June 23, 2010

Independence From Faction

Don’t laugh.

The concept of independence from faction as outlined by Kovach & Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism is not about (falsely) observing from the sidelines and being fair and balanced (aka. the view from nowhere). It’s about operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification for both reporters and opinion journalists.

This means that opinion journalism is actually quite easy to separate from punditry because punditry is not about being independent from faction, nor is it about the journalistic discipline I have been discussing. Punditry is about winning politically (a perfectly legitimate goal).

So what we have in American journalism at the moment, if you accept my characterization of opinion journalism, is a whole lot of punditry and a dearth of opinion journalism — at least at the national level.

Opinion journalists may certainly be identified by political persuasion. The politics of opinion journalists can/do/should inform their columns. Sometimes that means taking a hard look at the opposition. And sometimes that means taking a hard look at one’s own side. And, if you’re dealing with someone truly skilled and intelligent, it means dealing with news situations in something like their proper complexity, i.e. not always so easily split down the simplistic right v. left divide.

This ends my preliminary discussion of opinion journalism. I am now in pursuit of excellent practice. Holler if you see anything.

April 19, 2010

Facts : Journalism :: Air : Life

I’ve been fascinated with Jay Rosen’s simple fix for “messed up” Sunday talk shows. It’s a fix that makes sense and attracted the attention of ABC’s This Week. David Gregory, of NBC’s Meet the Press, isn’t so sure.

Journalism is big craft practiced by many types of people for many reasons. The most ethical among them practice it with the primary purpose of giving citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. The most effective among them are custodians or fact operating with a discipline of verification.

The Sunday talk shows certainly show important guests talking (sometimes snarling and blathering) about important issues. But in the absence of fact-checking, the content of these shows cannot be properly labeled journalism. These shows fail ethically by failing journalism’s primary purpose. And to fail in terms of facts is to turn potentially important civic discourse into (entertaining) partisan blather.

(Note: My assumption here is that insider wrangling and partisan sniping gives citizens very little politically useful information, i.e. information they can use to understand civic problems and then act on their own behalf.)

The hosts and producers of these shows have an important question to ask themselves (to the extent they are capable of asking and answering): Do we intend to serve journalism’s primary purpose or something else?

September 8, 2004

Reporting the facts…

The whole problem with 527s disappears if the press does its job. Or, rather, if the press rediscovered the meaning of “objective” reporting.

The politically useless he-said, she-said stenography that passes for so much political reporting is only possible when the press misunderstands objectivity. Objectivity is not a stance; it’s a process. And it does not and cannot produce or guarantee journalism that reports events “as they are.” No such thing is possible because there is no such thing as the world “as it is.” We understand everything in human experience in human terms. And that means we give the world meaning in conjunction with the physical realities we encounter with our human senses and human understanding.

The fairness bias of journalism dictates that journalists should get “both sides” of the story–a laudable goal for the most part. The fairness bias combined with objectivity-as-a-stance dictates that journalists should write down whatever happens or whatever is said and relay it without comment. Checking the facts and reporting the results of such checking is considered by many journalists to be commenting on events or what was said. Such journalists believe it is up to citizens to figure it out.

Good journalism must operate with a discipline of verification, according to Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Part of what this should mean is that reporters follow the objective process of reporting as they verify the facts and report the results of that verification as news.

This kind of reporting is hard work. He-said, she-said reporting is the easiest reporting of all. I hate to even dignify it with the term “reporting.” And, like so many things that come easy, it is nearly useless in fulfilling one of the long-held missions of journalism: to give citizens the information and knowledge necessary to exercise citizenship.

With a discipline of verification and operating as custodians of fact at the heart of journalism (and, in particular, political reporting), the damage caused by the lies of 527 advertising is severely mitigated.

I think it’s always a bad idea to curtail speech. Let candidates and their organizations raise all the money they want and spend it any way they want. Let them spout whatever nonsense they please. None of that is a danger to the republic when the press operates with a discipline of verification and as custodians of fact. Citizens would then know how to figure it all out: read the morning newspaper.

September 18, 2015

My LOL Moment with Paul Krugman

The Rhetorica grumpiness continues…

I laughed out loud when I reached the conclusion of Paul Krugman’s column today in The New York Times:

I began writing for The Times during the 2000 election campaign, and what I remember above all from that campaign is the way the conventions of “evenhanded” reporting allowed then-candidate George W. Bush to make clearly false assertions — about his tax cuts, about Social Security — without paying any price. As I wrote at the time, if Mr. Bush said the earth was flat, we’d see headlines along the lines of “Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.”

Now we have presidential candidates who make Mr. Bush look like Abe Lincoln. But who will tell the people?

Just, wow.

You see, there are many people (e.g. bloggers, academics, academic bloggers, rational media critics of all sorts) who have been pointing this out for nearly two decades (confining my time frame to the blogging era and scope to national politics).

Two decades.

If you read Rhetorica regularly back in the day, you know who I’m talking about. Some of them remain linked on my sidebar.

No one in journalism listens. In fact, no one in journalism listens to the advice given in one of the profession’s revered texts: Kovach and Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism. Sometimes I think journalists like this book simply because the words sound good. I mean literally “sound.”

We — a large number of cogent critics — have been pointing out (for nearly two decades) that the business-as-usual, view-from-nowhere, inside-baseball, poll-driven, personality-driven way of covering politics is, in fact, not covering politics in the sense of meeting journalism’s primary purpose: To give people the information they need to be free and self-governing.

That has to mean, among other things, operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification, i.e. reporting not stenography.

Quite frankly there is very little political journalism in the United States of America.

A modest proposal: Actually giving the people the information they need to be free and self-governing might stop journalism’s slide into entertainment and, finally, into oblivion. That, obviously, means journalists have to understand what that kind of information is. So far they show no aptitude.

Senator Numbntuz says X. Senator Blowhard says Y. The polls say Z. And the pundits blather about what it “means.” The current practice of stenography stops there and lets the citizen figure it out. We are reminded daily how well that works.

June 7, 2013

Structural Bias and the Failing Press

Why does the press get it wrong so often (how often?) on the big stories (and small ones, too)?

Conor Friedersdorf offers a few reasons for some of the many screw-ups we’ve suffered lately. It’s like a lesson in the structural biases of journalism — the very list I’ve been telling you for more than 10 years is important in understanding not only why journalists do what they do but also why they fail when they do.

But that’s not to say that the structural biases are the only source of our recent problems. Another bugaboo familiar to long-time Rhetorica readers (and, apparently, there are still a few of you left) is the failure that occurs when journalists operate as something less than custodians of fact with a discipline of verification.

And while I’m loathe the agree with Instapundit on much of anything, I do think there’s a large measure of “dumb” and “smug” going on.

Journalists — the older ones anyway — are suffering through a turbulent, tech-driven revolution that is raising questions about foundational issues such as the role of the audience, the economics of news, and the presentation of serious, text-driven journalism on 4-inch screens. Let me throw a life buoy — one I guarantee will float in this storm: Operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification and be a little more self-reflective about the role of the structural biases.

Just do it. Or continue to embarrass yourselves.

July 15, 2009

Stop Pretending

Every now and then I find myself thinking that American journalism would be better off with an openly partisan news media similar to what we see in the UK.

Partisan news organizations are not necessarily unreliable. Journalists working for such organizations can operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification if journalism rather than advocacy is the primary value. In other words, there’s no reason why a partisan news organization cannot produce excellent journalism and do so ethically

The current ethical standards as written in the various codes of ethics, however, argue against that idea. I’m not convinced.

I’m wondering if an openly partisan system would mitigate the ethical lapses we see in this article from The State:

National media blitzed Gov. Mark Sanford’s staff, offering big ratings and, possibly, a sympathetic venue in an effort to land the first interview with the governor after his six-day trip to Argentina.

Offering a “sympathetic venue”  would stretch ethical credibility even in a partisan system. Reason: Journalism cannot be produced in a system where information workers (used here as a euphemism for propagandists) do not operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification.

It’s entirely OK for any given business, organization, or individual to publish or broadcast just about anything and pretend it is journalism. But it’s easy enough to know who is delivering the goods.

Perhaps it’s time to stop pretending. Forget “fair and balanced.” Let FOX be conservative and then hold them to specific journalistic standards (“fair and balanced” is not terribly specific). Let MSNBC be liberal and then hold them to specific journalistic standards.

January 3, 2008

When the Press Fails, part 3

Continuing my as-I-read-it review of Lance Bennett’s new book

At the top of page 14 Bennett writes: “…the absence of much agreement on what the press should be doing makes it all the more difficult for news organizations to navigate an independent course through pressurized political situations.”

I was struck by this assertion because, on one level, I thought what the press should be doing has been clear since at least the end of World War II as cogently expressed by Kovach and Rosenstiel: The primary purpose of journalism is to give people the information they need to be free and self-governing. But this is an ethical stance not a description of journalistic procedures. Further, Bennett envisions a different ethic: the press should hold government accountable.

It is clear from chapter 1 that Bennett is uncomfortable, as I am, with the kind of journalism that follows from stenography rather than reporting. Stenography is unlikely to produce the kind of information people need to be self-governing. And, further, it is also clear to me that Bennett’s theory of the role of power in the journalistic narrative could be mitigated by my assertion (of procedure) that journalists should tell a different story.

I think journalists should be custodians of fact operating with a discipline of verification. I believe it’s possible that politically useful information may be gleaned from procedures identified with these stances. And I’m quite well aware that I’m now skirting dangerously close to the mythological understanding of press-politics as described by Herbert Gans in Democracy and the News, i.e. journalism makes democracy work.

Journalism often fails its primary purpose because journalists believe the myth. The reasons for this could fill a book. So I’ll merely attempt one broad example here. The myth helps fuel journalistic arrogance by encouraging journalists to think of themselves and their profession as important in a way they may not be (perhaps, for example, it may be democracy that makes journalism possible). It encourages them to act as players in politics while denying being players at all. It encourages them to think that the First Amendment was written to protect them and their profession for the purpose of holding government “accountable.”

Journalism has had many purposes since the Revolutionary period. It has had many business models. It has had many masters. The citizens and journalists (and citizen journalists) of each era must decide what it is for their moment. But it seems to me that operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification for the purpose of giving people the information they need to be self-governing is close to a universal understanding of journalism.

That self-governing thing means that journalism is supposed to help citizens do the job of holding government accountable.


Part 1
Part 2

December 30, 2005

Okay, one more grumble…

Michael Lenehan gets off a good rant in the Chicago Reader with a modest proposal that no journalism be committed by the pros in 2006 in order to show the necessity of the professional product to civic life:

I think it’s time for actual journalists to drive this point home. Today, therefore, I am proposing a yearlong journalism strike. I am urging reporters and editors around the world to put down their notebooks, close their laptops, hang up their phones. Lie down and be counted! Let’s have no reporting, no editing, no application of any human intelligence whatsoever to events public or private till January 1, 2007. I’m calling it the Year Without Journalism. Let’s all relax, let go, and float blissfully in the information-free state (excuse me, I mean free-information state) that our public awaits so eagerly. Let one of those news robots handle the hired truck scandal and further crimes of the Daley administration. Let’s see if Wonkette can deal with the devious bastards in the executive branch any better than Judith Miller did. Let’s have some of those citizen journalists call Burt Natarus and see if they can figure out what the hell he’s talking about. With no news to aggregate, no facts to ruminate, the algorithms and the bedroom pundits will turn on each other like mirrors, producing a perfect regression of narcissistic selfreflection, repeating endlessly, adding nothing, ever shrinking, ad infinitum.

Yes, the professional product is important and will remain important (and should remain important). But two things:

1. About 75 percent of all civic news comes from the PR activities of powerful civic actors, not shoe-leather reporting by journalists (I have the citation for this at my office and will post it here next week). Shoe-leather reporting may certainly flesh out these PR efforts, but owing to the current he-said/she-said reporting model (based on a false notion of journalistic objectivity) that’s not saying much. That journalists are able to get information the public is not normally able to get has much to do with journalists’ institutional legitimacy. If I work for The New York Times, it’s pretty easy to get powerful civic actors to speak with me. If I “work” for the Local Pajama-clad Weblog, I’m lucky if the secretary’s secretary doesn’t laugh at me as she hangs up the phone.

2. An “application of any human intelligence” should indicate more than a warm body taking a quote correctly (a real talent, BTW). It should also indicate something more important than institutional legitimacy. To my way of thinking, the application of human intelligence by journalists should mean their acting as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification. If we measure journalism’s product (especially political reporting) by this standard, much of the profession (especially television) has already been “on strike” for a very long time.

Journalism is more than a craft or profession (noun defs. #2 and #3) practiced by those who are paid to do it for news organizations. Journalism is a way of knowing the world and a way of talking about the world. The absence of the professional product would not create the regression of narcissistic self-reflection Lenehan supposes. After a turbulent period of epistemological and rhetorical struggle, new forms of journalistic legitimacy would emerge from the narcissism and bombast of the worst new media practices–exactly the process we’re now experiencing.

December 23, 2004

Get back to fundamentals…

The simplistic rant against a so-called liberal media bias is a political maneuver, and it has worked. Here’s one bit of evidence–a news media train wreck.

In the midst of Lois Melina’s ineffective counter-rant we may find the damage caused by a generation-long harangue against a non-existent, pervasive political bias:

As the country prepares for at least two years with the Republicans in control of both the White House and Congress, it is vitally important that the news media look at how they have failed the American people and contributed to a polarized nation.

Journalists have allowed political operatives to successfully control what is discussed and how it is discussed. TV programs that pit an extremist on the left against an extremist on the right have made it clear there is no room for moderate voices. Walter Cronkite used to be the most trusted journalist in America. Now Jon Stewart–a comedian with a “fake news” show–may be.

She’s right about one thing (assuming she would agree with my explication): the he-said/she-said reporting mentality (a consequence of the fairness bias fighting constant bias ranting) has been used effectively by spinners to frame the debate and control content of news. Attempts to buck this system actually seem odd.

She’s right about one more thing: the news media share the blame for a polarized America, if that is what we have (I’m not convinced yet).

Neither liberal nor conservative partisans truly want a skeptical press. Each side prefers selective skepticism and selective compliance. Each side calls the skepticism it doesn’t like bias. Each side ignores counter evidence. This is, by the way, irrational. But we’re talking political struggle here, not reasoned civic debate. That means were talking about a zero-sum game–winning versus losing, which is anathema to the democratic bargain. The politicized role of reason is to figure out the winning tactics. It is not itself a winning tactic.

Melina does her cause no favors because she uses the very discourse that the bias ranters target. So this screed is easily dismissed as an example of exactly the kind political bias we may experience locally.

If what Melina intends is a critique, then I suggest she be more explicit about how to achieve a properly skeptical press. We could start by insisting that the press operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification–something I teach in my Introduction to Journalism class. When you’re losing the game it’s time to return to fundamentals.

There is, however, a way that we can say the press is Liberal with a capital L. Like most Americans, journalists and journalism generally believe in: American capitalism, one person one vote, keeping an eye on government and big business, the primacy of American culture, the overall goodness of the American people, the ability of the people to make effective political decisions given accurate information, the right of religious freedom, the right to free speech, the right to privacy, the Bill of Rights generally, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, motherhood, apple pie, etc. etc. etc.

These are Liberal ideas. We are a Liberal nation. We have a Liberal government and Liberal press.

September 27, 2013

No Adults Left At CNN

The adults have left CNN; the children are in charge.

How is it possible today not to understand the importance of, and indeed practice, the ethic of transparency? If we’ve learned nothing else in this technological revolution sweeping the news media it is this: an interactive media — the only kind left standing — demands transparency.

The argument is simple: In a media situation where anyone can report, publish, and be noticed, transparency (in purpose, methods, and  ethos) becomes the new umbrella ethic, the new route to credibility — the willingness to be open about who you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. This is the opposite of the view from nowhere — the false notion that journalists can or should be “objective” in philosophical stance, that their news comes from some place apart from the pressures and intentions of the real world with no purpose other than to inform. (What journalists need to be are custodians of fact who operate with a discipline of verification — and be transparent about it.)

So we learn that the rebirth of the wretched Crossfire includes the abandonment of transparency — no obligation to report conflicts of interest to the viewer.

Well, to be fair, Crossfire ain’t journalism. And, really, given the excesses, excuses, mistakes, and silliness pointed out regularly by Jon Stewart, can we really call CNN an outlet for journalism? Maybe a couple hours per day.

This show is a vampire. Jon Stewart only wounded it before. Who will drive a stake through its evil heart and kill it for good?

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