June 8, 2008

Rhetoric, Ethics, and Intention

That could be a book title. Maybe someday it will be 🙂 Right now it’s simply the over-grand headline on a too-short blog post about today’s Ideas & Trends column in the Week in Review section of The New York Times.

The column attempts a short round-up of ethical questions that spring from new media technologies. Specifically, how does our ability to gather sound and video with tiny devices, and post the product instantly to the web, change the heretofore normative ethical standards championed by the Society of Professional Journalists?

The cases in question are Mayhill Fowler’s capturing audio of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama saying things that they might not have said in an interview with a reporter.

Here’s a Q & A with Fowler from April in the Columbia Journalism Review. And here’s the part that caught my attention–the part that has to do with my over-grand headline:

Jordan Michael Smith: Why did you go to the Obama fundraiser?

Mayhill Fowler: Just to enjoy myself. I had come back home for a few days, from following the Obama campaign around Pennsylvania. My husband and I had gone to other events—the ballet and the theatre—and this was one more vaguely pleasurable, somewhat boring event in that light. In fact, I almost didn’t take my tape recorder. I left my tape recorder upstairs and thought, ‘Oh, should I go back up and get it?’ I did go upstairs and get it, but that’s why when I went to the event.

JMS: Why did you record Obama’s words there?

MF: A lot of the things I go to I never write up. If there isn’t anything interesting to me, I don’t write it up. A lot of things just become background. I never in a million years thought there would be anything probative in this event, because I’ve been to a number of fundraisers, and except for a human interest/amusing kind of piece, there’s never anything newsworthy there. The idea that candidates huddle with donors and tell lots of secrets is some sort of paranoid fantasy, I just don’t think that’s true. But having followed Obama around, when he started speaking, I realized instantly that these were new sentences and phrases, so I started paying attention and recording it.

The rhetoric of journalism is partly constructed to persuade news consumers that the news product is trustworthy. It is a rhetoric of credibility–a rhetoric that is changing in the new media environment. This is not at all surprising. I’ve done a lot of thinking and speculating about how our noetic field is changing today and what that means for journalism.

The (inchoate) ethical standards journalists set for themselves are clear in this regard: The codes are aimed squarely at credibility (which, in the past, was also good for business).

But what are journalists’ intentions? This is not an easy question to answer because of the complex rhetorical situation of journalism as a social, political, and economic practice of individuals acting alone and within institutions.

Here’s where I’m going with this: I’d be a lot more comfortable with Fowler’s ethics if she admitted to something like a journalistic intention.

(But what is a journalistic intention? I’m torn between expansive and limited understandings of this concept. So let’s just move on and see what happens.)

(Am I willing to dismiss “news” that springs from intentions I find troubling? How do journalistic intentions affect my interpretation of events? Perhaps I could just run everything through CF(p)r -> PE? That’s my revision of the illocutionary act of speech-act theory. It’s intended to explicate intention: intention = context, illocutionary force, propositional content and rhetoric that leads to some effect on the auditor.) 

The working reporter sometimes has no choice. You get an assignment to cover something, and you by-god go get (create) the story. What of the dilettante? What were Fowler’s intentions? According to the Q & A: fun (assuming for a moment this isn’t bullshit). Seeking her own enjoyment may have played a role in her admitted misunderstanding of whether or not she had something newsworthy. But don’t all reporters struggle with this same lack of confidence from time to time? What is news anyway?  

All human communication involves rhetoric, ethics, and intention to some extent. Communicators who would have their words affect the public should have a far greater (self) understandings of these. How can one achieve greater understanding? 

How should we assess Fowler’s ethics? What standards should new media practitioners follow–pro and amateur? These are large questions, and I do not have complete answers. But here’s a stab:

Rhetoric: Journalism to be journalism–no matter who is practicing it–must operate in part with a rhetoric of credibility (otherwise, what good is it?). What are the new rhetorical standards following from new media technologies? 

Ethics: It’s always appropriate to ask (from my Issues in Media Ethics syllabus):

  1. What constitutes an ethical problem or dilemma and from whose point of view?

  2. What are the sources of ethical standards, and whose agendas do/should these standards serve?

  3. How do we solve ethical problems, and whose interests are served by the methods we use to arrive at solutions?

Any assertion of an ethical standard should be examined using those questions.

Intention: Journalists must be honest with themselves about what it is they are doing and why they are doing it (because I think every person must be…). Does Fowler intend to play “gotcha”? I have no idea. Only she knows. If the answer is “yes” for anyone who would gather and report the news, then the ethical lapse is clear because “gotcha” is not typically the stuff of the information citizens need to be free and self-governing

Unless… Surely some gotcha material is publicly useful information (Yikes! What role does politics play in that?). And if the journalists involved in the story have done a proper job of journalism — i.e. 1- acted as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification, and 2- Dealt openly, fairly, and completely with the context of the gotcha — then I’m OK with it.

(Time for me to run that assertion through those three questions listed above.)

How often does this “proper job of journalism” happen in the never-ending news cycle that the new media made possible? Are we comfortable with loosening those standards for certain types of useful information? How should we make such choices? When and under what circumstances should we slow the hell down (especially when working with amateurs)?

And, thus, the need for self-understanding and cogent expressions of journalistic rhetoric, ethics, and intention.

UPDATE (12:30 p.m.): Want to practice a bit of rhetorical analysis with my formula of the illocutionary act? Run the question Fowler asked:

“Mr. President,” Fowler asked, “what do you think about that hatchet job somebody did on you in Vanity Fair?”

Hmmmmmm… What’s that word “hatchet” doing there? What does the verbal “did on” suggest? And are we to believe that Fowler doesn’t know who Todd Purdum is? We know that can’t be because she makes the assertion to Clinton that the guy is married to former White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers.

How might Clinton have reacted if she had asked: “Mr. President, what do you think about the article Todd Purdum wrote about you in Vanity Fair?” (This, BTW, is the rhetorical approach I’d expect from a professional reporter with journalistic intentions. Pros don’t always get it right–whatever that means.)

You can use other methods to figure out what’s going on here. Just check the Rhetorica Critical Meter. I’m wondering about Fowler’s invented ethos. There are two kinds of ethos: 1- situated ethos: who you are before the text, and 2- invented ethos: who you are in the text. Who is Fowler creating here, and for what persuasive purpose?

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3 Responses

  1. Tim 

    I thought you changed CF(p)^r -> PE to F^r(p) / C -> PE?

  2. acline 

    Yikes… you’re right. I did 🙂

  3. Jason 

    Excellent piece, Andy. I really enjoyed this one.