August 19, 2010

Something Like Accuracy

The so-called “ground zero mosque” is the subject of a memo by Associated Press Deputy Managing Editor for Standards and Production Tom Kent. The memo is, basically, a study in how a major news organization — one that asserts itself in the basic of definitions of craft and ethics — attempts to create something like an accurate portrayal of a news situation.

For example:

We should continue to avoid the phrase “ground zero mosque” or “mosque at ground zero” on all platforms. (We’ve very rarely used this wording, except in slugs, though we sometimes see other news sources using the term.) The site of the proposed Islamic center and mosque is not at ground zero, but two blocks away in a busy commercial area. We should continue to say it’s “near” ground zero, or two blocks away.

One of hot-button issues is proximity. How far away can a thing be to another thing and still be associated? That question is looking for an opinion about a fact. That is actually the wrong question to ask. The right question is: How close of a connection can a political faction make (and how does it make it) to suit its purposes, and what is our (the press) role in verifying, reporting, and interpreting that connection?

The mistake the AP is making with this memo is assuming that facts are powerful persuaders and that particular representations by the AP constitute accuracy over inaccuracy (hardly a persuasive distinction in politics). The AP makes this mistake because it assumes a very particular communicative role for itself — one that is common to every reasonable expression of the primary purpose of journalism.

What’s left out: The rhetoric beat.

The rhetoric beat suffers from the same communicative assumption I just mentioned. So I’m not claiming that it is some kind of super journalistic hermeneutic. Instead, it allows journalists to examine the rhetorical battleground in a particular way — to be able to point and say “there it is” and “here’s where we stand as players.”

I think it’s a good thing for the AP to stake out its semantic territory in this situation. But I think it needs to be backed up by much more reporting of the rhetorical maneuvers of the contending parties.

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4 Responses

  1. Keith R. 

    If proximity really mattered, we should be concerned (as John Stewart pointed out) about the distance of playgrounds from Catholic churches. Everyone in America believes they own a piece of Ground Zero due to the shared trauma of that day. That does not make it NIMBY for the whole country! Is this not a First Amendment issue? Does it still remains intact?

  2. acline 

    Keith… It’s a lot of different issues, including a First Amendment issue. I just picked one that interested me and fits the concerns of this blog. I thought the Stewart joke was pretty good :-)

  3. Tim 
  4. acline 

    Tim… Good link. Thanks!