June 11, 2010

The Discipline of Verification

I’ve written many times about the discipline of verification — the subject of chapter 4 in The Elements of Journalism. Among the things this chapter cogently discusses is the near profession-wide misunderstanding of objectivity. The word is supposed to indicate a process of gathering and testing information; it was never meant to indicate a philosophical or political stance.

Kovach & Rosentstiel argue that the process — the methods — have been “intensely personal and idiosyncratic,” i.e. no discipline at all. They spend a lot of time in the latter half of the chapter attempting to describe what a discipline of verification might look like. Indeed, I think what they are really doing is creating one if its first articulations.

I plan to examine their discipline and add a few methods of my own. But for now I want to make something plain regarding opinion journalism: Its practitioners are subject to the same discipline because they are subject to the same craft — namely reporting. To the extent that a person peddling opinion reports and verifies, he or she may be called an opinion journalist. To the extent that a person fails to do these things, he or she may be called a pundit (acknowledging that pundits may also report and verify on occasion).

Both deal with opinion. And both may deal in useful opinion, i.e. opinion with a high degree of civic utility for the citizen.

The difference is that the opinions of the opinion journalist should spring from the craft of journalism first.

January 17, 2013

Linking And Verification

I’ll never stop harping on the discipline of verification — the essential practice of anything we would hope to call journalism.

And, once again, we see what happens when journalists fail to do the most essential and basic thing the practice of journalism demands.

Steve Buttry has much to say, and cogent advice, about the role of linking in verification.

As I tell my multimedia journalism students: “Always be linking.” I’ll also be assigning them to read everything about this current mess (including my media ethics students).

June 12, 2011

The Discipline That Is Journalism

In case I have not been clear over he years, I think the essential practice of journalism is the discipline of verification (re: Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001, 2007). Any communicative endeavor that would be called journalism by any persons who would call themselves journalists (pro or am) must be based on the discipline of verification: the checking and double-checking of facts with multiple sources.

There’s an old saw in journalism education used to hammer home this discipline:

If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

That assertion is a beautiful expression of the discipline because it 1) demonstrates its seriousness, and 2) disallows the shirking one’s responsibility even though the quality of the information may be obvious and/or difficult to verify.

This morning I read a Reporter’s Notebook column in the Springfield News-Leader from which we can tease another expression of the discipline. Not a replacement of the time-honored expression, but an attention-getter just the same.

If your grandmother says she was a bounty hunter, check it out.

And this is exactly what reporter Jess Rollins did.

Mags allowed her license to expire in 2005, a detail I learned from checking records at the Missouri Department of Insurance, Financial Institutions and Professional Registration. (I always check records of sources I interview but I admit a hint of guilt in checking out the validity of my own grandmother’s story.)

While he plays the line for a smile, I’d bet sawbuck that he actually did it.

You see, Jess was a student of mine at MSU. He took my introductory course. Now I don’t want to be making any claims of having much to do with his professional success. But I will say that I do try to impress upon all of my students in all of my journalism classes that the discipline of verification is the essential skill of journalism. If you want to be good, be good at that.

But more, if you want to do important work that fulfills the primary purpose of journalism, be good at that.

That primary purpose (also from Kovach & Rosentstiel): To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

November 25, 2016

It Was Supposed to Make Us Smarter

There comes a moment every semester in my class MED130 Fundamentals of Media Convergence (because we couldn’t think of anything else to call it) when I tell students about two things I know to be true:

  1. Once you introduce a technology you can’t take it back.
  2. People will use technology for their own purposes and not necessarily the purposes imagined by its creators.

Think internet and porn.

Then again, think social media and fake news.

Apparently, the digital natives are having a difficult time with media literacy and critical thinking in the evaluation of information discovered online — especially as presented through social media.

What is fake news? Independent of rhetorical intention (e.g. satire, political manipulation, trolling, etc.), it seems to me that these are the essentials of fake news:

  1. Fake news imitates the time frame and time-bound nature of news. So the news-of-the-future skit on the old Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In show does not count as fake news. Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live does.
  2. Fake news imitates standard news conventions (if imperfectly) regarding presentation and style.
  3. Fake news is counter-factual. This might seem like pointing out the obvious, but that state of being requires a culture to operate with a shared body of facts (not a shared interpretation of facts). I think we left that state of being behind a long time ago.
  4. Snippets of crap taken from fake news posted on social media is not fake news. That’s your Facebook buddy being a dumbass. That your buddy posted a meme or truncated snippet of bullshit is your opportunity to point out what a dumbass he is; it is not your opportunity to believe anything. In other words, fake news is the original expression following the first three points above. Conversely, your buddy posting a snippet based on real news is not real news until you’ve done the work of checking it out. (So, yes, in our current media environment the discipline of verification is also essential to citizenship.)

Fake news, then, isn’t a problem by itself. It can be wildly popular entertainment or cogently biting satire (here’s a good Black Friday example). Fake news is fun. It’s educational. I show the following video to all of my journalism students as an example of the problems caused by standard news form when you follow it uncritically:

The problem isn’t fake news. The problem isn’t even that people share fake news to social media.

The problem is a lack of media literacy and critical thinking.

Hmmmm… What to do…

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.

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?

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.

April 23, 2013

Journalism Needs More Dicks

I think we have reached a new low in journalism.

During the past few big news events, I’ve found myself wondering, as I watch and read, just how badly the various news organizations are screwing it up. I’m defining “screwing it up” as failing to act as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification. I’m going to over-generalize from that and assert that news now appears to be partly about the entertainment value of watching journalists get it wrong long before they get it right.

I base that over-generalization on this assumption and prediction (really stepping in it now): No one will lose their jobs over any of this. And no one will lose their jobs the next time. Which ensures there  will be a next time. And a next. And a next…

Let’s check in with Jon Stewart.

He starts off the sketch by asserting that The Daily Show is hard on the news media because “we are dicks.” I’ll agree if part of the definition of being a dick is doing the necessary work of critiquing the performance of the news media and holding it to standards that ought to define it.

Journalism needs more dicks.

April 7, 2013

Social Media And The Damage Done

I like social media as much as anyone else. I use Facebook and Twitter. I consider them excellent professional tools. And these services offer much entertainment. Facebook, Twitter, and other such services are natural products of the interactivity made possible by the internet and multimedia devices.

Plus, it’s hard to beat being able to easily stay in touch with people you enjoy. I tell my students about reuniting with two old friends from college a few years back. We’d lost track of each other because it was easy to lose track back in the day. All it took was one lost phone number or one move with no forwarding address. They can hardly believe such a thing was possible. Today, you can hardly shake someone even if you want to.

One of the fun things we do with social media is share interesting stuff we find on the internet. This desire to share interesting stuff is exactly the urge that gave birth to blogging. And cat memes.

I’ll continue stating the obvious by noting that all this interactivity and sharing also carries an ideological trap — getting suckered into sharing hoaxes that either have the ring of truth or that you fervently wish to be true. That ring is a function of the content conforming to ideology, not conforming to discernible facts. Two recent examples from Facebook:

ScreenHunter_08 Apr. 07 09.52

ScreenHunter_09 Apr. 07 09.54

Both of these are nonsense and utterly false. Checking with Google took seconds. And checking the links for the telltale signs of bullshit took only a few more seconds (biggest clue among many for both: no primary source links). I suspect the one about the Pope was an April Fool’s joke (tip: never share anything on 1 April). And yet these were shared as if true.

Who doesn’t enjoy a funny website? Here’s one you should check out: Literally Unbelievable — a site dedicated to highlighting posts on Facebook that take stories from The Onion seriously.

Har dee har har, right? Well, wrong. Such credulity — enabled by the refusal to do even minimum checking — is a hallmark of the our failing culture’s canon of invention. We have drawn cultural, political, social, economic, and religious battle lines and refuse to seek stasis, i.e. common ground where we agree about the content of disagreement.

I have no doubt there are people in this country today who believe these two false stories. The damage done is clear.

How do we stop it? Step one: Pass along nothing in social media until you’ve spent at least a moment checking it out. And don’t be enamored of the source. Credible news organizations and learned people have been suckered, too. I’m guilty, too. I’ve passed along nonsense, too. I’m embarrassed, too.

I’m now arguing that the discipline of verification is more than an essential practice of journalism. It must now be an essential practice of citizenship in the social media age.

August 8, 2011

On Essentials in Journalism

That’s another over-promising headline for you. Here’s what caught my eye: What Journalists Need To Know About Libelous Tweets. And here is the lede:

Rumors that CNN had suspended Piers Morgan due to the News of the World phone hacking scandal spread on Twitter earlier this month, sparking an important discussion about whether journalists need to verify information before tweeting.

Why would this spark such a discussion. Isn’t it painfully obvious?

I have long argued that operating as a custodian of facts with a discipline of verification is essential to journalism. What that means is: If you do not have that stance and practice that discipline then you are not practicing journalism. I don’t care if you’re getting a paycheck from a news organization or not.

Journalism is not simply writing up current events. It’s not punditry (i.e. unreported opinion). It’s not gossip. It is a very particular thing that emerges when one operates as a custodian of facts with a discipline of verification while pursuing a very particular purpose. Other communicative endeavors may also operate with this stance and discipline. Academic writing certainly should. That doesn’t mean academic writing is journalism. It simply means that this stance and discipline are essential to more than journalism. Perhaps this: This stance and discipline are essential to the gathering and dissemination of any information that we would hope an audience would take seriously (that information being useful to some purpose).

Verify tweets?

Does the person tweeting consider himself a journalist producing journalism for the primary purpose of offering an audience civically useful information (and/or, in the case of professionals, giving citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing)?

Then, hell yes, you verify before tweeting.

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