It’s been a long time since I last updated Rhetorica. I’ve spent most of my intellectual energy the past two years working on my first (yes, there will be more) documentary film. It premieres this Saturday at The Moxie in Springfield, Missouri.
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?
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).
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?
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.
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
Art Brisbanes’s public editor column this week is LOL funny. I mean, who’s heard the word “portal” in the same sentence as “web” or “internet” or “newspaper” or “journalism” since about 2002? The concept has changed, become more sophisticated, to be sure, but it still represents a basic assumption of interactivity, i.e. feeding the medium what it demands.
I’m not criticizing Brisbane (I’ll do that in another post later). Instead, I’m fascinated that he’s pointing out this failure to use the medium well at this late date. It cannot be that the collective mind of The New York Times does not understand the interactive, socially-driven, (multi)medium of the internet. It must be that the collective mind of the Times does not care — it (the mind) being The (by God) New York Times.
Brisbane’s advice — be a transparent, interactive portal — was sound in 2002. Today, it reads like the proverbial yellow clipping found stuffed in an old wall — a curious, archaeological find.
There are many things the Times does very well on its web site. And I’m impressed that, so far, its pay model seems to be working. But its web product still holds readers at arm’s length. It is still a lecture rather than a conversation.
The spring semester is winding down, and that means that Ozarks News Journal has reached the end of its first school year in publication. I publish the site for my JRN378 Multimedia Journalism class.
Publishing on the server of the College of Arts & Letters at MSU presented certain difficulties — mostly technical/procedural. As the deadline to get a site running rapidly approached, I made the decision to publish ONJ myself (including paying for it) using the same hosting company I use for Rhetorica and Carbon Trace. No big deal as far as I’m concerned except that my kiester is on the line if anything goes wrong.
I’m very pleased with the work ONJ reporters did this year. They did what I wanted them to do most: Take the site seriously as a news organization. Not long after our coverage schedule began, I could hear them on their cell phones in the ONJ newsroom talking to sources and referring to themselves as reporters for Ozarks News Journal.
Reality is the best teacher. My job is to push them into it.
The ONJ reporters have one more feature package assignment to do before the semester ends (deadline 2 May). And they will continue to write their blogs through 4 May.
So what happens this summer? Well, I’ll be doing some blogging for the site. We have an audience now, so it’s important not to let ONJ simply go dark for three months. Further, I need to stay ahead of the curves — and, yes, there are several. A transparency curve. A web journalism curve. A how-do-I-use-the-latest-new-tool curve. The social media curve.
Furhter, any ONJ reporter is welcome to continue contributing. I hope some of them will do so.
Each student will complete a synthesis paper assignment in which they assess their work and what they think they learned. But just as important, they will tell me where this thing needs to go. I’ll be paying very careful attention to their comments and suggestions. They are the future of journalism. They understand that the web (and multimedia reporting and story-telling) will largely be that future. I see very few students now in our print/internet journalism track who assume they will be going to work for print-only news organizations.
We cover a lot of bases in the Department of Media, Journalism & Film. One of them is web-tech skills. A group of students is doing a project for one of our web classes to develop an ONJ iPhone app and a new WordPress theme designed to meet our needs and look snazzy.
So things are moving forward rapidly.
Once again, I’ve arrived at the point in a post in which I ought to actually discuss what the headline promises. And once again, I’m bailing out. I don’t know what it all means yet. This I do know: If students continue to improve the site (and their reporting), ONJ will soon become an important news organization in Springfield. Our public affairs focus — following from our university mission — will give us a unique and complementary niche here. Then, I think, we’ll be in a position to learn something.
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!
The Missouri College Media Association is holding a conference in Springfield today sponsored by journalism students at MSU. I’m giving two talks (from the program):
Blogging For Journalists: Bringing an Audience, Bringing a Brand
The presentation will acquaint participants with two important reasons to begin blogging while in school: today’s news organizations want you to come prepared with an audience and a brand. The session will also discuss best practices.
Everyone is Now Multi and Meta
This presentation introduces multimedia skills and theory for web publication. Special attention will be paid to the Ozarks News Journal site — a multimedia journalism project at MSU.
I’ve prepared a short Prezi for the first presentation. You may see it here. For the second, I’ll be using ONJ as a source of examples of what to do and what not to do — we manage both 🙂
What’s kinda cool — given my first talk today — is that Rhetorica turns nine years old later this month (I mistakenly claimed nine years last year … duh). That makes it one of the oldest, continuously-published weblogs in the world. And if you count (which I do) my early proto-blog Timeline (part of the old Presidential Campaign Rhetoric 2000 site — a student project of mine — archived here), then that makes me one of the longest running bloggers in the world. None of that is a claim to expertise. I’ve simply been around long enough to be a curiosity.
The unfortunate thing is this: The way the semester works out at the moment, readers of Ozarks News Journal have to wait about six weeks into a given semester before our main features and the television show begin showing up on the web. That will change by this time next year (because we’ve created a new 100-level class to teach basic web/new media/ social media skills so students are up to speed by the time they get to my multimedia journalism class).
But, even better, the site is open for past students to use. And, still better, the site will soon be open for citizen contributors.
The goal: By this time next year ONJ should be a year-round news organization with a steady stream of local content.
Students have been blogging from the first week, and transparency has been job #1. Their first assignment was to post bios that tell readers “where I’m coming from.” The comment feature is wide open. We also have a corrections & amplifications form linked on the top menu for citizen feedback. We have a Facebook group for citizen feedback (where we post the reporting group assignments). And you may subscribe by e-mail, Twitter, SMS text, and RSS.
The main features will fall within the parameters of “news” and “features” — i.e. content reported and presented using the best practices (we can muster) of multimedia presentation and journalistic craft. The blog posts are (supposed to be) opinion journalism, and, at the editor’s discretion, well-handled blog posts may be placed in the featured position. Neither I nor the editor edit or otherwise supervise these posts (although we may edit if we find glaring errors of fact/usage. ONJ reporters are supposed to approach their blogging by these criteria:
- Does the post pass the grandmother test, i.e. don’t shock your grandmother. The point is to keep content appropriate for younger readers. We don’t do pornography or violence.
- Does the post demonstrate good opinion journalism? i.e. based on one or more of: reporting, first-hand experience, and/or demonstrated expertise.
So there’s plenty of opinion on ONJ. And plenty of opinion about the topics the students are reporting because they are supposed to blog about the news and features they are working on. How is that going to work? You’ll find out as we do.
Also of note, the editor of ONJ last semester is doing an independent project in online opinion journalism. Her blog is Blogging and Opinion Journalism. Check it out.
What a surprise from UPS yesterday!
I filled out an application to receive and beta test a Google laptop with the New Chrome OS. It arrived on my doorstep without warning. I felt like I had won the lottery 🙂
The appilcation included making a quick argument to persuade Google that you are worthy to become a tester. I said I was interested in the machine for remote, multimedia journalism so I could better teach my students to use the cloud.
I’ll be writing about my experiences with this machine and OS mostly on Facebook and Ozarks News Journal. I’ll mention it here when I think the topic is appropriate.