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.

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.

April 3, 2017

Pointing Cameras At People

My Carbon Trace Productions team and I will face many tough issues later this week when we begin filming in Jordan for our Syrian Doctor (working title) documentary. I’m betting the toughest part will be pointing cameras at people (because, from my experience as a news photographer, that’s usually the tough part). But not just people. Children. And not just children. Children suffering “human devastation syndrome.”

That’s a term coined by Dr. M. K. Hamza, a neuropsychologist who volunteers with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).

That syndrome is the very thing we’re proposing to document, and we’ll be focusing on Hamza and Dr. Tarif Bakdash, a pediatric neurologist who also volunteers with SAMS.

Well, no. We’ll be focusing on children. The doctors play an important role, obviously. This story cannot be told, however, through a series of talking-head interviews. We have to be there, cameras in hand and pointing them at children and their parents (if alive) and their doctors.

“Pointing them” is pejorative. That’s what it feels like sometimes — on both sides of the camera.

The rhetorical situation demands visual intimacy. There’s only one first step to getting that. Get close.

You can follow our progress on Facebook and on Carbon Trace. I may also post a few things here, but not typical update stuff. I’ll try to illustrate for you the pain on both sides of the camera.

August 10, 2016

Where I’m Coming From

Back in the day, I wrote this:

As I learned early in my journalistic career before becoming an academic, there is no such thing as an objective point of view. And the ideal of fairness is almost as elusive. But I will always attempt to be fair according to standards that I will try to make plain. I will try to reveal my biases when I think they intrude on my critiques.

Yesterday I wrote a scathing and snarky critique of Donald Trump’s latest outrage. I did not publish it, and I will not publish it because I need to change a few things regarding the quote above.

You can use the following to decide if you think Rhetorica is worth your time during the remaining weeks of the 2016 election.

I consider Donald Trump to be a dangerous amateur, and I despair for the Republican Party that it chose this person. His candidacy is so alarming that I am unable to maintain the fiction of academic detachment. He must be stopped.

I will hold my nose and vote for Hillary Clinton. She’s just another centrist Democrat. I am sick to death of centrist Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

My track record here over the years, and the tools that I have published for your use, may be employed to determine if anything I write here in the next few weeks is worthwhile.

I will try to maintain focus on press coverage, especially regarding the glaring differences between reporting and stenography.

But I may not be able to let another scathing snark-fest go unpublished.

Just so you know.

August 7, 2014

Mass New Media Word Salad

Yes, I did just start a website for my MED581 Issues in media Ethics class called Mass New Media Citizen Ethics. My challenge was coming up with a name that captures the complex nature of media ethics now that citizens — especially millennials — are also, and expect to be, media producers, i.e. more than just a part of the conversation.

I think it works 😉

School starts on 18 August. So keep an eye out for their contributions. And use the contact form to make suggestions. The comment system will be open.

I have listed the site on the sidebar under Media Ethics. I will not be listing it as a part of the Rhetorica Network just yet. Still mulling that over.

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?

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.

 

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).

March 28, 2012

A Defining Moment

After they spit me out the other end of the graduate school machine, I would have conversations such as this with people I would meet:

Person: What do you teach?

Me: English composition and rehtoric.

Person: Oh, I’ll have to watch how I speak.

Every English teacher in the English-speaking world has had this conversation because it seems every speaker of English is scared to death of making a “grammatical” error (which tells you something about the language or English education or both). I developed this response:

Me: Don’t bother. I’m a content guy.

But the world was simpler then. I knew who I was. Despite the funky stereotype, when I told people I teach English they knew what I meant. If I answered “rhetoric,” I’d get a measure of curiosity that, appeared to me at least, to indicate “I haven’t the foggiest what that means, but it sounds interesting.”

A funny thing happened in 2004. I took a job teaching journalism — something that I had practiced for pay before enrolling in grad school (because I wanted out of journalism).

Now the introductory conversation goes something like this:

Person: What do you teach?

Me: Journalism.

Person: (look of horror and pity) Oh, that’s nice.

This reaction is often followed by the person asking one of two general questions:

Why is journalism so broken?

… or …

What kind of future can your students expect?

I’ve discussed answers to these questions on Rhetorica if you care to search for them. Short versions: 1. Arrogance, misunderstanding (long list), fear, and laziness. 2. Excellent, if one is not focused solely on big-city newspapers.

But here is where this post is really going: I don’t teach that much journalism anymore. My teaching duties have been, and will be for at least the next few years, two classes in media ethics, two classes in multimedia journalism (Ozarks News Journal), one class in fundamentals of media convergence/new media, and one class in introduction to journalism.

Half my teaching load is media courses. And ONJ is a learn-by-doing class for juniors and seniors. The come to that class knowing the basics and more of the craft of journalism, so it’s my job to help them practice their journalism skills for multimedia presentation. So it’s a hybrid media-journalism class.

I’m ready to have an entirely different introductory conversation:

Person: What do you teach?

Me: Multimedia convergence, media ethics, and journalism with a rhetoric focus.

Person: Waaaaaa?

OK, yeah, that needs work.

I can title myself almost anything within reason, I suppose. Technically, because of the name of my department, I am an Associate Professor of Media, Journalism & Film. But the film part just sticks out there because, frankly, I know nothing about film beyond what one learns watching movies. So here are a few ideas:

  • Associate Professor of Media and Journalism
  • Associate Professor of Media and Rhetoric
  • Associate Professor of Journalism and New Media
  • Associate Professor of Media Ethics and Journalism
  • Associate Professor of Media Ethics, Rhetoric, and Journalism
  • Associate Professor of Media Ethics, Rhetoric, Journalism, New Media, and Media Convergence
  • Associate Professor of Whatever The Hell It Is I’m Teaching This Year
August 8, 2011

On Essentials in Journalism

That’s another over-promising headline for you. Here’s what caught my eye: What Journalists Need To Know About Libelous Tweets. And here is the lede:

Rumors that CNN had suspended Piers Morgan due to the News of the World phone hacking scandal spread on Twitter earlier this month, sparking an important discussion about whether journalists need to verify information before tweeting.

Why would this spark such a discussion. Isn’t it painfully obvious?

I have long argued that operating as a custodian of facts with a discipline of verification is essential to journalism. What that means is: If you do not have that stance and practice that discipline then you are not practicing journalism. I don’t care if you’re getting a paycheck from a news organization or not.

Journalism is not simply writing up current events. It’s not punditry (i.e. unreported opinion). It’s not gossip. It is a very particular thing that emerges when one operates as a custodian of facts with a discipline of verification while pursuing a very particular purpose. Other communicative endeavors may also operate with this stance and discipline. Academic writing certainly should. That doesn’t mean academic writing is journalism. It simply means that this stance and discipline are essential to more than journalism. Perhaps this: This stance and discipline are essential to the gathering and dissemination of any information that we would hope an audience would take seriously (that information being useful to some purpose).

Verify tweets?

Does the person tweeting consider himself a journalist producing journalism for the primary purpose of offering an audience civically useful information (and/or, in the case of professionals, giving citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing)?

Then, hell yes, you verify before tweeting.

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