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 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.

June 5, 2009

Bass Fishing for Journalists

Allow me to state the obvious: Sound-bite media driven by sound-bite culture (or is it the other way around?) create(s) sound-bite thinking. Sound bites are enthymemes — truncated arguments that require the audience to supply the missing logic and/or information. Sound-bite thinking is the construction and maintenance of ideas (e.g. but not limited to ideology and common sense) based upon electronically-mediated (electronically-encouraged) enthymemes.

Question: Of what value is journalism if it merely passes along the sound-bites?

Observation: Talking Points Memo is an excellent example of online journalism. But of what value is it when it publishes sound bites without the necessary reporting, i.e. journalists operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification.

Exactly what does Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) mean when he says of President Obama: “I just don’t know whose side he’s on.”

Sometimes I think journalists are like largemouth bass — easy to catch if you dangle something flashy in front of them. Electronic media are designed to gather and disseminate sound bites. Such gathering and disseminating is not journalism. To be journalism, an editorial act must be inserted between the gathering and the disseminating. An editorial act is an act of judgment (and we can certainly argue about what should constitute an editorial act) about news value. It is also an intervention into the reportorial process — an intervention that includes checking, promoting, and protecting facts so that one may construct information and knowledge.

Let me suggest that Inhofe’s assertion is entirely meaningless without the participation of a partisan (or interested) audience (of any kind) to interpret it (I could actually make this claim about any assertion, but lets not go there right now). But that assertion sure is flashy! Set the hook!

I understand that TPM is passing along raw data as it arrives in its gathering system. That’s blogging, not journalism (although blogging can be journalism).

Of what value is this sound bite without at least an attempt at applying an editorial process. None — except, of course, it gives TPM’s generally liberal audience (assumed from its content) something to huff about. Did anyone ask the Senator: “What do you mean by that”? Did anyone press for something more than the usual blather.

Here’s what we get from The Oklahoman, the original source:

Sen. Jim Inhofe said today that President Barack Obama‘s speech in Cairo was “un-American” because he referred to the war in Iraq as “a war of choice” and didn’t criticize Iran for developing a nuclear program.

Inhofe, R-Tulsa, also criticized the president for suggesting that torture was conducted at the military prison in Guantanamo, saying, “There has never been a documented case of torture at Guantanamo.”

“I just don’t know whose side he’s on,” Inhofe said of the president.

It is unclear from this reporting (a little meta-reporting please) if Chris Casteel, of the paper’s Washington bureau, asked the Senator to explain himself or is simply speculating. I tend to believe the cynical latter. In any case, The Oklahoman gives us reasons by way of some (entirely inadequate because we don’t know what it is) editorial act between the gathering and disseminating. What Inhofe apparently means is (given the limited information of Casteel’s reporting): Obama is not a Republican and, therefore, is not really on America’s side. We may certainly debate whether or not Obama’s policies will, among other things, keep us safe or advance our legitimate foreign policy goals. But such debating is much harder to do — takes a different kind of thinking — than casting a flashy sound bite to a hungry news media.

The reporter and his editors just could not resist a shiny lure —  one that does not further the primary purpose of journalism, which is to give people the information (something quite different from a sound bite) they need to be free and self-governing.

It’s one thing to hear nonsense such as this on TV or read it on the internet. Newspaper journalism, no matter in what medium it is practiced, is supposed to be better than this.

But you may be asking: Isn’t the fact that he said it news? Yes! On the same order as celebrity “news” IMO. (It may also be news in the context of examining Republican party tactics to regain power and influence. This is an ongoing story of vital importance to citizens. Tossing sound bites without context, however, does more to raise questions than to answer them.)

May 14, 2009

Those Darn Shortcuts

How do you make a first-class idiot out of yourself in a hurry in journalism?

OK, yes, there’s actually a long list of answers to that question. The reason is that journalism is a tough craft to practice well, and it is subject to all manner of human foibles and failings.

The particular failing I want to highlight today is my favorite. You know what’s coming…

Journalists should operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification.

One of the latest lapses: A fake quote lifted from Wikipedia. What really hurts: The fake quote was placed by a college student in order to test “how our globalized, increasingly Internet-dependent media was upholding accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news.” That’s the “story,” anyway.

Hahahahahaha! I love it!

Here’s the scoop from AP via CNEWS:

When Dublin university student Shane Fitzgerald posted a poetic but phoney quote on Wikipedia, he was testing how our globalized, increasingly Internet-dependent media was upholding accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news.

His report card: Wikipedia passed. Journalism flunked.

The sociology major’s obituary-friendly quote — which he added to the Wikipedia page of Maurice Jarre hours after the French composer’s death March 28 — flew straight on to dozens of U.S. blogs and newspaper websites in Britain, Australia and India.

They used the fabricated material, Fitzgerald said, even though administrators at the free online encyclopedia twice caught the quote’s lack of attribution and removed it.

The Guardian was one of the newspapers fooled by Fitzgerald’s fake quote. The conclusion of Siobhain Butterworth’s explanation is interesting:

It’s worrying that the misinformation only came to light because the perpetrator of the deception emailed publishers to let them know what he’d done and it’s regrettable that he took nearly a month to do so. Why did he wait so long? “I apologise for that,” he said. “I was originally going to do a report for my class and then it didn’t work out. I know I should have told you sooner.”

Is Fitzgerald a “perpetrator”? Hmmmmm… I find it fascinating and very troubling that neither AP nor The Guardian apparently bothered to check out this guy’s story (a little meta-reporting, please!). What class was involved? Why didn’t he turn something in? Did anyone call this guy’s professor to find out if this “experiment” could have been a legitimate part of the class work? This is more failure of craft of exactly the kind that got The Guardian into trouble in the first place.

The Chronicle of Higher Education avoided the implication that Fitzgerald conducted his experiment for a class. But it would have been nice if this newspaper covering higher education had rundown the truth — experiment or hoax? The truth, it seems to me, rides on what this student’s professor has to say.

Somebody call this person and ask!

Ooops, well, too late. The news beast has moved on to other matters.

February 25, 2009

Question Marks

You can obviously boil something down too much. That may have been the case today in my Introduction to Journalism class. But, at the moment, I’m kind of liking thinking about this: A journalist’s job is to remove question marks from a story not add them.

How this came up: I’m having my students write a story based on notes I’ve given them. I’ve put some pitfalls into the notes, e.g. missspelllings, factual errors, missing information. But I’ve also put a few bits of information into the notes that lead them to believe that the story might be juicier than they first supposed, i.e. “Hmmmmm… what if this is really about ______?”

Today we were covering what they know (and how they know it), what they don’t know (and why they don’t know it), and what they have to do to finish this particular article (get the stuff they don’t know and tell it to their readers in such a way that they might then know it). And I popped off with that assertion about question marks.

Now, on a certain level, it is utter bull. There is no state of affairs in which a journalist reports and writes any given news event in all its complexity. Good journalism unfolds over time. No single story can (or should?) get it all. I would even argue that “all” has no real boundaries, i.e. not only can we not get “all,” we have no real clue what “all” is or can be.

But my quip identifies something that I think journalists can avoid doing (to a certain extent): Raising more questions than they answer. At least in general. At least as a way of thinking about the job they should be doing.

Here’s an interesting complicating factor coming from something I’m advocating now. Does / can / should this apply to meta-reporting? I’m thinking meta-reporting is partly about raising questions and being transparent about what journalists don’t know in order to eventually discover and report the unknown. Ah, OK, that answers my question. What I mean by not adding question marks, then, is not adding stuff that makes the news event harder to understand. Adding interactive question marks? — to solicit understanding from readers — that’s OK.

January 13, 2009

The Yummy Donut of Status Quo Bias

Jay Rosen is back in the saddle at Press Think. And he’s returned with a bang. His essay posted yesterday deals in part with the status quo bias of journalism (although he does not use that term). Following an explanation of David Hallin’s diagram of the Spheres of Consensus, Controversy, and Deviance, Rosen says:

Anyone whose views lie within the sphere of deviance—as defined by journalists—will experience the press as an opponent in the struggle for recognition. If you don’t think separation of church and state is such a good idea; if you do think a single payer system is the way to go; if you dissent from the “lockstep behavior of both major American political parties when it comes to Israel” (Glenn Greenwald) chances are you will never find your views reflected in the news. It’s not that there’s a one-sided debate; there’s no debate.

Rosen is examining the role of interactive technology in overcoming “audience atomization.” Which is very cool. I’m going to use what he wrote to veer off in another direction.

The status quo bias of journalism:

The news media believe “the system works.” During the “fiasco in Florida,” recall that the news media were compelled to remind us that the Constitution was safe, the process was working, and all would be well. The mainstream news media never question the structure of the political system. The American way is the only way, politically and socially. In fact, the American way is news. The press spends vast amounts of time in unquestioning coverage of the process of political campaigns (but less so on the process of governance). This bias ensures that alternate points of view about how government might run and what government might do are effectively ignored.

The press ignores other things that intersect in interesting ways with the the status quo bias. For example, I recently discussed Dick Cheney’s odd justification for telling a U.S. Senator to go fuck himself. Tim Schmoyer, of Jig’s Old Saws, and I had a brief discussion in the comments about what constitutes news because, really — is one politician cussing at another news? Another way to put it: Is this something journalists should see or see in a particular way? I replied in part:

How it happens is particularly interesting considering that there are no cogent definitions of “news.” What is going on in the herd mind? Gans got a glimpse of it in his book Deciding What’s News. What he saw was a particular culture that is effective in socializing its members. But a definition remains elusive. That’s a problem because you and I might decide a thing is not news, but if the news media cover it then it must be news. And if you complain, well, you’ll be told you don’t know what news is.

That donut diagram is, as Rosen claims, particularly illustrative of journalistic behavior. I think it is especially illustrative regarding the status quo bias and what that bias says news is and is not. What I find interesting is that the lack of a cogent definition of news plays a big role in status quo bias and the Hallin diagram.

I’m not suggesting a cogent definition of news exists or that we must stop what we’re doing and find/create one now. Reason: Not possible, i.e. we cannot agree on a definition that looks the same to all of us equally. In other words, what news is is a judgment call made by people with the power to do so. These people appear to be partly unaware of their decision-making process, of their terministic screens, their structural biases, their professional culture, and their received cultural values. Most of us are not aware of these things most of the time. But I contend that a journalist can’t have that luxury because of that all-important primary purpose.

What can/should be done about this? (Defining the “this” and why it’s bad (if it is) isn’t easy considering what we’re talking about here is human beings acting and communicating in the ways that human beings do. There is no ground-state, unbiased communication from a person in contact with some objective reality to a person able to understand that reality as experienced and the message as intended. The epistemology of journalism, however, argues that this is exactly what can/does happen.)

I like the word “transparency” to identify what I think the “solution” is. And I have promoted the idea of practicing “meta-reporting” as a way to be transparent. But Tim Schmoyer gave me a much better description — simple and cogent: “show your work” journalism.

We all remember that phrase from math classes in elementary school. Getting the right answer was only part of the task. Showing your work demonstrated that you understood how you arrived at an answer (correct or otherwise). The quality of understanding we’re talking about in journalism, however, is a bit different. In math we want to show we understand the underlying concepts of a rational process. Certainly we want to understand underlying concepts in the news we cover (as irrational as it often is). Journalism, however, must also show that it understands the subjective — the post-modern condition — i.e. that not all of us experience the world in the same way.

How do we accomplish this?

Good question. I do not have a good answer yet.

But here’s something I think I do know: Meta-reporting cannot be practiced well using the news discourse of the last 100 years, mired as it is in a failed and false modernist epistemology.

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