July 30, 2011

Update: Journalism and Poverty

My essay for the American Political Science Association conference and the Journal of Poverty & Public Policy — a case study in reporting about poverty — is coming along nicely. The conference is in early September. I began the writing phase last week.

I found myself wanting to come up with something practical.

I have written/published these academic essays concerning journalism:

  • the ethics of pre-primary presidential campaign coverage
  • the role of identity in the ethics of writing ombudsman columns
  • the politics of community improvement programs
  • the ethics of identity in who is a journalist
  • the structural biases of journalism
  • the shifting definition of “losers” in the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

All of these essays had their beginnings here on Rhetorica, either as blog essays (re: bias and campaign coverage) or as questions I asked of my readers (re: ombudsman and “losers”). All these essays share something with many other essays written by professors in the humanities and social sciences: There is very little here that can be put to immediate use.

That’s OK on one level: Our primary purpose is to try to come to some understanding of how the world works and why it works that way from the points of view of our various disciplines. But it’s not at all satisfying from another role we academics should play — the role of public intellectual.

Take my primary campaign essay for example. It began as a blog essay entitled The Press-Politics of the Presidential Primary Process. My writing on this topic for Rhetorica and for an academic audience created an idea for the improvement of political journalism: Tell a different storytell the story of citizens’ experiences with governance.

Simple, right? Just change your whole point of view.

But that’s what professors so often do. We come up with stuff that has very little practical application because the institutions we hope to influence do not want to be influenced. The collective mind of an institution wants to survive and reproduce itself. Telling a different story of politics would change the entire game — a game that the establishment of journalism is very happy with as it is (despite occasional grousing on the pages of the Columbia Journalism Review).

That’s not to say “tell a different story” isn’t important or shouldn’t be used to improve political journalism. This is a change in point of view that would improve the ability of journalists to fulfill their primary purpose and come close the meeting the demands of their press-politics mythology. I stand by it as necessary, but I suffer no delusions that anything will ever change in regard to it.

With this new essay I set myself to a practical challenge: Say something interesting about how journalism (using the Springfield News-Leader as a case) covers poverty and point the way to better practice without costing the newspaper time, money, space, or personnel. In other words, take away the usual excuses for not making a change. These are, by the way, really good excuses. Much of what we all know would improve journalism costs the very things today’s corporate product has so little of:  time, money, space, or personnel.

Since I am studying one newspaper, I did a little field research and met with the editor, David Stoeffler. We’ve had two conversations about this essay, one formal and one informal. Those conversations have led to a breakthrough. Based on my examination of two months worth of issues of the News-Leader, I think I have discovered something that hits all the hot buttons.

Well, you’ve read this far, and this is where I leave you hanging. The conference is September 1-4. So I must have this thing written by 31 August. That’s when I’ll tell Rhetorica readers all about it.

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June 17, 2011

The Heroic Graphic Me

One of the first things I wrote for The Rhetorica Network almost ten years ago was the Media/Political Bias page. It’s still a work in progress, yet it has brought me and this weblog more attention that anything else I’ve written.

You will find the latest mention in Brooke Gladstone’s new book The Influencing Machine. It is a graphic, non-fiction book about the media. Here’s one of my panels in the chapter about bias:

Last fall I did a segment with Ms. Gladstone for On The Media about crisis reporting. We were chatting before the recording began, and she told me that I was in her forthcoming book. I made some wisecrack about hoping the artist drew me in a properly heroic fashion. And now you can see the results.

Now compare to the real things. Pretty close I guess 🙂

I’ll start reading the book soon and write a review. A quick flip through it demonstrates that despite its graphic approach the book is thoroughly serious. Hmmmmm… do I have an anti-graphic book bias?

Oh, never. There’s nothing about a graphic approach that suggests a lack of seriousness. We’re still talking words here. But more, just take a look at the panel above. Notice what you can read in drawing. The hunch of my shoulders and the tilt of my head suggest that I think I’m stating the obvious but am baffled why no one seems to get it. I’ve got a steady hold on that rocking boat of bias and a steady gaze because, by gum, I just know I’m kinda sorta in the ballpark with this whole bias thing. And, perhaps, the hunch of my shoulders also betrays my being disconcerted that my little gem of obviousness — everyone’s little gems of obviousness in a rolling sea of motivated obviousness — is making Ms. Gladstone hurl.

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April 27, 2011

Journalism and Poverty

I’m working on a conference essay for the American Political Science Association. I have a question (or a bunch of them). Perhaps Rhetorica readers can help me.

Does one serve an audience by treating it as an object of reporting?

This question brought me to a stop as I was considering my topic — a case study in how a newspaper covers the poor (especially the working poor) in a town with a high percentage of its population working minimum-wage service jobs and living below the poverty line. If the primary purpose of journalism is to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing (Kovach & Rosenstiel 2007), does this suggest that such information is the same for all socio-economic levels?

What kind of journalism do the working poor need? What kind of journalism do the working poor want? What kind of journalism makes any particular group visible to the audience in the way that group understands itself? What type of journalism leads to political/economic visibility and efficacy?

To see where I’m going with this, check out these quotes from Herbert Gans from a Q&A at the Nieman Journalism Lab:

Multiperspectival news reporting is more diverse. It seeks news about other subjects that are newsworthy for the variety of audiences in the total news audience; it obtains news from many other sources, including ordinary citizens, and it reports a variety of political, ideological, and social viewpoints (or perspectives).

Here’s my favorite example. Poor audiences need business news like everyone else, but not about investing in the stock market or the latest newsworthy acts, legal or illegal, by corporate bigwigs. They need to know about the businesses in which they can afford to shop and the ones that will hire them, as well as the charitable and public agencies that can help them when they are jobless and in need.

I find the idea of journalists as representatives [of citizens] intriguing, in part because the U.S. is an upscale democracy, the politics of which is dominated by corporate campaign funders and the upper-middle-income population that votes and participates more actively than the rest.

As a result, U.S. politics does a poor job of representing the remainder of the citizenry, especially those earning below the median income and various numerical minorities.

Journalists are not elected officials and they cannot be political representatives or advocates but they can represent people in a variety of other ways, for example by turning their experiences and problems into news, and by asking politicians and other authoritative sources questions to which unrepresented and poorly represented citizens need answers.

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April 22, 2011

On (Teaching) Web Journalism

The spring semester is winding down, and that means that Ozarks News Journal has reached the end of its first school year in publication. I publish the site for my JRN378 Multimedia Journalism class.

Publishing on the server of the College of Arts & Letters at MSU presented certain difficulties — mostly technical/procedural. As the deadline to get a site running rapidly approached, I made the decision to publish ONJ myself (including paying for it) using the same hosting company I use for Rhetorica and Carbon Trace. No big deal as far as I’m concerned except that my kiester is on the line if anything goes wrong.

I’m very pleased with the work ONJ reporters did this year. They did what I wanted them to do most: Take the site seriously as a news organization. Not long after our coverage schedule began, I could hear them on their cell phones in the ONJ newsroom talking to sources and referring to themselves as reporters for Ozarks News Journal.

Reality is the best teacher. My job is to push them into it.

The ONJ reporters have one more feature package assignment to do before the semester ends (deadline 2 May). And they will continue to write their blogs through 4 May.

So what happens this summer? Well, I’ll be doing some blogging for the site. We have an audience now, so it’s important not to let ONJ simply go dark for three months. Further, I need to stay ahead of the curves — and, yes, there are several. A transparency curve. A web journalism curve. A how-do-I-use-the-latest-new-tool curve. The social media curve.

Furhter, any ONJ reporter is welcome to continue contributing. I hope some of them will do so.

Each student will complete a synthesis paper assignment in which they assess their work and what they think they learned. But just as important, they will tell me where this thing needs to go. I’ll be paying very careful attention to their comments and suggestions. They are the future of journalism. They understand that the web (and multimedia reporting and story-telling) will largely be that future. I see very few students now in our print/internet journalism track who assume they will be going to work for print-only news organizations.

We cover a lot of bases in the Department of Media, Journalism & Film. One of them is web-tech skills. A group of students is doing a project for one of our web classes to develop an ONJ iPhone app and a new WordPress theme designed to meet our needs and look snazzy.

So things are moving forward rapidly.

Once again, I’ve arrived at the point in a post in which I ought to actually discuss what the headline promises. And once again, I’m bailing out. I don’t know what it all means yet. This I do know: If students continue to improve the site (and their reporting), ONJ will soon become an important news organization in Springfield. Our public affairs focus — following from our university mission — will give us a unique and complementary niche here. Then, I think, we’ll be in a position to learn something.

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April 2, 2011

My Talks at the MCMA Conference

The Missouri College Media Association is holding a conference in Springfield today sponsored by journalism students at MSU. I’m giving two talks (from the program):

Blogging For Journalists: Bringing an Audience, Bringing a Brand

The presentation will acquaint participants with two important reasons to begin blogging while in school: today’s news organizations want you to come prepared with an audience and a brand. The session will also discuss best practices.

Everyone is Now Multi and Meta

This presentation introduces multimedia skills and theory for web publication. Special attention will be paid to the Ozarks News Journal site — a multimedia journalism project at MSU.

I’ve prepared a short Prezi for the first presentation. You may see it here. For the second, I’ll be using ONJ as a source of examples of what to do and what not to do — we manage both 🙂

What’s kinda cool — given my first talk today — is that Rhetorica turns nine years old later this month (I mistakenly claimed nine years last year … duh). That makes it one of the oldest, continuously-published weblogs in the world. And if you count (which I do) my early proto-blog Timeline (part of the old Presidential Campaign Rhetoric 2000 site — a student project of mine — archived here), then that makes me one of the longest running bloggers in the world. None of that is a claim to expertise. I’ve simply been around long enough to be a curiosity.

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March 17, 2011

WikiLeaks: A Conversation on Media Ethics

If you’re in Springfield, be sure attend  our panel discussion at MSU entitled  WikiLeaks: A Discussion on Media Ethics. It is sponsored by the Department of Media Journalism and Film.

  • Date: 28 March
  • Time: 1:00 to 3:00 p.m.
  • Place: 313 Plaster Student Union

You’ll find the official website here on Rhetorica.

Here’s a link to the flier.

For those of you who cannot attend, please consider following our live blogging of the discussion on the official website. The live blogging will be interactive, so you can post questions and comments as the discussion unfolds.

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February 15, 2011

Lots of Opinion (Journalism)

The unfortunate thing is this: The way the semester works out at the moment, readers of Ozarks News Journal have to wait about six weeks into a given semester before our main features and the television show begin showing up on the web. That will change by this time next year (because we’ve created a new 100-level class to teach basic web/new media/ social media skills so students are up to speed by the time they get to my multimedia journalism class).

But, even better, the site is open for past students to use. And, still better, the site will soon be open for citizen contributors.

The goal: By this time next year ONJ should be a year-round news organization with a steady stream of local content.

Students have been blogging from the first week, and transparency has been job #1. Their first assignment was to post bios that tell readers “where I’m coming from.” The comment feature is wide open. We also have a corrections & amplifications form linked on the top menu for citizen feedback. We have a Facebook group for citizen feedback (where we post the reporting group assignments). And you may subscribe by e-mail, Twitter, SMS text, and RSS.

The main features will fall within the parameters of “news” and “features” — i.e. content reported and presented using the best practices (we can muster) of multimedia presentation and journalistic craft. The blog posts are (supposed to be) opinion journalism, and, at the editor’s discretion,  well-handled blog posts may be placed in the featured position. Neither I nor the editor edit or otherwise supervise these posts (although we may edit if we find glaring errors of fact/usage. ONJ reporters are supposed to approach their blogging by these criteria:

  1. Does the post pass the grandmother test, i.e. don’t shock your grandmother. The point is to keep content appropriate for younger readers. We don’t do pornography or violence.
  2. Does the post demonstrate good opinion journalism? i.e. based on one or more of: reporting, first-hand experience, and/or demonstrated expertise.

So there’s plenty of opinion on ONJ. And plenty of opinion about the topics the students are reporting because they are supposed to blog about the news and features they are working on. How is that going to work? You’ll find out as we do.

Also of note, the editor of ONJ last semester is doing an independent project in online opinion journalism. Her blog is Blogging and Opinion Journalism. Check it out.

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January 11, 2011

Rhetorica Update

Welcome to 2011 — Rhetorica’s ninth year.

Here are some coming attractions:

  • A student of mine is doing an independent study project in online opinion journalism. I hope Rhetorica readers will check into her site often. I’ll be mentioning her work here as well. Link soon.
  • I’ll pick up the pace examining the work of various opinion journalists. My goal is one per month. I’ll be looking at Thomas Friedman next. Please let me know if you have suggestions — good, bad, mediocre, and any faction.
  • Jay Rosen’s criticism of the “view from nowhere” has been getting a lot of attention recently. This has prompted me to do some more thinking about the role of the rhetoric of journalism — its particular (peculiar) discourse forms — in encouraging this view. I’m especially interested in this now because I think I may be onto identifying and describing the psychology of the “view from nowhere,” which might give us further clues to its sources. This springs from from collaborative research I’ve been doing with Dr. Harry Hom, emeritus professor of psychology at MSU. More on this soon.
  • This should be the break-out semester for the Ozarks News Journal. Last semester’s class got the site up and running. My charge to the current class: make it better (i.e. good journalism) and get attention.
  • Last year I swore off doing any more analysis of  political journalism. I’m sticking to that. And, really, that ought to also mean swearing off analysis of political rhetoric. The two are obviously not the same but just as obviously related. I intend to tread lightly in the realm of politics. My posting of the Olbermann video on 9 January was not treading lightly. Posting it sprung directly from my own raw feelings about politics today. I stand by my statement about violent rhetoric. I could have made it without posting the video. I do not, however, apologize for posting the video. Something more productive may spring from this. I think we need to know what the actual extent of violent rhetoric is in our politics, who uses it, how they use it, and why they use it. Only after we know these things will it be possible to make intelligent hypotheses about the effects of violent rhetoric on our civic discourse. I’m thinking now about the possibilities of doing this work.

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August 16, 2010

Multimedia Journalism Project Begins Soon

I’ve spent a lot of time this summer designing a new class called JRN378 Multimedia Journalism. The idea is to give our students a solid grounding in web and social media tools for journalism by having them publish an online news magazine called Ozarks News Journal.

There’s not much to see now — just the basic design. Soon, however, you’ll begin to follow along as these students learn to built a web news organization. My hope is that in addition to producing some fine examples of multimedia journalism, students will also be exploring what it means to be a web-based news organization.

What features of the craft and ethics of traditional print/broadcast journalism ought to be preserved? What new ways of understanding journalism does the web make possible? What will be the craft and ethics traditions of the future? What roles will journalists play in civic discourse, and what will be their relationship to an audience?

It’s their revolution. I hope they discover/create some interesting answers.

Here’s a bonus: The ONJ website will also operate as a converged news product with our ONJ TV program available on Ozarks Public Television and Mediacom 24. You’ll be able to watch the shows on the web, too.

Take a look at the site. And be sure to drop in after school starts (a week from today) to read and comment and … you tell me … what is your role, dear reader?

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May 7, 2010

Rhetorica Update

Something I realized lately is just how important Rhetorica has been to my academic research. I’ve used it in part as a way to work things out in public. Every academic essay and book chapter I’ve published since 2002 has begun as an entry on Rhetorica and/or was hashed out here.

For a year now I’ve been a in a bit of a post-tenure slump, and it has shown on Rhetorica.

That’s about the change.

The move to emphasizing media ethics turned out to be a mistake. But I do not intend to go back to press-politics. I will be pushing ahead with something different. I’m in the process right now of figuring out what that will be. This I know: It will still involve my primary discipline of rhetoric and and my secondary disciplines of media and journalism.

I’m signing off until 1 June 2010. I’m taking a blogging break. During that time I’ll be finishing the spring semester, taking a head-clearing, week-long solo bicycle ride on the KATY Trail, and sitting on my front patio reading.

On the day of my return I will post a comprehensive essay on the Rhetorica’s next mission.

Thanks for reading! See you in June.

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