August 20, 2009

Fleshing Out Meta-Reporting

One of my big frustrations with the concept of meta-reporting (aka. show-your-work journalism) is that I cannot simply teach it to my students as good journalistic practice. The reason is simple: It is not now much of a journalistic practice at all. It is troublesome because it exists outside the recognized discourse of news.

So I teach it as a transgressive practice that students should adopt because they are the ones who will create the brave new world of journalism following the inevitable failure of the corporate business model.

Matt Thompson, of Newsless.org, published an interesting essay about the three parts of a news story you usually don’t get. You usually don’t get them because they are not part of the recognized discourse. They are elements of meta-reporting. The three parts are:

1. Longstanding facts: “There is a universe of facts that stay essentially fixed from day to day.” These facts form the context (series: part 1, part 2, part 2 supplemental) of complex stories such as political campaigns and the struggle to hammer out complex legislation (e.g. health care).

2. How journalists know what they know: This is the most basic element of meta-reporting or show-your-work journalism.

3. Things we don’t know: Part of showing your work ought to be showing what work you have left to do.

Thompson’s conclusion:

As long as the news is structured solely around what just happened, journalists are going to be fighting a rough battle. With a latest-news-only approach, we stoke demand for journalism by trying to snag people’s attention with each new development.

There’s another way, one that leads to a more informed and more loyal public, and allows us to do better work. It involves:

  • Enlarging the market for journalism by making it easier for more people to understand the longstanding facts behind each story.
  • Increasing the appeal of journalism by letting folks in on the details of our quest to uncover the truth.
  • Expanding the appetite for journalism by explaining what we don’t know, and what we’re working to find out.

As news consumers, we should be demanding these things as well. After all, right now we’re only getting the lamest part of the story.

Exactly. Let me add something else to this list: The kind of journalism produced by a standard practice of meta-reporting, I believe, has a high potential to produce the kind of information citizens need to be free and self-governing (the primary purpose). Meta-reporting creates a sound foundation for propositional content and thus aligns with Postman’s concepts of information, knowledge, and wisdom. That means meta-reporting may be not only a more effective method of informing the public, it would also then be a more ethical method.

August 17, 2008

Meta-reporting to the Rescue (Maybe)

Clark Hoyt examines the troubling practice of identifying “persons of interest”– people such as Steven J. Hatfill, Richard Jewell, Gary Condit, and the parents of JonBenet Ramsey. He asks a good question:

In reporting on a major criminal investigation, how do you balance the interests of the public in knowing as much as possible with the rights of individuals who come under suspicion, especially when the information comes from sources — often anonymous — whose motives aren’t clear?

The beginning of an answer is right there in the question. I call it meta-reporting, which is reporting about reporting as a normal routine of reporting.

Let’s set aside as obvious the suggestion that if law enforcement is unwilling to go on the record with a name then the press ought not to go public with it either.

The purpose of meta-reporting is to give readers the fullest account of a news situation. And that includes the fact that journalism is always a player–never just a passive observer–in any news situation. So how a reporter reports (and an editor edits) should be a routine part of much journalism.

For example in this case: When faced with an anonymous law enforcement source pushing a person of interest, report the push (and reason) but not the name, and remind readers how often in recent years law enforcement has gotten it wrong and journalism has enabled it. Reportable facts all.

Consider this from Hoyt:

In the cases of the Ramseys, Condit and Jewell, the security guard who was wrongly suspected in the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Olympics, it appears that much of the damage was done when reporters took leaks from anonymous official sources and ran them uncritically, creating what Wood, the lawyer, called “an unholy alliance between the media and law enforcement” to prosecute in the press.

Key word: “uncritically.” Meta-reporting is a critical practice that could help expose unholy alliances by demanding that journalists understand themselves as players who should routinely report their role as players.

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August 2, 2010

The Power of Reporting

Reading much of what passes for opinion journalism today at the national level  is a dreary experience in partisan bickering. So much of what passes for opinion journalism today is actually punditry.

Earlier I highlighted the work of Jim Dwyer, a local columnist for The New York Times who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1995, because his work is anything but dreary. He offers us a model for what opinion journalism is supposed to be: opinion based on reporting.

Compare this recent column by Dwyer to this one by Maureen Dowd, also of the Times. What you have here is nothing less than the difference between serious journalism and fluff. Reporting is the reason for that difference. Dowd’s column shows no reporting effort at all. And the result is predicable dreck. Note that her only quoted source comes from Vanity Fair. Dowd offers us an example of lazy reporting — something we should expect not to see in The New York Times.

One might argue that Dowd is commenting on the culture as she sees it. Fine. And I would ask: Why should I care what Maureen Dowd thinks about anything? What expertise does she bring to bear that makes her a cultural (or political) commentator worth listening to?

R E P O R T I N G

Dwyer’s column, on the other hand, shows us what happens when a serious opinion journalist bothers to ask real questions of real people — and bothers to tell a story.

Consider Dwyer’s lead:

One afternoon, Duane P. Kerzic was arrested by the Amtrak police while taking pictures of a train pulling into Pennsylvania Station. At first, the police asked him to delete the images from his camera, but he refused. He ended up handcuffed to the wall of a holding cell while an officer wrote a ticket for trespassing.

The column examines Amtrak’s apparent aversion to the photographing of its trains despite the irony of running an annual “Picture Our Trains” photo context (that now appears to be cancelled).

As the story progresses, Dwyer comments on more than the fate of Kerzic and others who have been harassed or arrested taking pictures on government property. He questions government censorship:

But how could Amtrak — the national railroad, whose preferred stock is owned by the American public and whose chief executive and board of directors are appointed by the president and confirmed by Congress — require that a Web site criticizing the railroad be shut down as a condition of settling a lawsuit for wrongful arrest?

What qualifications does Amtrak have to function as a censor?

Followed shortly by this:

Since 9/11, a number of government bodies have sought to limit photography in railroad stations and other public buildings. One rationale is that pictures would help people planning acts of mayhem. It has been a largely futile effort. On a practical level, decent cameras now come in every size and shape, and controlling how people use them would require legions of police officers. Moreover, taking photographs and displaying them is speech protected by the First Amendment, no less than taking notes and writing them up.

Dwyer finishes the column with more examples and then this excoriating conclusion:

Since Mr. Kerzic’s run-in with the police at Penn Station, Amtrak has dropped its Web page on the “Picture Our Trains” contest.

Mr. Colbert wasn’t standing for it.

“This photography contest,” he said, “is Amtrak’s cleverest ruse since their so-called timetable.”

One does not have to agree with Dwyer’s opinion to understand that this is a far better example of opinion journalism than a partisan rant or cultural musing based on little demonstrated reporting.

I’ll grant you than some readers may find partisan rants and cultural musings entertaining. But entertainment is not journalism’s primary concern or purpose — that purpose, stated by Kovach & Rosenstiel: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

March 26, 2007

Meta the Back Channel

Max Frankel’s essay in The New York Times Magazine offers an accurate and comprehensive description and justification for what he calls the Washington “back channel” — the peculiar relationship between government officials and the press that necessitates (rationalizes) anonymous sourcing. Frankel concludes his essay this way:

As Justice Potter Stewart wrote after studying the unending contest between the government and the press during the cold war:

“So far as the Constitution goes … the press is free to do battle against secrecy and deception in government. But the press cannot expect from the Constitution any guarantee that it will succeed. … The Constitution itself is neither a Freedom of Information Act nor an Official Secrets Act. The Constitution, in other words, establishes the contest, not its resolution. … For the rest, we must rely, as so often in our system we must, on the tug and pull of the political forces in American society.”

In loose translation: Prosecutors of the realm, let this back-alley market flourish. Attorneys general and others armed with subpoena power, please leave well enough alone. Back off. Butt out.

I’m just not satisfied with this. Frankel has missed an opportunity to examine what the press could do differently in regard to providing the information citizens need to be free and self-governing. He could have added to the end of that last paragraph this: ‘Journalists should do a better job of explaining this system in the context of their stories. Go meta.’

Let’s refer to the NYT’s own guidelines for anonymous sources:

The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy. When we use such sources, we accept an obligation not only to convince a reader of their reliability but also to convey what we can learn of their motivation — as much as we can supply to let a reader know whether the sources have a clear point of view on the issue under discussion.

This policy is imperfectly followed to be sure, but what interests me most about it is this paragraph–especially the part about conveying “motivation” and “point of view.” To do such a thing requires meta-reporting, or reporting about reporting. This is a practice nearly unknown in American journalism (with, perhaps, the exception of television showing us the circumstances of its reporters in the field).

Journalism is a very big thing, i.e. it is an important cultural practice that has effects (and we still don’t know what all of these are) on our civic and private lives and on our public and private institutions. Critics examine journalism (bloggers and The Daily Show have raised the bar, IMO), but too few journalists examine themselves and their practices as a normal part of reporting the news. If journalism is a big thing, then understanding journalistic practice — as it affects individual news events — is important information to have regarding freedom and self-governance.

To be sure, journalism does do a lot of navel gazing — too much by some accounts. But I think journalists all too often gaze at the wrong navel. They should spend some more time examining how they do what they do effects what everyone else does.

One way to do that is meta-reporting. Frankel’s essay and the NYT policy show us a good place to start. Tell us a whole lot more about these sources, their motives, and their ideologies as a regular part of the reporting; tell us how you know; tell us what procedures you used to be sure. In detail. As a regular part of the news article.

You may notice that this type of information does not fit neatly into the inverted pyramid structure common to news writing. That means my suggestion creates a big problem. Other big problems: space, time, economics. So never mind.


October 6, 2003

Reporting from _____…

What happens when a reporter covers a “story”?

Let’s suppose the reporter travels to location X to cover situation Y. We know that situation Y is news because it fits the structural biases of journalism and, therefore, attracts journalistic attention, i.e. if journalists cover it, it is news.

The reporter may witness the events of situation Y as they unfold. That “unfolding” metaphor helps the reporter understand the situation as causal and further helps the reporter create a narrative structure of events. Situation Y obtains. Antagonist A acts. Protagonist B reacts. A climax happens. A resolution happens. Any interruption in the narrative structure extends/continues the news “story.”

To create this narrative structure, the reporter must gather information, sometimes referred to as “facts,” that fits a causal sense of events. I do not like to use “facts” as a catchall term. I prefer to think of a fact as that which can be measured and given a number. The term I prefer comes from general semantics: report (re: Language in Thought and Action by S. I. Hayakawa). A report is information that can be verified and may include facts. The news reporter witnesses events, gathers facts, and makes a report.

Reports may include accounts of unfolding events by other witnesses. Assuming normal functioning of the five senses, each person that witnesses an event also brings to the act all that they are politically, culturally, and socially. These attributes create filters that give meaning to sense data. The saying that “perception is reality” recognizes this filtering and its meaning-making function (this assumes a complex definition of “perception” as more than simple sense data). A sniper intentionally kills a child. He “sees” the results of his work as do the parents of the child. But each “perceive” something quite different. The reality (i.e. the sense data plus meaning) of that dead child is something entirely different for the sniper and the parent.

There is no perception outside of this filtering. No one experiences something called reality from an objective point of view. A true, philosophic objectivity would require not only a different kind of sense data, it would require a blank mind. Such perception would not be human and is, therefore, unknowable.

The reporter covering situation Y at location X, then, is bound by his history, culture, and politics. And, just as profoundly, he is bound by his professional practices. His reports of situation Y will necessarily be biased in favor of what it is his practice has taught him to see and how his practice has taught him to portray it. This professional perception and practice will contribute to the reality that his readers experience when they read his reports.

Other witnesses’ reports will necessarily vary because they may not be bound by the reporter’s culture, politics, history, and professional practices. They will be bound by their own cultures. Part of the objective process of professional reporting attempts to present multiple reports from different agents involved in situation Y. In this way, the reporter fulfills his duty to fairness and accuracy–important biases in journalistic practice.

What is situation Y in itself? What is the objective truth of situation Y? There is no such thing in the philosophical sense. There are only verifiable reports and the inferences and judgments we make based on our considering/filtering of those reports. (Note: Knee-jerk reactions to such comments may include chastisement for espousing “moral equivalence.” But a careful reading of this entry should demonstrate that such is most certainly not the case. The reason: morality is a cultural possession. “We” quite rightfully condemn the actions of “them” when those actions fall outside our moral practices.)

June 14, 2004

According to…

I think routine meta reporting would make political journalism far more interesting and useful. Daniel Okrent’s column this week, about anonymous sources, suggests a few ways journalists could and should make the reporting process more transparent.

Here are two examples: First, journalists could explain the rules of professional practice. Each granting of anonymity, for example, includes a basic set, and situationally specific set, of rules that govern how and why the reporter allows a source to hide behind such appellations as “highly placed source,” or “senior official.” Second, reporters could explain the motivation behind a request for anonymity. Reporters understand why sources request, and are granted, anonymity. Why shouldn’t readers also have these same understandings?

Would reporters be guilty of editorializing if they made a greater effort to explain the motivations of sources who wish to be quoted anonymously? If they are speculating, yes. But reporters are in a position to know exactly these kinds of details. Without understanding these details, any agreement to grant anonymity makes no sense at all. Unfortunately, as Okrent’s column demonstrates, some reporters and editors have made a habit of nonsense.

August 8, 2016

Covering a “Major Policy Address”

Jay Rosen has been wondering about the “interpretive challenge” the Trump campaign presents for journalists. How do you use the tools of reporting to cover a person who won’t follow the general master narratives that journalists have come to expect about how presidential candidates should speak and behave?

I contend that this interpretive challenge is made even more challenging because much of the old reporting playbook was not a playbook about reporting. Instead, it is a blank stenographers pad waiting to be filled with quotes that will not be examined as long as they fit the general master narrative.

Today I just want to call attention to coverage of a Trump campaign speech (characterized as a “major policy address”) by The New York Times:

But the economic agenda Mr. Trump described included many traditionally Republican policies that offer little to no direct benefit to working-class Americans, while giving a considerable financial boost to the wealthiest.

Now that paragraph is likely to set aflutter the hearts of those who fight liberal bias in the news media.

Is that opinion or fact?

I’m going to sidestep that question for now (I’ll get back to it in the days to come) and say that, no matter what is is, it is certainly reporting. In other words, rather than simply pass along quotes — stenography — the Times has bothered to compare what Trump said with the public and/or historical record.

It happens several more times in this article:

For example, Mr. Trump called for ending what Republicans label the “death tax.” He did not mention that the estate tax currently exempts the first $5.45 million for an individual and $10.9 million for a married couple — meaning that only the very wealthy pay even a dime. If Mr. Trump’s net worth is as large as he has says, his heirs would have a great deal to gain from eliminating the estate tax; the typical displaced steelworker or coal miner, or even a relatively prosperous retiree, would have nothing to gain.

Mr. Trump advocated reducing the corporate income tax rate to 15 percent from its current 35 percent. That proposal comes after a decade in which after-tax corporate profits have risen sharply as a share of national income and compensation for workers has fallen.

He advocated “allowing parents to fully deduct the average cost of child-care spending from their taxes.” That might sound like a boost for average workers, but the way the tax code works, it would confer the greatest advantage to upper middle-class and wealthier families, and little to no benefit for vast numbers of low-income families.

For expenses of $10,000 a year on child care, the tax deduction would be worth about $3,960 for a family in the top marginal tax bracket making more than $467,000 a year, but only $1,500 to a family making between roughly $19,000 and $75,000. And many lower and lower-middle income families pay little or no federal income tax, so a tax deduction wouldn’t help them.

A bit later in the article, the Times has this to say about other policies:

Other elements of Mr. Trump’s economic agenda lack details that would make similar analysis possible. His proposed moratorium on new regulations would certainly warm the hearts of business interests that have complained of excessive regulation in the Obama era, but it is hard to know how much of a factor regulation has been in the sluggish economic growth of the last several years.

And on energy policy, Mr. Trump reiterated his pledge to tear up the Paris climate agreement and halt the United States’ payments to United Nations for programs to reduce global warming. He said energy regulations were killing manufacturing jobs.

Good journalism unfolds over time. What we see here could be meta-reporting (I’m not actually optimistic about that): reporting about reporting that still needs to be done. The Times should consider these two paragraphs as the starting points for news assignments that will become the context in which these policies are understood the next time Trump mentions them.

March 4, 2010

Comments and Sources

In the early days of newspaper comment features I was a big fan of open systems that allowed anyone to comment and to comment anonymously. I believed at the time, and still believe, that running an open system is the best way to jump-start discussion and build an online community. But I also believe that newspapers must exercise control.

Exercising control means having an employee read the comments and filter as necessary for such things as obscenity and threats of violence.

Further, I think the time has come to offer different levels of service based on different levels of anonymity. For example, offer a continuum with these poles: total anonymity would come with length and posting restrictions and total openness would come with no restrictions and perhaps even some cool perks.

Story Lab today runs a nice bit of meta-reporting about comment blowback: What if open comment features scare away sources? Here’s the conclusion:

I’m not here to say whether the comment board is a good thing or a bad thing, or what The Post should do about them. That’s the ombudsman’s domain. But like any reporter, I try to protect my sources from any outfall that might result from agreeing to go on the record, even though that’s not always possible. These days, opening up to a reporter sometimes means getting beat up on the web site’s comment boards. Will sources become more reluctant to talk to reporters because they fear what the posters will say about them?

I wrote Sutherland another email asking him about the comments and how they affected him. Did he think we should get rid of them, or better police them?

I didn’t hear back.

It’s time to change the rules of the game. It’s time for newspapers to engage in live moderation. It’s time to offer differing levels of service based upon differing levels of anonymity.

November 30, 2009

Progress in Show-Your-Work

Check out Story Lab — a show-your-work (aka. meta-reporting) project of the Washington Post. Here’s what Marc Fisher, enterprise editor for local news, had to say about it in an interview on Nieman Storyboard:

Story Lab is a way for us to enter the world of crowdsourcing and also lift the veil on the way we do journalism, opening up a window onto reporting and why some stories work and others don’t.

It’s an interactive place where readers can help us formulate stories at every stage, from conception to publication. Also a place where we can show readers how the sausage is made and also give them a place to discuss with us some of the ethical and logistical issues in journalism.

We’re hoping to demystify the work of a big, sometimes-anonymous institution and give readers a way to connect with the people who report and write the news.

I like the idea of this. While I certainly think meta-reporting can and should be employed in print, audio, and video, the internet is all about this kind of interactivity and transparency.

Question: Why was this not being done in, say, 2001?

Nieman’s response:

There’s not much yet to judge the site on. They’ve made some nice choices for visitors looking for good reading (especially Neely Tucker’s four-star profile of the quirky genius Edward Jones) and posted an initial call for input on a tattoo story assigned to Steve Hendrix.

In the long run, however, the Lab setup could provide insight into storytelling, from ethics to structure, and allow for a kind of open-endedness that lets stories evolve or continue in unexpected ways. My sense is that that its success will depend on how aggressively Post reporters work to engage readers via new channels (the brief profile of contributor Paul Schwartzman says “he does not tweet”), and the degree to which visitors want not only to know how the process works but also to dive into sausage-making themselves.

I’ll be interested to see how this works. Meta-reporting has not been something journalists have embraced in the past. Watch-dogging is about the other guys, you see.

I’m starting a new section on the sidebar called New Journalism. Suggest links, please!

June 29, 2009

Enough to Go Around

I’m late getting to the Milbank v. Pitney dust-up, largely because I find it so unremarkable. But I’ve decided to mention it because, contrary to the headline here, I do not think this is New Media v. Old Media. Let’s review:

Here’s the blog post Dana Milbank wrote and the follow-up column. And here’s the part that has me scratching my head:

The use of planted questioners is a no-no at presidential news conferences, because it sends a message to the world — Iran included — that the American press isn’t as free as advertised. But yesterday wasn’t so much a news conference as it was a taping of a new daytime drama, “The Obama Show.” Missed yesterday’s show? Don’t worry: On Wednesday, ABC News will be broadcasting “Good Morning America” from the South Lawn (guest stars: the president and first lady), “World News Tonight” from the Blue Room, and a prime-time feature with Obama from the East Room.

Milbank is apparently operating under two strange assumptions: 1) That presidents should not attempt to control their message (in this case with a “planted” question), and 2) that (horrors!) there’s all of a sudden an uncomfortable relationship between journalists and politicians.

(Let me praise him, however, for doing something I think all news organizations should be doing regularly and consistently: questioning the ethics of news organizations.)

This is not an Old Media v. New Media smackdown. This is standard, old-media nonsense.

Except…

Pitney did practice meta-reporting regarding how and why he participated in this manipulation. Score one point for new media. But take that point away for not practicing it sooner. I cannot find any evidence on the Huffington Post site (please correct me if I’m wrong) that Pitney alerted his Post readers to the request by the White House for him to solicit a question from an Iranian. Reporting that, as news, prior to the press conference, and doing the job of meta-reporting prior to the press conference, would have nullified this silly controversy. And it would have been a true New Media moment.

As it is, I’ll call out Pitney for allowing himself to be used by the White House. That meets the standards of no legitimate code of ethics that I am aware of.

I’ll call out Milbank for acting like Captain Renault — shocked, SHOCKED! to discover that presidents attempt to manipulate the press and that the press — most certainly the MSM — all too often plays along.

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