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.

April 3, 2011

It’s All About Transparency Now

During our recent WikiLeaks panel at MSU, I made a comparison between the transparency of WikiLeaks and The New York Times. I said that WikiLeaks does a better job of explaining its reportorial and editorial processes. I believe that to be true largely because the Times makes it difficult to find information about how its journalists report and present the news.

This morning, Arthur S. Brisbane, the Times’ public editor, makes a good argument for transparency and suggests the Times do the hard work of creating a searchable record of its policies — especially now that the Times is creating a converged, interactive, multimedia news product. Brisbane concludes:

The Times has a good set of policies. It should double down on its commitment to high standards by organizing them into a reader-friendly format and then trust its audience — which is now a paying audience both online and in print — to readily access these important principles and rules. Will some abuse the privilege? Inevitably so. But elevating the dialogue with committed readers is worth the price to be paid.

On the local level, the panel discussion prompted News-Leader editor David Stoeffler (he was on the panel) to write about transparency in his column this morning. He used a large number of his column inches to begin explaining the process. I hope this leads to a public discussion and, finally, a list of policies published on the News-Leader site.

As mentioned on Rhetorica on Friday, I gave a talk to college journalists this week about blogging as journalists. And I received some of the usual questions about the dangers of opinion and of appearing biased, i.e. appearing to have a point of view when the audience expects objectivity.

No. The audience does not expect the impossible. What citizens expect is exactly what Stoeffler wrote about this morning:

We often have information — legally — we choose not to publish, or that we publish in ways that protect the innocent. It might be as simple as withholding the name of a crime victim, or perhaps the identity of an undercover law enforcement officer.

The first step, though, involves simply getting the information regardless of sensitivity: Good journalists want to know things; sometimes things that others would rather we not know.

Once we have it, we need to verify its authenticity and accuracy, plus gather other information to put it in the right context.

Sometimes, the source of information has an ax to grind — a reason to want someone else to look bad. It doesn’t mean the information is less authentic, but we need to understand the motivation of the source and keep the appropriate distance so we don’t get caught up in their agenda.

After verifying and putting things in context, we write our stories and then we’re ready to publish. We make sure we know the legal ramifications, but often times it is the ethical considerations that take precedence.

We earn your trust through careful, truthful reporting, and by our honesty and integrity. We know sometimes we fall short of your expectations.

This is a general description of the objective process of reporting (in the context of sensitive information). Objectivity is dead; it was never really alive. Or, rather, it was badly misunderstood as stance instead of process.

Public policies are important. I understand the trepidation of the Times’ editors as explained by Brisbane. But I reject it as old MSM thinking. News organizations ought to want citizens to hold them to account for their stated standards. News organizations ought to want this because it brings citizens into the process. Transparency engages citizens. And transparency fulfills the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Liberation for everyone!

March 17, 2011

WikiLeaks: A Conversation on Media Ethics

If you’re in Springfield, be sure attend  our panel discussion at MSU entitled  WikiLeaks: A Discussion on Media Ethics. It is sponsored by the Department of Media Journalism and Film.

  • Date: 28 March
  • Time: 1:00 to 3:00 p.m.
  • Place: 313 Plaster Student Union

You’ll find the official website here on Rhetorica.

Here’s a link to the flier.

For those of you who cannot attend, please consider following our live blogging of the discussion on the official website. The live blogging will be interactive, so you can post questions and comments as the discussion unfolds.

March 10, 2011

The Rhetoric of Punking

I have no sympathy for people or organizations that get punked. The latest examples are the Governor of Wisconsin taking a fake phone call from a fake Koch brother and an NPR executive taking a meeting with a merry band of O’Keefenicks.

These pranks are not journalism. These pranks offend journalistic ethics beause, at the very least, they require misrepresentation.

But, just as surely, these pranks are news because they create news — real news.

Tip: If you are a politician, news media person, entertainer, or other person in the public eye, you are a potential victim of punking, so be ready.

In order to be ready, one must consider the rhetoric of punking:

1. Punkers are motivated by partisan politics. Punking is a political tactic — an act of political theater.

2. The punker intends to catch the victim doing or saying something embarrassing and stereotypical for the purpose of proving that the victim (or victim’s organization) is nefarious.

3. The punker creates a rhetorical situation that encourages the victim to misidentify an exigence and the kairos necessary to handle the exigence. (This doesn’t mean the data is illegitimate.)

4. The punker creates an elaborate enthymeme for the audience so that it accepts the ethos of the victim as situated rather than invented for him/her by the punker. (See qualifier above.)

5. The rheme (a unit of rhetoric) the punker relies on is narrative; the punker creates a plausible story that creates the rhetorical situation and draws the victim into an exigence. The punker also allows the narrative to become increasingly implausible as the victim is drawn further into the trap. A really good punker creates a “too late” moment in which the victim crosses a point of no return — the source of the most important artifact of punking: the incriminating sound-bite. (We all must, however, be wary of “too late” moments created by disingenuous editing rather than actual punking skill.)

None of that is surprising. It’s standard, frat-boy stuff.

Understanding it in political and rhetorical terms is just the first step in defending against punking.

The larger, and perhaps more interesting, point is that we now live in an age in which punking is easily accomplished and disseminated. And there appears to be no reason whatsoever not to try it. Just avoid breaking laws, and you’re good to go.

The best defense: A damned sensitive bullshit meter and the willingness to check out people before you talk to them. It also wouldn’t hurt to have the kind of personal values that eschew name-calling, demonizing, and incivility. I mean really — a Muslim group wants to give $5 million to NPR? You couldn’t see that one coming? Geez…

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Next Posts →← Previous Posts

Powered by: Wordpress
wordpress