February 16, 2011

Willful Misinterpretation

[Editor’s Note: The following critique is based on journalistic texts as presented and not a deeper examination of original source material of those texts, i.e. the stories as presented to the audience.]

Willful misinterpretation of a message is not a tool of opinion journalism.

Willful misinterpretation is a tool of punditry and propaganda.

Willful misinterpretation is one bad byproduct of our new view-from-somewhere age. I’m all for viewing events from particular points of view and being open with the audience about those points of view. But willful misinterpretation falls outside the bounds of the ethical practice of journalism informed by one’s point of view.

Willful misinterpretation is the deliberate misreading of a message — in order to distort the message — of a source or other news-maker. Such an act would simply fall into the realm of punditry if it weren’t for the added twist of distorting a message for partisan reasons.

Let’s look at two recent examples from Talking Points Memo. (Several online news sites from across the limited left-right axis have turned this style of “reporting” into a high art.)

Example #1: South Dakota Bill Could Legalize Murder Of Abortion Providers

No, it couldn’t. Anyone with a modicum of interpretive skill can see that the bill does nothing of the kind. It really seems to do nothing at all. Consider:

Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones first reported on Tuesday that HB 1171 would amend the current law to include the following language (bold parts are new):

Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person while resisting any attempt to murder such person, or to harm the unborn child of such person in a manner and to a degree likely to result in the death of the unborn child, or to commit any felony upon him or her, or upon or in any dwelling house in which such person is.Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person in the lawful defense of such person, or of his or her husband, wife, parent, child, master, mistress, or servant, or the unborn child of any such enumerated person, if there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony, or to do some great personal injury, and imminent danger of such design being accomplished.

At first blush it appears to do exactly what the inflammatory headline suggests. But pay more careful attention to the bill’s language: “resisting any attempt to murder” and “commit any felony upon him or her” and “reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony, or to do some great personal injury.”

The only way to read this as a potential legalization of killing abortion providers is to completely ignore that language. It’s a far more cogent critique of this law to say that it attempts to create “personhood” for the unborn, which would be real news if achieved.

I’m not claiming anything about the intention of the bill’s sponsors. I’m claiming that the reporting and textual evidence does not add up to “legalizing murder.”

Example #2: Bachmann Blasts First Lady And ‘Nanny State’ — For Promoting Breastfeeding

No, she didn’t. Here’s what she’s quoted as saying:

“I’ve given birth to five babies, and I’ve breastfed every single one of these babies,” Bachmann said. “To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump for my babies, I mean, you wanna talk about the nanny state — I think you just got the new definition of the nanny state.”

She legitimately questions the use of government funds for a specific purpose: buying people breast pumps. She claims to have breast-fed her own kinds and says nothing about the general promotion of breastfeeding by the First Lady. One can disagree with her, but one (i.e. the journalist writing this story and the editor writing the headline) ought not distort by amplification. There is no logical link between questioning policy regarding breast pumps and a general “blasting” of the First Lady and the “nanny state” for promoting breast feeding.

I’m not claiming anything about Bachmann’s position on breast feeding. I’m claiming that the reporting and textual evidence does not add up to “blasting” the “promotion” of breast feeding.

Journalism — even journalism practiced on the web and practiced from a transparent point of view — must not violate the primary purpose of journalism (to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing) by distorting events based on willful misinterpretation. I call it willful because the writers and editors of TPM (and other liberal and conservative web operations) know better. They know what good journalism is. They are choosing not to practice it.

But worse, they are choosing to misinform the public for partisan reasons. And that takes their work out of the realm of journalism (or opinion journalism) and into the realm of propaganda.

November 30, 2010

Metergate In Springfield

On the New York Times op-ed page today you’ll find a plea against anonymity in online forums. I’ve been commenting on anonymity for a long time now — the latest iteration here. My belief now is that newspapers ought to offer tiered service. Anonymous users get a low level of service; people who are open about their identities get a high level of service.

I believe there is still a (small) place for anonymity.

But that doesn’t mean I like it (anymore). The excuses I read/hear are mostly the same: “I can’t post under my real name because [world-ending calamity would occur].

If true (and I wonder), then perhaps it is not ethical for such a commenter to be commenting in the first place. (I wonder the same thing about anonymous sources in journalism, but that’s a matter for another post.)

No newspaper owes any citizen space online or in print. It’s simply a good idea and one important way to fulfill the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Want to rant into cyberspace and be anonymous? Start a blog.

It’s time for newspapers to stop enabling anonymity. Implementing service levels is a good way to do it.

In that post I linked above I talk about the new policy at the Springfield News-Leader (Gannett-wide I’ll bet) of having reporters participate in the online discussions of their stories — a good idea. But I’m also cautioning against getting sucked into arguments with trolls — typically anonymous. A former student of mine called me recently to chat about the comments on one of his stories. I call it “metergate.”

Here’s the offending sentence from his news story about Black Friday:

By Friday morning, the line outside Best Buy had stretch for several hundred meters.

And here is the problem as described by an anonymous commenter (with 8 recommends):

Yards and feet have meaning to me here in America – meters do not. I am not sure if the writer is European or just trying to be elist.

This is a real eye-roller in my opinion. But it is illustrative of a certain kind of socio-political non-thinking that is infecting our civic discourse. This appears to be trollish behavior to me and ought to be ignored. I think it would have been entirely appropriate for a commenter to ask why the reporter used “meters” instead of the more commonly-understood “yards.” (The AP Stylebook provides a little help here. Basically, since a metric measurement is not “relevant” to the story, it should have been changed to “yards” by a copy editor. A copy editor should also have taken care of  “had stretch”.) What would have been so wrong with simply asking? Well, it’s not effective trolling. Someone asking such a question may actually want to understand the use of the word rather than want to deal an ignorant socio-political zinger.

In this case, I happen to know that the reporter is biased to the metric system, but for reasons that have nothing to do with European elitism. Here’s the reporter’s respectful reply:

Oh, I didn’t mean to cause confusion. A meter is roughly the same as a yard. Eight years of military service has left me metric-minded.

Well handled.

He could also have mentioned his two tours in Iraq as a sergeant in charge of a combat unit. Not quite a European elitist.

I consider his commenting on metergate a waste of a good reporter’s time. Such time-wasters are going to continue as long as the News-Leader (and other newspapers) continue to run open commenting and forum systems.

The time has come for a tiered system to elevate civic discourse, enhance  the primary purpose of journalism, and save reporters from time-wasting trolls.

September 23, 2010

Sez Who?

Politics and the culture wars must scare journalists to death — even those who work for The New York Times. They regularly trade their reporter’s notebooks for stenography pads.

It is in the coverage of politics and the culture wars that we see so much he-said/she-said reporting. Jay Rosen has identified the underlying assumption as the “view from nowhere.”

For example, consider this article by James C. McKinley, Jr. in today’s News York Times (A19 of the national edition): A Claim of Pro-Islam Bias in Textbooks. Some people think that some current textbooks are biased in favor of Muslims to the detriment of Christians. I have no idea if such a claim is grounded in facts or not. And the reason I have no idea: The New York Times didn’t bother to report the facts. McKinley just wrote down what people told him and passed it on to his readers.

That’s stenography, not reporting.

And what about his editors? Why was this incomplete story allowed to run?

To report this story properly (i.e. acting as a custodian of facts with a discipline of verification) would mean actually reading the passages in question and quoting them in full. To report this story properly would mean asking history experts to comment. But it would also mean covering the rhetoric beat — reading the words in the textbooks — the facts of ink on paper — and reporting what you can plainly see.

(One might argue that there’s only so much room in the paper for such a treatment. OK, click the link. There’s no such thing as space limitations on the internet. Where are the links to the books/passages in question?)

But no. Gotta be objective.

August 25, 2010

Where Is Journalism?

You might be operating under the assumption that news organizations and the journalists who work for them cover the news (whatever that is). You might even be right (depending upon what news is).

Here’s a bit of news that mainstream journalism has so far failed to fact-check or cover: FOX News, a product of News Corp., is apparently owned in part by the very man that the “journalists” in the segment below accuse of being a money man for radical Islam.

How should we know this?

I would hope by some act of journalism, i.e. reporters acting as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification with the primary purpose of giving citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Instead, it was an act of satire. Behold:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
The Parent Company Trap
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

If true, Jon Stewart has exposed a massive failure of journalistic ethics that has the effect of making it more difficult for citizens to be free and self-governing.

Journalistic lapses of ethics — willful ones such as this appears to be — are news  precisely because good journalism is important.

So, is it true? Hello, New York Times? This is your backyard. (Not even the Daily News is touching it.)

Don’t hold your breath. American journalism refuses to hold itself accountable; it refuses to keep an eye on the franchise. It loves questioning the practices of other organizations — governmental and private. But itself? Forget it.

I have no beef whatsoever with the slant(s) of FOX news. I think good journalism can be practiced with a slant(s) because what’s important is that stuff I mentioned about about custodians, disciplines, and purposes. You don’t need a false objectivity to practice these values. I would argue that a false objectivity makes it more difficult to practice these values.

When a news organization fails, thus hurting the public, I’d prefer American journalism be the first to point it out and let Jon Stewart make jokes in the wake.

UPDATE: The New York Times covers the story, but not in print.

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.

April 23, 2010

Ancient History

Eight years ago today I posted the first entry to Rhetorica.

With the discipline of rhetoric as its foundation, Rhetorica began as an examination of press-politics and morphed into an examination of media ethics. That change represented my changing interests and my academic emphasis on media ethics.

Rhetorica has enjoyed periods of high readership and influence. And, at other times (such as now), it has limped along with a handful of loyal readers while making hardly a dent in the greater conversation.

Through it all I have enjoyed writing this blog, and I will continue to do so. Thank you for reading. And — especially — thank you for participating.

April 7, 2010

The Bias of Expertise

Experts are supposed to be ones who know. But what is it that they know?

An expert ought to know the vocabulary of one’s area of expertise — so much knowledge being a classification of things as different from other things. But more than this, an expert ought to know two more important things: 1) They ought to know what they don’t know, and 2) they ought to know who knows differently and how/why. While it is not essential to earn a Ph.D. to be an expert, I have found that the Ph.D., when properly approached, can bring one to an understanding of these three characteristics of expertise.

What do journalists know? They ought to know the basics of journalistic craft, including understanding that it is a particular form of discourse with particular conventions for particular purposes. That purpose (primary) ought to be giving citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. Journalism done well — by pros or amateurs — is about discovering (reporting) and disseminating (through various “texts”) information, knowledge, and — at its very best — wisdom.

In a very real sense, the best journalists are those who know they don’t know but know who does know and know how/why the knowers know.

Journalists, however, get in to trouble when they act as if they know — as if they are experts. This is a form of journalistic arrogance that leads them away from the primary purpose of journalism.

Call this the bias of expertise. Lane Wallace examines this bias in veteran journalists. It is related to narrative bias and the creation of master narratives.

January 14, 2010

Brain Surgery, Again

My “brain surgery” crack (aka. a quote) last October was meant to indicate that journalism (done well) is a difficult and complex practice because of, among other things, the challenges of interpretation.

Mix those challenges with the ability to publish instantly (and add in a dash of cynicism and — dare I say it? — bias) and you have a (mixed-metaphorically) short walk to Errorville.

So, did Republican senate candidate Scott Brown actually mean to indicate that he was unfamiliar with the Tea Party?

Probably not (given, in part, because such an assertion would really be dumb, which, then, is a clue to the reporter to keep asking questions instead of, say, getting all excited — cynically — that one now has interesting dirt — but I’m assuming).

How about we declare a holiday from cynicism so we may worship the custodians of fact who operate with a discipline of verification.

Or, how about this as a rule of thumb: If a politician makes statement A that sounds like a lie or bullshit or stupidity, then reporter asks question B to seek clarification in the interest of accurately (as possible) capturing what the politician means to say.

This rule of thumb, however, requires that the journalist be humble regarding a difficult and complex task.

Here’s the paragraph in question from the Boston Globe:

He also claimed that he was unfamiliar with the “Tea Party movement,” when asked by a reporter. When told that different people labeled him a conservative, moderate and a liberal Republican, he responded “I’m a Scott Brown Republican.”

Claimed? Who is editing this newspaper? That’s a loaded attributive verb. In my opinion, the audio does not back up the reporter’s characterization of this moment in the interview.

Too bad Talking Points Memo pulled the trigger so fast. Josh Marshall asks: “Sheesh, what has the world come to if you can’t trust the Boston Globe?”

You gotta be kiddin’ me.

January 3, 2010

Define Ethics, Control Ethics

I spent about 10 years as a magazine freelancer after my stint in the newspaper business. I had many “rules” that guided how I conducted my business. Two of them (somewhat related): Never work for publications that want to buy all rights (work for hire), and never work for publications that want to control how you conduct your business when working for other publications.

I never worked for The New York Times. I never tried. And I never would try today. Not worth the hassle. Clark Hoyt’s column today explains why.

I’m a big Hoyt fan. I think the Times has done an excellent job choosing public editors.

I have one nitpick about Hoyt’s column today. Here’s the e-mail I sent to him:

Hello Mr. Hoyt…

I found your column today about freelancers fascinating. I’ll be using it in my media ethics class this semester.

While I generally agree with your conclusions and approach, I do have one concern: I do not think you did enough to assert that the NYT code of ethics is specific to the Times and is not an expression of what journalism ethics are or should be. By not making this clear, you leave the reader to infer that Tripsas and Albo are unethical people — clearly not true, IMO, given the evidence of your column. They merely ran afoul of Times policy (for reasons that are partly the Times’ fault, as you note). They did not act unethically. I think this is especially so for Albo. The Times treatment of him is, IMO, outrageous. I generally agree with Postrel in this regard.

The Times does not define journalistic ethics. The journalists and managers at the Times may define ethics for the organization in any way they please. But readers should never be left to infer that freelancers who run afoul of the more idiosyncratic rules are unethical. Despite your obvious efforts to report these situations in a fair and balanced manner, I believe your column still leaves the false impression that Tripsas and Albo are unethical people.

I think it is clear that Robinson acted unethically by long-agreed standards in journalism.

That said, I remain impressed by, and appreciative of, your efforts as Public Editor of The New York Times.

Best regards,

Andy Cline

Andrew R. Cline, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Journalism

Robinson is clearly guilty of violating a long-standing ethical standard of journalism: Don’t misrepresent yourself. His actions are clearly unethical and ought to be condemned in harsh terms.

But what of Tripsas and Albo? Do they deserve to be in the same company — the same column — with Robinson? I think not. Given the evidence of the column, they are not bad people. And so I wonder about making them “disappear.” I wonder if transparently working with them, instead of casting them off (with all that implies), would have been the more humane and ethical policy.

January 1, 2010

Why Opinion Journalism Matters

Recently I blistered my local newspaper (and quit subscribing) because I think it has become toxic to our civic discourse. In other words (and in my opinion), the paper is actually harming the natural give-and-take of working out our civic issues with passion tempered by facts and reason. Rather than fostering a dynamic agora, it actively divides the community by daring citizens to take sides based on a simplistic understanding of political experience — right v. left.

The News-Leader’s most damaging transgression: Firing the last opinion journalist in Springfield (Sarah Overstreet) and filling its Voices section with amateur punditry.

I’m sure those amateur pundits are saving the News-Leader a lot of money. But at what cost to its credibility?

Opinion journalism matters. It matters because the columnists who produce it can be among the most effective journalists in fulfilling the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Like reporters, opinion journalists operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification. Like reporters, opinion journalists tell stories about citizens in their communities. Unlike reporters, however, opinion journalists use what they’ve learned from their reporting to, among other things, promote agendas and suggest solutions to civic problems. Here’s what I said in an oft-quoted posting of mine examining the difference between analysis and opinion journalism:

The key for me is good reporting in both analysis and opinion writing. The difference is one of intention: opinion should be about changing hearts and minds with knowledge and wisdom; analysis should be about knowledge and wisdom (i.e. organized information embedded in a context and the capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems). Analysis, therefore, should not promote specific agendas; it should examine agendas.

Pundits need not report. They may certainly think. And they may even be well informed. Their opinions may even be valuable. But without acts of reporting that build a foundation of information and knowledge, punditry is 1) not journalism, and 2) of questionable utility in fulfilling the primary purpose of journalism.

The letters-to-the-editor section is the place for local, amateur punditry, i.e. the spouting of opinion. Letters (and online comments) are a necessary and valuable service newspapers provide to the agora. The balance of the precious space in an editorial section is just too important to turn over to what amounts to glorified letters to the editor.

The News-Leader has essentially been allowing a few members of the community to blog in print without the benefit of fact-checking or an understanding of the conventions of journalism. Their contributions are rarely valuable or useful because their contributions are rarely based on anything more than their opinions.

This stuff doesn’t pass the “who cares?” test.

Exactly why should we give a rip about any particular person’s opinion — published in the paper — if not based on reporting or recognized expertise? I would ask the same question of my own commentary on Rhetorica? Why should you give a rip? Well, agree or not, I have demonstrated expertise — no guarantee of value, but at least my opinions are based on something. (You’ll notice I stick to a limited set of issues based on my education and experience. I have nothing of value to tell you about, say, abortion or deficit spending.)

Opinion journalism well done is all about caring about the community. It is all about being connected to the community. It is all about well-worn shoe leather and familiar faces. It’s all about visibility and transparency. The good opinion journalist is the person you meet for coffee to discuss her latest column. The opinion journalist is the one who listens (when reporters and editors too often do not). In other words, opinion journalism well done is all about the very things that are apparently important in the new media environment.

Yes, I realize I’m painting an ideal portrait. Opinion journalism is subject to the same communicative challenges, biases, and errors as so-called objective journalism. I believe the difference, however, is that good opinion journalism presents not only a informed opinion but an informed personality — one you can come to know and deal with whether you love ’em or hate ’em.

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