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.

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January 24, 2011

What Happens When It Gets Serious

Daniel Cavanagh writes a blog called GerritsenBeach.net, and he is the topic of a story in The New York Times this morning. Cavanagh is practicing citizen journalism, and it’s pissing off his neighbors.

Here’s what I find fascinating: A part of the ire directed at him comes from a desire that Cavanagh do what members of the community think a (non-modified) journalist should do, e.g. (simplistically) get “both sides of the story.” He doesn’t seem particularly interested in such a craft. Nor does he need to be. If there can be said to an ethic of blogging that applies to all bloggers (and their readers), it is surely “my blog, my rules.” I have argued that bloggers (and blogging journalists) ought to make those rules clear because transparency is an ethical standard that arises from the medium itself, i.e. you don’t really have a choice if you want to be taken seriously.

Cavanagh has a comments policy. I could find no blogging policy. It’s time to write one.

And let me gently suggest that applying the craft as articulated in The Elements of Journalism is just another good idea if one’s goal is to be taken seriously. It’s certainly not a requirement. There are plenty of examples of successful, serious, and influential web projects that adhere to different standards. But it might be OK to listen to the complainers to the extent that they seek a journalistic standard of some sort.

Otherwise, good job. I’ll be mentioning this site to my students.

My advice for the complainers in Gerritsen Beach: Start your own blogs.

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January 9, 2011

Second Amendment Remedies

Violence or the threat of violence or the implication of violence or the iconography of violence has no place in our politics.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

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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.

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November 8, 2010

What Am I Teaching?

Two interesting blog posts this morning, flagged by Jay Rosen on Twitter, have me thinking about what it is I’m teaching:

I Am A Blogger No Longer:

My experience has not been unique, but it has spanned the life of this newly evolved species of reporter. I’ve had some time to think about what effect doing this day and night has had on the practice of journalism, on the quality of news-gathering and dissemination, and on the people who do it. I’ve written quite often on the first two subjects and participated in many discussions about them. All I will say here is that the mere fact that online reporters feel they must participate in endless discussions about these subjects is something new, a consequence of the medium, and is one reason why it can be so exhausting to do primarily web journalism. The feedback loop is relentless, punishing and is predicated on the assumption that the reporter’s motivation is wrong. Unfortunately, the standard for defining oneself as a web journalist depends upon establishing a certain credibility with a particular audience of critics. Responding to complaints about content and structure and bias is part of the way one establishes that credibility.

Journalists’ Code Of Ethics: Time For An Update:

I don’t like long ethics policies for newsrooms. Too many of them exist mostly to document reasons to fire people. Too many of them are mostly lists of do’s and don’ts (usually more don’ts), rather than helpful guides to making ethical decisions in situations that aren’t as simple as the policies sometimes make them. For organizations, I prefer statements of basic principles:

Hmmmmm… I have no problem with change. Journalism’s history is hardly static. What it was 20 years ago, what it is today, what it will be tomorrow? Different. Challenging. Frustrating. Exhilarating. And in the hands of my students — the new generation. I’m anxious to see what they will do with it.

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October 22, 2010

Fired? Was He Credibly Employed?

Here’s the paragraph that stuck in my craw from NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard’s column about the firing of Juan Williams:

The issue also is whether someone on NPR’s payroll should be allowed to say something in one venue that NPR would not allow on its air. NPR’s ethics code says they cannot.

There’s a long section about outside work and contributing to other news organizations. The first point is key:

1. The primary professional responsibility of NPR journalists is to NPR. They should never work in direct competition with NPR. An example of competing with NPR would be breaking a story or contributing a feature for another broadcast outlet or Web site before offering the work to NPR.

What was Juan Williams doing working for FOX News in the first place? How was that allowed under NPR’s code of ethics? Why wasn’t he told “no”?

The problem here is entirely the fault of NPR management: Journalists employed by otherwise serious news organizations should not be taking paid positions as pundits with competing news organizations. If their work with NPR is unsatisfying or doesn’t pay the bills, then NPR journalists ought to seek other employment.

I suspect, however, that NPR was happy to have Williams on FOX for the PR value. How does that square with the NPR and SPJ codes of ethics? What Juan Williams was (because NPR allowed it): A media star with a “contract.” What he should have been: A journalist with a job.

Further, serious news organizations should not allow their journalists anywhere near 24-hour cable infotainment such as FOX, MSNBC, or CNN.

One last point: Nothing about this situation is a First Amendment (free speech) issue.

UPDATE: KSFX visits my media ethics class and interviews me about Juan Williams.

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October 17, 2010

Of Reporters, Trolls, and Stasis

Springfield News-Leader Executive Editor David Stoeffler announced today that reporters will participate (within certain limits) in online discussions of news articles on the News-Leader web site. I think this is a good move.

I also thought opening the comment system to anonymous users was a good move. I have come to believe that news organizations ought to begin encouraging more civil and thoughtful discussion by offering levels of service that encourage people to participate openly. Don’t eliminate anonymity; marginalize it.

Stoeffler’s announcement prompts me to think about online comments as an interesting rhetorical situation for reporters who are used to dealing with the public in a very particular way. What exigencies will prompt them to respond? What will be their persuasive intentions? What will be there rhetorical strategies?

How will they deal with trolls?

That first list of questions requires some data and analysis to answer (so I’ll be watching closely). But I’ll take a stab at the troll question now because it involves the concept of stasis — the very thing the skilled troll attempts to destroy. And I have plenty of “data” from many years of experience.

(History buffs may wish to check out the story of alt.syntax.tactical — a Usenet group set up to start flame wars. This group is famous for attacking the group alt.rec.cats back in the stone age, aka. the 90s.)

A common tactic of the troll today is to deny stasis, i.e. not allow the point of contention to be agreed upon so that it may be discussed. There are ways to do this both skillful and ham-handed, and we see the entire range on the News-Leader site.

Most commonly it works this way:

  1. Point A is made (either in print or online).
  2. Troll asks a reasonable question regarding point A.
  3. Troll follows up by changing discussion to point B.
  4. Troll follows up by changing discussion to point C.

And so on…

Depending upon the skill of the troll, the conversation can slowly devolve into ranting and nonsense because the troll finds and pushes the emotional buttons of the participants.

So what’s a reporter to do?

Do your job: Your value to the community is your reporting, not your online commenting.

Answer a commenter’s question only once: As the example above demonstrates, a troll wants to sucker you into a longer exchange for their own entertainment. Refuse to play.

Post links to additional information: A good policy in any online discussion.

Limit the scope of your participation: Develop a short disclaimer to append to all your online comments that explains what you will and will not respond to and why.

Identify and share: Did you detect a troll? Share your information with the online community and the newsroom. Post the username. Refuse to acknowledge that username in the future.

Remember: Trolls are NOT civic actors of good will. Their goal is to make your life hell and destroy the quality of discourse in online comments. Don’t let them win.

Also remember: I think most online participants are sincere. Don’t confuse a lack of rhetorical skill with trolling.

UPDATE: In response to an e-mail asking if I’m being a bit traditionalist re: a reporter’s relationship with the community: I am confining my remarks here to dealing with trolls. I think reporters can and should use the comment feature in numerous ways to enhance their reporting. More on this later…

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October 6, 2010

Space Cadets

I think one mark of a good journalist is a constant and nagging fear that one might fail to verify something before reporting it. Journalists are supposed to act as custodians of facts with a discipline of verification.

Mistakes are going to happen. I try never to make too much fun of verification mistakes because, frankly, I’m just as open to the same mistake as an academic.

Some verification mistakes, however, should encourage great guffaws of knee-slapping merriment at the utter stupidity of the offending journalist(s).

For example:

Correction: I should have put ironic quote marks around “journalist(s).”

The problem here is plain to see: Put not-so-bright people in front of a live camera with a mandate to fill time, and…

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September 11, 2010

Emotions and Crisis Reporting

Check out this week’s NPR show On the Media. I am interviewed by Brooke Gladstone for a segment entitled How Katrina Changed Crisis Reporting.

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September 8, 2010

My (Spun) Opinion Matters

I received a political polling call last night and amused myself by agreeing to participate. The poll was slanted — the work of a political party.

Slanted polls generally rely on the false dichotomy fallacy (aka. either-or) usually set up this way: Would you rather vote for a candidate who wants (some horrible-sounding outcome) or one who wants (some wonderful-sounding outcome)? Just to be a stinker I chose the horrible-sounding outcome each time 🙂

Independent polling companies and their news media partners generally do a better job of crafting questions; it would be nice if journalists did a better job of covering polls. It should go without saying that journalists should not report on factional polls unless writing an article about the role of factional polls in the political process. The information gathered from these polls is the stuff of political propaganda.

But it is unlikely that the poll I took last night will be released. Instead, the candidate(s) involved will more likely use it to craft talking points that — unless something has changed in the last 24 hours and no one has told me — reporters will dutifully record and pass on to the public with nary a follow-up question.

Here’s what I teach my students about questioning the information sources give them. This method of critical reporting is quite opposed to the common practice of political stenography.

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