Keynote speaker: Jay Rosen on 'wicked problems'

Keynote Speaker Jay RosenJay Rosen, media critic and professor of journalism at NYU, opened the UK Conference of Science Journalists with a masterfully developed inquisition into so-called ‘wicked’ problems of today – many of which are faced by both journalism and the world at large.

Particularly interested in the evolution of journalism in this accelerating digital age, Rosen described himself as a scholar of ‘pressthink’ – “which is sort of like groupthink – but for people in journalism”.

Challenging the audience to think of progress and knowledge as not only the development of new and useful ideas, but also the emergence of good problems, Rosen went on to illustrate his prototype ‘tame’ problem – that of the lack of taxis at change-over time between 4-5am in NYC. It may be a hard problem to tackle, he argues, but it is not a ‘wicked’ one.

In contrast, he proposes, ‘wicked’ problems are hard to define; they elude any definitive formulation and stakeholders tend to view them in distinctly different ways, even dismissing them as a symptom of another problem. They are unique, politically intractable and haven’t been tackled before. In fact, he stresses, “we won’t understand the problem until we have solved it”.

Climate change is the obvious example, but there are more.

So what is useful about this classification of certain problems as ‘wicked’? Rosen suggested that wicked problems could and should be acknowledged as such and treated differently by politicians and journalists alike.

Indeed he poses the following as itself a wicked problem: the journalistic coverage of wicked problems. He went on to outline his framework for the formation of a so-called wicked problems ‘beat’.

Simply put, such a beat would be “a reflection on unmanageable complexity. It preaches humility to the authorized knowers. It mocks the one-best-answer and single-issue people. It seeks to deliver us from denial.” Its mission would be to render wicked problems well - to find a common language within which to communicate and tackle them.

This crowd-sourced news network would acknowledge the expertise of the reader, not relying just on experts but valuing judgement and knowledge above all else. It would operate across the news spectrum, attuned to finding patterns in the noise, and continuously scanning the landscape – it should alert us before a crash.

Rather than move in a pre-determined direction it would be iterative, selective, and constantly self-correcting. It would become smarter over time.

A clever member of the audience brashly enquired: wasn’t he simply talking about Darwinian evolution? Rosen was impressed, and seemed genuinely intrigued by the suggestion: “I like that, I like that a lot”, he said.

He admitted that he had no answer to the most wicked question of them all: ”How to fund and sustain a vigorous public service press is not just a really hard problem. It’s a wicked one!”

Neave O'Clery