March 2, 2015

Journalism and Class Bias

I go long periods of time forgetting to update the oldest document on this website: my examination of structural bias in the news media. Jay Rosen’s post at PressThink today reminds me, again, that I need to add #10 to the list: class bias, specifically middle-class bias.

Rosen is writing about his recent appearance on CNN to discuss the situation with Bill OReilly at FOX News and why O’Reilly isn’t “in trouble” with his employer for fabrications similar to those made by Brian Williams on NBC. Here’s an important moment in his published notes:

Here, Roger Ailes exploited a weakness in establishment journalism that in 1996 was dimly understood by its practitioners— or not understood at all. There was a submerged ideology in American newsrooms, populated as they were by people who were more cosmopolitan than “country,” more secular than religious. Journalists in the U.S. were vaguely progressive in the sense of welcoming social change (up to a point) and identifying (up to a point) with those who had grievances against traditional authority. Certainly there weren’t many denizens of the American newsroom eager to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop,” or who had supported the Vietnam War, or who saw Ronald Reagan as a cultural hero. And there weren’t many alert to the ideological undertow in a mission statement still popular among journalists: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Critics on the left are correct to say that if this is liberalism it is very weak tea. But critics on the right are correct to say that it sure isn’t neutral professionalism. Roger Ailes understood that the “mainstream” journalists his network was built to attack had an ideology that they were unwilling to defend, because they had never recognized it as an ideology. Instead they used terms like “news values.” They talked about standards and credibility and objectivity and being a good professional. They still do this.

It’s not that these terms didn’t mean anything, but they couldn’t capture enough to account for the world view that did in fact prevail in American newsrooms and did in fact conflict with the way a portion of the country — the conservative portion — saw things. That is the conflict that gave rise to Fox News. It was partly due to a misrecognition by journalists of their own belief system. They aren’t as liberal as the cartoon characterizations that are now commonplace on the American right, but they aren’t successful at taking the view from nowhere, either.

Long-time readers of Rosen’s work will recognize this — before arriving at the third paragraph quoted — as his continued criticism of the “view from nowhere.” That view, along with many of the nine structural biases, creates much of the approach to news that some conservatives identify as liberal bias. I’m still on the record asserting this:

The press is often thought of as a unified voice with a distinct bias (right or left depending on the critic). This simplistic thinking fits the needs of ideological struggle, but is hardly useful in coming to a better understanding of what is happening in the world. I believe journalism is an under-theorized practice. In other words, journalists often do what they do without reflecting upon the meaning of the premises and assumptions that support their practice. I say this as a former journalist. I think we may begin to reflect upon journalistic practice by noticing that the press applies a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.

In Rosen’s quote above he identifies what I call middle-class bias — a socio-economic position driven in large part by the particular kind of education journalists achieve, i.e. “liberal” in the academic understanding of that term.

Middle-class bias structures professional practice in journalism because, as with the other structural biases, journalists understand the world through the lenses of their educations, their incomes, and their professional mythology — a narrative that springs directly from middle-class understandings of journalism’s role in a democratic republic. For more on the latter, Rhetorica readers should once again check out pages 55 to 61 of Herbert Gans’ book Democracy and the News where Gans identifies the parts of journalists’ theory (I call it mythology) of democracy:

In logical order, the theory consists of four parts: 1) the journalist’s role is to inform citizens; 2) citizens are assumed to be informed if they regularly attend to the…news journalists supply them; 3) the more informed citizens are, the more likely they are to participate politically…; 4) the more that informed citizens participate, the more democratic America is likely to be.

Middle class ideas. Middle class concerns. A middle class story.

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February 21, 2015

Narrative Bias and Superstition

This article in The Atlantic calls it magical thinking or superstition. I call it narrative bias.

If Bohr couldn’t resist magical thinking, can anyone? One recent study found that even physicists, chemists, and geologists at MIT and other elite schools were instinctively inclined to attach a purpose to natural events. When the researchers subjected the scientists to time pressure (reasoning that this could expose a person’s uncensored biases), they were twice as likely to approve of statements such as “Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe” than they were when they had time to respond more deliberately [1].

I’ve discussed narrative bias as one of the structural biases of journalism. That isn’t exactly accurate. It’s really a human bias that journalists cannot escape, and, therefore, it plays a structuring role in their practice.

Here’s the bias stated, perhaps, more correctly: People apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.

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September 27, 2013

No Adults Left At CNN

The adults have left CNN; the children are in charge.

How is it possible today not to understand the importance of, and indeed practice, the ethic of transparency? If we’ve learned nothing else in this technological revolution sweeping the news media it is this: an interactive media — the only kind left standing — demands transparency.

The argument is simple: In a media situation where anyone can report, publish, and be noticed, transparency (in purpose, methods, and  ethos) becomes the new umbrella ethic, the new route to credibility — the willingness to be open about who you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. This is the opposite of the view from nowhere — the false notion that journalists can or should be “objective” in philosophical stance, that their news comes from some place apart from the pressures and intentions of the real world with no purpose other than to inform. (What journalists need to be are custodians of fact who operate with a discipline of verification — and be transparent about it.)

So we learn that the rebirth of the wretched Crossfire includes the abandonment of transparency — no obligation to report conflicts of interest to the viewer.

Well, to be fair, Crossfire ain’t journalism. And, really, given the excesses, excuses, mistakes, and silliness pointed out regularly by Jon Stewart, can we really call CNN an outlet for journalism? Maybe a couple hours per day.

This show is a vampire. Jon Stewart only wounded it before. Who will drive a stake through its evil heart and kill it for good?

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September 19, 2013

Stenography v. Journalism: Game Over

The game has been over for a very long time. The stadium lights are out. The crowd has gone home. Even the cleaning crew has finished mopping up the mess.

Stenography won.

Reporting lost.

I’ve written about this so many times before. I’m not even sure why I’m bothering to mention the latest in post-game commentary by one of the games greatest television stenographers: Chuck Todd.

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July 17, 2013

Attack of the Cute Young Guy

Apparently, this Rolling Stone cover is causing a stir on Twitter and Facebook:

TSARNAEV_cover

Twitter and Facebook are ever aflutter with the petty outrages of the current 15-minute moment. And, typically, this petty outrage is fueled entirely by emotional reactions. OMFG!!! Rolling Stone is Glorifying a terrorist!

Exactly how?

Now, don’t even attempt to answer that with any argument that isn’t grounded in cogent rhetorical and ethical analysis. For example: Exactly how, as a rhetorical expression, does the cover glorify the guy? You’ll need to define glory both textually and visually. You’ll need to identify it specifically on the cover and differentiate it from other reasonable interpretations. And you’ll need to demonstrate an intention on the part of Rolling Stone to do any such thing. Without intention, well, I think in cases such as this: no rhetorical harm / no rhetorical foul. You remain free to interpret it as you like and get upset about it. (Failing intention, I’ll accept demonstrating that RS has failed cultural sensibilities, but then you’d have to defend those sensibilities as more than mere emoting or mass hysteria.) It wouldn’t hurt if you could also deal with other uses of this image and explain in detail how they differ rhetorically from this use.

I am a subscriber to Rolling Stone, but I am traveling and will not be able to read the article until next week. But the description on the cover sounds like exactly the kind of reporting we should want about this guy. Who is he? What factors led to his decision to bomb the Boston Marathon? And, what’s really important here, what do answers to these questions (and others) say about the future of such acts in the U.S.

I have no idea if the article will live up to this promise, but the cover seems to me a very good start. We get to stare into the face of domestic terrorism and see that it can look like the cute guy who lives next door. Public served, IMO.

Glory? They call him a “monster.” That is infamy.

UPDATE: Mass hysteria continues as America suffers a total breakdown in critical thinking.

UPDATE: Rolling Stone responds:

Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.

Exactly. Sounds like a cover story to me.

 

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June 7, 2013

Structural Bias and the Failing Press

Why does the press get it wrong so often (how often?) on the big stories (and small ones, too)?

Conor Friedersdorf offers a few reasons for some of the many screw-ups we’ve suffered lately. It’s like a lesson in the structural biases of journalism – the very list I’ve been telling you for more than 10 years is important in understanding not only why journalists do what they do but also why they fail when they do.

But that’s not to say that the structural biases are the only source of our recent problems. Another bugaboo familiar to long-time Rhetorica readers (and, apparently, there are still a few of you left) is the failure that occurs when journalists operate as something less than custodians of fact with a discipline of verification.

And while I’m loathe the agree with Instapundit on much of anything, I do think there’s a large measure of “dumb” and “smug” going on.

Journalists — the older ones anyway — are suffering through a turbulent, tech-driven revolution that is raising questions about foundational issues such as the role of the audience, the economics of news, and the presentation of serious, text-driven journalism on 4-inch screens. Let me throw a life buoy — one I guarantee will float in this storm: Operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification and be a little more self-reflective about the role of the structural biases.

Just do it. Or continue to embarrass yourselves.

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April 23, 2013

Journalism Needs More Dicks

I think we have reached a new low in journalism.

During the past few big news events, I’ve found myself wondering, as I watch and read, just how badly the various news organizations are screwing it up. I’m defining “screwing it up” as failing to act as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification. I’m going to over-generalize from that and assert that news now appears to be partly about the entertainment value of watching journalists get it wrong long before they get it right.

I base that over-generalization on this assumption and prediction (really stepping in it now): No one will lose their jobs over any of this. And no one will lose their jobs the next time. Which ensures there  will be a next time. And a next. And a next…

Let’s check in with Jon Stewart.

He starts off the sketch by asserting that The Daily Show is hard on the news media because “we are dicks.” I’ll agree if part of the definition of being a dick is doing the necessary work of critiquing the performance of the news media and holding it to standards that ought to define it.

Journalism needs more dicks.

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February 6, 2013

How to Talk About Journalism

Jay Rosen offers an interesting post on Press Think that is kinda sorta like a prose poem that attempts to create stasis between newsroom traditionalists and the promoters of the brave new world of journalism in the internet age. We can see in this an emerging rhetoric of the new new new journalism.

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January 17, 2013

Linking And Verification

I’ll never stop harping on the discipline of verification — the essential practice of anything we would hope to call journalism.

And, once again, we see what happens when journalists fail to do the most essential and basic thing the practice of journalism demands.

Steve Buttry has much to say, and cogent advice, about the role of linking in verification.

As I tell my multimedia journalism students: “Always be linking.” I’ll also be assigning them to read everything about this current mess (including my media ethics students).

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January 15, 2013

Crisis Actors in the Twilight Zone

In a post-fact world, all you have to do to stir up the rubes is suggest conspiracy. The conspiracy doesn’t have to make any sense at all; it simply needs to conform to ideology. It now appears that the rhetoric of conspiracy today demands a high level of pathetic outrageousness to get attention.

Take the whole “crisis actor” thing as an example. Gene Rosen is caught up in this now because many anti-government gun nuts so want the Sandy Hook massacre to be something other than what it actually is that they are willing to point fingers at parents and other residents. The claim: they are actors working for the government.

You can scratch your head until it bleeds. There’s no making any sense of that.

Here’s what would happen if the government actually tried to use actors to deal with the press: Even in the current sorry state of American reporting (stenography, actually), the press would find out and have a gleefully good time pointing it out after much huffing and puffing about being hoodwinked.

But, obviously, to the anti-government gun nuts, the press is a liberal tool of our socialist president. Nothing — not even a list of biases worse than partisan bias — will change fevered minds.

Crisis actors do exist, but they are far more likely to be employed by public relations firms than government. The case of Nayirah — a person acting as a young nurse giving testimony to the non-governmental Congressional Human Rights Caucus on October 10, 1990 — provides an excellent example.

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