Start at the end: How ‘backcasting’ might save investigative journalism

By Steve Outing

Wouldn’t it be wonderful? If we could envision a desirable future and make it happen. Is that possible? … Well, sort of. I encourage the news/media industries and journalism educators to give it a try.

Journalism Foresight SeriesThis is the second of my series to demonstrate the many tools and methods of strategic foresight (a.k.a., futures studies), and apply them to news and media challenges. This time I’ll do an exercise in “backcasting,” which is a way to envision a specific desirable future and then figure out the steps that would have to come before to make it happen. Rather than just trying to figure out what’s going to happen in the future, backcasting takes a pro-active approach to the future; it’s a foresight tool to help in shaping the future instead of just reacting to the future that happens.

Indeed, backcasting is more likely to be of value than its opposite twin, forecasting — i.e., start at today and forecast forward into time, based largely on extrapolating past trends — since forecasting is fraught with potential future course changes that will throw off a forecast many times over. (You only have to think of the difficulty of forecasting where a hurricane will go. … But no, backcasting isn’t the tool for hurricane prediction!)

To understand backcasting is simple; to execute it well, not so easy.

Let’s dive into our example exercise. First, we pick a desirable and plausible future, and a timeline. I emphasized plausible because there’s no point in picking a future that’s not achievable — say, professional journalists five years from now will earn an average salary of US$1 million a year and ride hovercars to work.

OK, here’s a plausible, desirable future involving investigative journalism, which is at a low these days after the loss of so many journalism jobs and newsroom budget cutbacks that have reduced the amount and quality of investigative journalism being produced, overall. Yes, non-profit investigative reporting entities have grown and do excellent work, but not enough to make up for losses at mainstream newsrooms. Let’s say this is 5 years out:

Investigative reporting once again is plentiful, with well-paid, aggressive, smart journalists producing news coverage that has a strong impact in revealing corruption and deceit by governments and businesses. Even better, the audience for investigative news has widened to citizens from young adulthood to old age, thus sufficient funding is available for news companies and individual journalists to produce high quality and high quantity of investigative reporting.

Will this positive future come to pass? I don’t know. Could it happen? Yes, if the right decisions are made by news and technology companies, and if social change occurs (or can be shaped) to support a healthy environment for investigative journalism.

Why, yes, you’re right. That is a Pollyanna-ish future. Especially when looked at from 2014’s perspective. But investigative reporting is important: to society, to democracy, indeed to all of us, since without it we might end up drinking industry-tainted water or paying higher interest rates because of criminals working unhindered inside the banking system. We have to try to improve investigative journalism.

So, backcasting is one foresight method that could help us find a solution.

Now I’m going to go into graphics mode, and with the following diagram I’ll demonstrate backcasting in action. As you read the graphic, remember to start at the top (the desirable-future’s target date) and read down to see what would have to happen to get to this specific future within the next 5 years.

(Click on the diagram below to view a larger version.)


(Note: These are the ideas of a long-time journalism/media analyst who’s spent the last couple decades pondering the future of news in the digital age. Your newsroom or classroom might wish to do this backcasting exercise with the benefit of multiple minds and perspectives. If we had a handy crowd-sourcing platform, we might invite many people with a stake in the future of journalism to share their insights and ideas.)

Top image: Watergate journalists Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!