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!

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.

February 15, 2011

Lots of Opinion (Journalism)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

January 11, 2011

Rhetorica Update

Welcome to 2011 — Rhetorica’s ninth year.

Here are some coming attractions:

  • A student of mine is doing an independent study project in online opinion journalism. I hope Rhetorica readers will check into her site often. I’ll be mentioning her work here as well. Link soon.
  • I’ll pick up the pace examining the work of various opinion journalists. My goal is one per month. I’ll be looking at Thomas Friedman next. Please let me know if you have suggestions — good, bad, mediocre, and any faction.
  • Jay Rosen’s criticism of the “view from nowhere” has been getting a lot of attention recently. This has prompted me to do some more thinking about the role of the rhetoric of journalism — its particular (peculiar) discourse forms — in encouraging this view. I’m especially interested in this now because I think I may be onto identifying and describing the psychology of the “view from nowhere,” which might give us further clues to its sources. This springs from from collaborative research I’ve been doing with Dr. Harry Hom, emeritus professor of psychology at MSU. More on this soon.
  • This should be the break-out semester for the Ozarks News Journal. Last semester’s class got the site up and running. My charge to the current class: make it better (i.e. good journalism) and get attention.
  • Last year I swore off doing any more analysis of  political journalism. I’m sticking to that. And, really, that ought to also mean swearing off analysis of political rhetoric. The two are obviously not the same but just as obviously related. I intend to tread lightly in the realm of politics. My posting of the Olbermann video on 9 January was not treading lightly. Posting it sprung directly from my own raw feelings about politics today. I stand by my statement about violent rhetoric. I could have made it without posting the video. I do not, however, apologize for posting the video. Something more productive may spring from this. I think we need to know what the actual extent of violent rhetoric is in our politics, who uses it, how they use it, and why they use it. Only after we know these things will it be possible to make intelligent hypotheses about the effects of violent rhetoric on our civic discourse. I’m thinking now about the possibilities of doing this work.
November 3, 2010

The Whole Blogging Thing

As announced recently, the focus of Rhetorica is now on the rhetoric of opinion journalism. It is the topic that has increasingly piqued  my interest. And as I mentioned last week, the next two subjects will be Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof.

I realized something today that I have been blocking or avoiding: I have come to loathe political journalism as practiced in the U.S. today. I’m slogging my way through the election coverage by The New York Times today and hating every moment of it because our so-called newspaper of record is a shining example of how broken this beat is from top to bottom. Political journalism is actually doing more harm than good. It is a failure of craft and ethics on a massive scale.

But I don’t care anymore.

Now, on to more practical matters. Averting my gaze from political journalism means that I can do something that I have been wanting to do: Offer fewer but (I hope) better posts on a particular topic. The whole trying to blog everyday on Rhetorica thing hasn’t been working for a long time now. I’ve finally faced up to why that is: I dislike the original topic, and I’ve had very little (zero?) impact on press-politics

If you’re one of the thousands out there that just absolutely must read something from me almost everyday, then you’ll need to read Carbon Trace, my blog about walking and bicycling for basic transportation 🙂 I’ve come to realize that it is important for my blogging to have an actual impact. This local blog has an actual impact on my world.

I would also encourage you to follow Ozarks News Journal — the local news site for my JRN378 Multimedia Journalism class.

Rhetorica soldiers on. But I’ll be following something like the Jay Rosen model of blogging. Watch for my immediate commentary on Twitter.

October 27, 2010

Sustainable Expertise

I’ve made it a point to introduce the idea of “complacency of expertise” in all my classes. I illustrate this idea with a true story.

Several years ago I saw a news story and video on the internet (lost to me now) about an attempt to film a mass skydiving link-up, in which dozens of skydivers come together in a big mid-air pattern. The guy running the show, and doing the filming, was an expert skydiver and skydiving instructor. He mounted a video camera on his helmet for the event. Everything is going along fine — all the divers linked up then broke apart then opened their parachutes — until we clearly hear the expert say “oh no.” Then the picture scrambles as the skydiving expert goes out of control.

He had jumped out the the airplane without putting on a parachute.

He was an expert.

I believe he’d become complacent in his expertise.

I’ve argued that journalists should not think of themselves as expert in anything. I equate, for example, Judith Miller with that expert skydiver. If anything, journalists should be experts in the fear of failing their jobs of being custodians of facts who operate with a discipline of verification.

Opinion journalists, however, are another matter. While opinion journalists still ought to cling to that fear of failing (and the craft of reporting), some clearly do develop expertise. Think George Will and politics.

The key to success — i.e. fulfilling the primary purpose of journalism (to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing) — is developing a routine (the craft of reporting) based on the fear of failing that leads to what I’m calling sustainable expertise. That’s the kind of expertise that prevents you from jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.

The next two subjects of my on-going examination of opinion journalism will be two men who I think have developed something like sustainable expertise: Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof.

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.

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…

September 6, 2010

Struggling to Keep Myths Despite Change

Arthur S. Brisbane, the new Public Editor for The New York Times, on Sunday examined the issue of opinions in the news section published under such headings as “reporter’s notebook,” “news analysis,” and “news-page column.” His conclusion:

These narrow distinctions reflect the struggle to remain impartial while publishing more and more interpretive material. How to resolve this tension?

One path is to do a much better job of labeling the work — and please don’t bother with the fine distinctions. Call it commentary or call it opinion, but call it something that people can understand.

That, or abandon the sacred cloak of impartiality.

I vote for the former but concede that the latter may offer better traction in the opinion-gorged landscape of the future.

Do readers really not understand? It seems to me they understand perfectly but don’t like it when the opinion expressed challenges their ideologies.

Opinion, or “voice,” is not a problem as long as it is based on proper journalistic work — a topic I’ve examined in my criticism of my local paper. Punditry is a problem. So I’m good with both of Brisbane’s solutions. I do not recognize the dichotomy. I prefer to split the world in two based on opinion journalism v. punditry.

Further, there is no sacred cloak of impartiality. There is a myth about this cloak that helps journalists understand themselves in a particular relationship to an equally mythical general audience. That relationship — characterized by the rhetoric of lecture — has been breaking down in our electronically-mediated, interactive age. The rhetoric of lecture is giving way to the rhetoric of conversation. Journalists are still struggling with what this transition means for practicing ethical journalism.

It doesn’t help that there is a large misunderstanding about what objectivity means — it is supposed to be a process, not a stance. And it has nothing to do with getting “both sides of the story.” There are many “sides,” and sometimes one or more of them don’t have their facts straight. It’s OK to point that out (and point out why, and point out what it means) because journalists (are supposed to) operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification ( i.e. that process I mentioned).

As long as that is happening, this thing called “voice” we assign to reporters doing labeled opinion, if paired with transparency, can still fulfill the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. I would argue the rhetoric of conversation fulfills this purpose better than the rhetoric of lecture.

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