substantiated framework that questions the current status quo and exposes invisible value structures. Based on this frame, a fictional world is described through a detailed story during the Imagine component. The final designs, which are made in the Make component, are based on that fictional world and play a role.
The Explore and Imagine component of the intervention design approach are well suited to build a better practice around speculative journalism by offering the journalist a way to deal with imaginary situations in a structured yet open manner. See it as writing a screenplay for an episode of the British television series Black Mirror in which technological developments are translated into the near future. The fictional world described is based on verified facts and situations that are extrapolated. Credibility guaranteed. The narrative element provides a deeper connection with the audience.
Now that everyone can make news, the role of a journalist is increasingly changing to that of a clarifier. The fact that we have the feeling that we can no longer keep up with the rapid developments sufficiently requires explorers of the near future. Speculative journalism is indispensable in this. Let’s speculate more.
Christy Wampole (2018). ‘What is the future of speculative design?’. The New York Times. January 28. LINK
Eryn Carlson (2020). Speculative Journalism Can Help Us Prepare for What’s to Come. Could It Also Promote Misinformation?’. Nieman Reports. Spring 2020. LINK
Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunne (2013). Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming. Cambridge / London: The MIT Press.
Theo Ploeg (2020). ‘Speculative Now: Intervention Design for a Post-coronavirus World’. Future Doing. July 10. LINK
Roberto Ito (2020). Journalism and the forseeable future. Columbia Journalism Review. January 2. LINK
Op-Eds From The Future by The New York Times can be found here: LINK.