December 8, 2018

On Ethics and Paradox

Early each semester in my MED130 Fundamentals of Media Convergence class I ask this question: What are you doing here spending money when you could be in Miami making money?

Most of them give me a WTF look. A couple, to their minor embarrassment, snicker because they know what I’m referring to.

Then I launch into a short explanation that goes something like this:

Why are you here spending money — even going into great debt — when you could be in Miami right now making money? There’s enough media talent in this room to start a successful pornography business. And Miami is the center of the action. Think about it. You’d be using your talents right now to make money and living in an interesting city with nice winter weather.

You can imagine the squirming as I say this 🙂

And then I pull the trigger: I want an answer. Why are you here spending money and not in Miami making money?

They know. I’m not sure if this is the first time most of these students have thought about media ethics or themselves as ethical actors in the mass media. But what I’m doing is forcing them to think about what it is they imagine for themselves outside the naked pursuit of wealth.

They never disappoint me. They always say, in some form or another, that they imagine greater things for themselves, their crafts, and their audiences. They are better people than this, which is one of the reasons they are here spending money to get an education rather than exploiting themselves and others for money.

Imaging greater things for themselves in mass media careers requires them, however, to think about, and operate within, some uncomfortable realities.

Our social media environment is one of those realities.

I’ve been assigning the “go viral” assignment, described yesterday, for about six years now. Students have found many ways to make me uncomfortable with this assignment. So I’ve had to add a few things to the discussion over the years.

For example: Do not portray any illegal act. Do not make pornography.

Thankfully, no students have ever produced porn for this assignment. But I did have a group early on produce a video that portrayed them engaging in a minor illegal act. When I asked if the video was real (because, you know, critical thinking), well, they got a big kick out of that. I took that to mean the video was fake, but they never said for sure. In case you’re wondering, it did not (thankfully) go viral.

So in the discussions leading up to the assignment I have added a few don’ts.

But otherwise, I leave them much room to work. The variety of videos they have made over the years continues to astonish me. Some are fake. [Definitional timeout: “fake” is a problematic word today but also attention-getting. I’m being denotational. I’m also making up a lot of words here 🙂 ] Some have been deadly serious and most certainly real; this sometimes happens if I have a working group with a critical mass of journalism majors. And I get the stupid stuff. Just this semester I got another in the genre of “silly stunt.” Others are just weird … because, you know, weird can go viral.

The assignment also calls for them to write a justification for their video that explains what it is they did to make it go viral. This assignment is all about “on purpose.” And you can’t do something on purpose if you don’t know why you’re doing it. This assignment, again, is about both critique and control, both thinking and doing.

Without the doing part it isn’t education so much as another thing the professor is yammering about at the front of the room.

It has been suggested to me (by a person I respect) that my decision to handle this assignment this way for the purposes I have stated is Machiavellian, i.e. I’m willing to have students create things that are — in many cases — designed to fool the public for an educational purpose, and, possibly, putting them at social and economic risk. Does the end justify the means in this case.

I think it does.

I am aware that I am asking students to do something that could lead to a bad choice — even a choice that could have life-altering effects. I believe I prepare them for these choices before they do the assignment. I believe that one cannot be an effective media professional without having to face tough choices — a situation we put student journalists in everyday across the country when we ask them to publish student newspapers with no direct oversight of their editorial product. That shit gets real a lot.

If the potential for getting real is absent, I question the value of the lesson.

Our social media environment exists in the form that it does. It has to be dealt with — understood — in the form that it exists. And the audience is particular, too, to the form of social media. You gotta feed beast what it wants. This has always been true. And what the video beast wants more than anything — especially on social media — is emotion. That doesn’t mean you can’t do good, important, audience-informing work in video for social media (so, yeah, I have some areas of major disagreement with Neil Postman). Take a look at this video by my non-profit production company. It’s all pathos. And I stand behind it as an important, true, and audience-informing addition to the civic discussion. It is not fake news.

But neither was the recent viral video in question. It was not fake news. It was just fake. A trifle. A bit of entertainment. A bit of entertainment that worked on the pathos of pretending to be true. A bit of entertainment designed to manipulate the audience. A bit of entertainment that crossed a boundary that we think exists between the real and unreal, between news and entertainment.

That boundary? Man, that horse has been out of the barn for so long it has died in the field.

I am continually shocked when I see working journalists appear on TV dramas as themselves. I shouldn’t be. Nobody gives a shit. Their employers don’t give a shit. It’s a part of our media environment now. That boundary is fiction. That doesn’t mean the fictional boundary isn’t important. But I’ll need to deal with that in another post cuz this is getting into the tl;dr range.

I am not happy about this. But I cannot ignore it as I try to teach media students — including journalism majors — to be better media producers whether their goal is to inform, entertain, or something in between. In a very real sense, I’m also trying to teach citizens to be better consumers of media messages.

My screed yesterday was a first attempt at articulating all this. But it also points out a paradox I embrace.

On the one hand I want students to know what it means to produce viral content — from the silly to the serious. On the other, I want the audience to ignore them when they choose to be fake.

October 15, 2018

The Rhetoric of Fake News

Without a proper academic study, it’s difficult to say just how much the passing along of fake news (mostly by linking and tweeting) is the result of not knowing something is fake but passing it along because it fits a world view or knowing it’s fake but passing it along because it fits the needs of a persuasive intention. There are other ways to bifurcate this and many possible explanations I’m choosing to ignore right now.

I think Regina Rini’s column in The New York Times is interesting and instructive in coming to some understanding of this situation. Specifically, she foregrounds the role of situated ethos in the viral growth of fake news: We tend to believe friends and family whom we trust. As she says:

Part of the reason that people believe you when you share information is this: they’ve determined your credibility and can hold you accountable if you are lying or if you’re wrong. The reliability of secondhand knowledge comes from these norms.

So she’s proposing a different way for Facebook, in particular, to use the power of credibility to fight fake news. Here’s the upshot:

Instead of using this data to calculate a secret score, Facebook should display a simple reliability marker on every post and comment. Imagine a little colored dot next to the user’s name, similar to the blue verification badges Facebook and Twitter give to trusted accounts: a green dot could indicate that the user hasn’t chosen to share much disputed news, a yellow dot could indicate that they do it sometimes, and a red dot could indicate that they do it often. These reliability markers would allow anyone to see at a glance how reliable their friends are.

There is no censorship in this proposal. Facebook needn’t bend its algorithms to suppress posts from users with poor reliability markers: Every user could still post whatever they want, regardless of whether the facts of the stories they share are in dispute. People could choose to use social media the same way they do today, but now they’d have a choice whenever they encounter new information.

I like this idea. Here’s why I think it won’t work:

Of the two propositions I mention to start this post, I have reason to believe (my hypothesis) that the linking and tweeting of fake news for a rhetorical purpose is more likely than passing it along out of ignorance about its fakeness. I doubt there are many people who are a mere head-slap away from realizing — Gadzooks! — “I’ve been passing along Birther nonsense because I trusted Uncle Joe. If only there had been a red dot!” My contention: Uncle Joe’s nonsense got passed along because his niece or nephew had a persuasive intention to do so whether the stuff was true or not. A reminder: As long as you don’t get caught and shamed, lies and fallacies and fake news are just as much tools of rhetoric as, say, Aristotle’s artistic proofs.

An uncomfortable number of people today do not trust the news media despite its attempts at transparency and its well-established Code of Ethics. Who, exactly, is going to trust a red dot placed by Facebook based on … what? Where’s the trust coming from? What’s the ethos?

I really do like Rimi’s idea … ten years ago.

It’s too late.

September 20, 2018

“Every Child” to Screen at Public Affairs Conference

My student documentary team and I have finished another short film entitled Every Child. It premieres as part of the 2018 Public Affairs Conference at Missouri State University.

The conference opens with the Unity in Community Film Festival — a day-long screening of films following the conference theme. My team produced two of the five films. You can check out our work at Carbon Trace Productions.

The feature film of the festival is Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.

In other news:

I ditched the Springfield Report website that used to be a publishing venue for my multimedia journalism class. And I ditched my Carbon Trace bicycle/alternative transportation blog because it was hacked in a brute-force attack. Because I’m also running the non-profit production company on that domain, I felt it best just to let that bit of work slide into oblivion.

Rhetorica, however, will live on. I back it up regularly enough that I can move the content anywhere if something similar should happen here.

If you visit the Carbon Trace Productions site, you’ll notice something called Eyewitness in the menu. That’s the news arm of Carbon Trace Productions. There’s not much there right now, but soon we’ll begin making it something like Vice for Springfield.

President Trump visits Springfield tomorrow for a rally. I’m unable to attend. But I may have something to say following the fake news reports 😉

As a professor of journalism, does that mean I get to be an enemy of America, too?

June 23, 2018

Verify Then Publish

No need to waste a lot of finger tapping to explain this. It’s a simple matter of practicing the discipline of verification.

No news organization should have run a single word about Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ alleged incident with The Red Hen restaurant until speaking with the person who allegedly tossed her out on her ear.

The Washington Post has finally done the work that should have been done before anything was published.

You see, Sanders is part of an administration that lies to the American people. Until checked out, the safest bet was to assume she was lying.

April 2, 2018

The Sinclair Speech

There are many problems with the copy Sinclair Broadcast Group “forced” its news anchors to read. I’m just going to hit a few highlights after getting this out of the way:

Reading this speech on air was unethical. Every journalist asked to do so should have refused.

Here’s the speech as published by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: [with my comments]

“Hi, I’m(A) ____________, and I’m (B) _________________…

(B) Our greatest responsibility is to serve our Northwest communities. We are extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that KOMO News produces.

(A) But we’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country. [Calling them “news stories” suggests these are the products of news organizations. If that is so, exactly which organizations are we talking about, and how do you know they are “one-sided” and “irresponsible”? What are your criteria for these assertions?] The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media. [Is this statement referring to the previous statement? If so, again, name the news organizations involved and say how you know they are producing one-sided and biased “news stories.”]

(B) More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories… stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first. [This screams for details and examples (i.e. reporting). Without such details and examples, this statement is itself an example of one-sided, biased information — otherwise known as propaganda.]

(A) Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’…This is extremely dangerous to a democracy. [Ditto]

(B) At KOMO it’s our responsibility to pursue and report the truth. We understand Truth is neither politically ‘left nor right.’ Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever. [“Now more than ever” re: the previous unsupported assertions. Again, details. IOW, do a little of the truth-pursuing you’re telling is so valuable. Do some “factual reporting” right now.]

(A) But we are human and sometimes our reporting might fall short. [You “fall short,” but others are unfair, biased, and counter-factual? Please explain — with examples.] If you believe our coverage is unfair please reach out to us by going to KOMOnews.com and clicking on CONTENT CONCERNS. We value your comments. We will respond back to you.

(B) We work very hard to seek the truth and strive to be fair, balanced and factual… We consider it our honor, our privilege to responsibly deliver the news every day. [Show, don’t tell. Show that you seek truth and strive to be fair by naming the offending news organizations and showing us examples of exactly how they are doing all the bad things you allege. Your credibility (what little is left of it) depends upon you showing your work.]

(A) Thank you for watching and we appreciate your feedback”

This is just utterly embarrassing.

Forget for a moment that reading this propaganda is unethical based on nearly any reasonable understanding of the SPJ Code of Ethics. Do the “journalists” who read this stuff owe us any fidelity to logical consistency? This is like some kind of Orwellian doublespeak: reproducing the very things it criticizes — right out in the open!

How sad that anyone values their paycheck above this unethical and embarrassing boot-licking for an employer.

That’s easy for me to say; I’ve never been put in this position. And these people have families and financial responsibilities.

Neither of those two things absolves them of reading this crap to a public that now should no longer trust a single word they say.

November 29, 2017

I Bought A Digital Subscription

I just renewed my digital subscription to The New York Times this week.

Last night I added, for the first time, a digital subscription to the Washington Post.

I’m a sucker for that “democracy dies in darkness” tag line. Here’s what I actually think about such things. But this an emotional response, not an intellectual one.

And this is, IMO, dead on:

But such incredulity misses the deeper significance of this stuff. The brazenness of it is the whole point — his utter shamelessness itself is meant to achieve his goal. In any given case, Trump is not trying to persuade anyone of anything as much as he is trying to render reality irrelevant, and reduce the pursuit of agreement on it to just another part of the circus. He’s asserting a species of power — the power to evade constraints normally imposed by empirically verifiable facts, by expectations of consistency, and even by what reasoned inquiry deems merely credible. The more brazen or shameless, the more potent is the assertion of power.

(Obvious quibble from my theoretical perspective: rendering reality irrelevant IS a persuasive intention. But never mind.)

In a nutshell, this is one reason the press finds it difficult to cover President Trump. And it hints at the way forward.

My long-standing cure (one of many) remains unchanged: the rhetoric beat.

March 17, 2017

Rhetorica Update

A few things going on this spring (cuz, yeah, it has arrived in Missouri):

  • My Carbon Trace Productions documentary team has two projects in the works: 1) Student Debt (working title), and 2) Syrian Refugee Doctor (working title). For the latter, my team and I leave for Jordan in three weeks to begin filming. BTW, only 4 days left for our crowd-funding campaign for the trip. Click here to see the particulars and make a tax-deductible donation.
  • I am compelled to push this idea: Every journalist needs to begin asking this question of public officials: Do you mean that literally? That whole “literally” thing may be the gift that keeps on giving for the news media in the weeks ahead. I’m going to pull that thread a bit and see what happens. It’s related to the stenography issue.
  • Should Rhetorica become the site for an extended examination of the rhetoric of documentary film (and, perhaps, multimedia journalism, especially in its long audio and video forms)? Oh, no! Not another re-invention! 🙂
November 25, 2016

It Was Supposed to Make Us Smarter

There comes a moment every semester in my class MED130 Fundamentals of Media Convergence (because we couldn’t think of anything else to call it) when I tell students about two things I know to be true:

  1. Once you introduce a technology you can’t take it back.
  2. People will use technology for their own purposes and not necessarily the purposes imagined by its creators.

Think internet and porn.

Then again, think social media and fake news.

Apparently, the digital natives are having a difficult time with media literacy and critical thinking in the evaluation of information discovered online — especially as presented through social media.

What is fake news? Independent of rhetorical intention (e.g. satire, political manipulation, trolling, etc.), it seems to me that these are the essentials of fake news:

  1. Fake news imitates the time frame and time-bound nature of news. So the news-of-the-future skit on the old Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In show does not count as fake news. Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live does.
  2. Fake news imitates standard news conventions (if imperfectly) regarding presentation and style.
  3. Fake news is counter-factual. This might seem like pointing out the obvious, but that state of being requires a culture to operate with a shared body of facts (not a shared interpretation of facts). I think we left that state of being behind a long time ago.
  4. Snippets of crap taken from fake news posted on social media is not fake news. That’s your Facebook buddy being a dumbass. That your buddy posted a meme or truncated snippet of bullshit is your opportunity to point out what a dumbass he is; it is not your opportunity to believe anything. In other words, fake news is the original expression following the first three points above. Conversely, your buddy posting a snippet based on real news is not real news until you’ve done the work of checking it out. (So, yes, in our current media environment the discipline of verification is also essential to citizenship.)

Fake news, then, isn’t a problem by itself. It can be wildly popular entertainment or cogently biting satire (here’s a good Black Friday example). Fake news is fun. It’s educational. I show the following video to all of my journalism students as an example of the problems caused by standard news form when you follow it uncritically:

The problem isn’t fake news. The problem isn’t even that people share fake news to social media.

The problem is a lack of media literacy and critical thinking.

Hmmmm… What to do…

November 7, 2016

A Quick Interjection in the Silence

Rhetorica, as a site examining media-political rhetoric, remains retired.

But I have to call your attention — whatever is left of my readership — to Jay Rosen’s current entry on PressThink. The whole thing is important, but this struck me in particular:

How can you say to readers: these people live in a different reality than we do… and leave it there? That is not the kind of story you can drop on our doorsteps and walk away from. It’s describing a rupture in the body politic, a tear in the space-time continuum that lies behind political journalism. I don’t think the editors understood what they were doing. But even today they would find this criticism baffling. We reported what people in this movement believe. Accurately! What’s your problem?

Back in the day, here’s what I wrote about facts as a liberal bias.

August 11, 2016

When Stenography Matters

So I’ve spent a lot time here grousing about stenography.

But the candidacy of Donald Trump is changing the game of journalism a bit — including my game. It’s been easy to point out examples of the lazy reporting I call stenography. But with Trump, I now find it necessary to put a finer point on my grousing.

Let’s use this article in The New York Times as an example. Trump said about President Obama: “He’s the founder of ISIS.” And he said that ISIS “honors” Obama.

OK, so what’s a reporter to do with that?

It’s news. It’s news because a candidate for President of the United States said such a ridiculous thing. But there’s very little you can ask in follow up.

What question can you ask?

I suppose you could ask for specifics about how/why Obama founded ISIS (and risk sounding like a reporter for The Daily Show), but you’re as likely to get a cogent answer as you are to get a invitation to Trump’s next wedding.

And there you have an important distinction between stenography that is reporting the news and stenography that hides the news.

It isn’t stenography to quote the outrageous and let it hang in the air like a fart.

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