May 31, 2004

Thank you…

Memorial Day 2004

To all who serve and have served,

Thank you

May 28, 2004

Isn’t it clear?…

I’ve got a busy summer ahead of me as I prepare to move (just 4 weeks from now) and prepare my new classes for SMSU. Part of that process, obviously, means reading all my new textbooks. As a scholar of rhetoric, it’s maddening reading journalism textbooks because the profession still operates under what I’d call a Strunk & White view of language, i.e. that language can be made clear, concise, an impartial.

Journalism operates with many assumptions about language that not only make it more difficult to do the job, but also may do harm to political minorities. For example, journalism asserts that (re: Moral Politics, George Lakoff):

1. Concepts are literal and nonpartisan: The standard six-question rubric of journalism (who, what, when, where, why, how) cannot capture the complexity of issues as seen through, and expressed by, the incompatible moral systems of liberals and conservatives.

2. Language use is neutral: “Language is associated with a conceptual system. To use the language of a moral or political conceptual system is to use and to reinforce that conceptual system.”

3. News can be reported in neutral terms: Not if #2 is correct. To choose a discourse is to choose a position. To attempt neutrality confuses the political concepts. Is it an “inheritance tax” or a “death tax”? What could possibly be a neutral term? To use both in the name of balance is confusing because most news articles don’t have the space, and most TV treatments don’t have the time, to fully explain the terms and why liberals prefer one and conservatives prefer the other. There’s no time or space to explain why this language difference matters (beyond political tactics) to the formation, implementation, and evaluation of policy.

4. Mere use of language cannot put anyone at a disadvantage: Again, see #2.

5. All readers and viewers share the same conceptual system: We share the same English language, i.e. its grammar. We often do not share dialects or the denotations and connotations of concepts, lived experience, and ideologies. The statement “I am a patriotic American” means something entirely different to liberals and conservatives. That difference is more than a matter of connotation. The differences in connotation spring from different moral constructs. What the conservative means by that statement appears immoral to the liberal and vice versa.

All of that is a long-winded introduction to an interesting AP article about the meaning of the word “credible” in regard to “intelligence” about a possible terrorist attack in the U.S. this summer. Strunk & White is no help here.

May 27, 2004

Stretching time and space…

Weblogs make all kinds of interesting things possible. No self-respecting newspaper would turn over its pages to politicians beyond what’s standard practice for the op-ed section. But the internet is almost an unlimited resource, nearly unconstrained by the old-media limitations of time and space. (via Political Wire)

May 27, 2004

To be good…

Continuing commentary on the new survey of American journalists conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press: Today’s topic: Section 2, Covering the President and the Campaign.

A question: With what adjective should journalists modify “coverage”?

Several are bandied about in this section of the survey, including: easy, timid, hard, cynical, ideological, liberal, and conservative.

I ask this question because any adjective overtly assumes a political point of view (the lack of one does, too, but never mind for a moment). Asking journalists about coverage with a constrained set adjectives seems to me to be skirting around a more important issue: What is the relationship of coverage to sources and the news? And, yes, one could write an entire book to answer that one.

But let me suggest a direction at the very least. While there is no such thing as an objective point of view, there is such a thing as an objective procedure. The objective point of view is a fantasy of philosophy. The objective procedure is a bound system of rules–bound, that is, by human intention. In other words, we have two very different uses of the adjective “objective” here.

I am not proposing that we modify “coverage” with “objective.” Instead, I want to suggest that modifying “coverage” with any adjective (with the possible exception of “simple” evaluation: “good” or “bad”) automatically removes it from one of journalism’s greatest achievements: the modern objective processes of reporting and editing.

Coverage should never be easy, timid, hard, cynical, ideological, liberal, or conservative. It should be good, i.e. conform to set of professional standards that reflect the values of a free press that sees itself as integral to the healthy life of a democratic republic.

Previous entries:

Complex system

UPDATE (10:50 a.m.): Jay Rosen’s essay today concerns, among other things, an idea of what constitutes good coverage.

May 27, 2004

More good than bad…

I think this is the key paragraph from yesterday’s explanation in The New York Times:

Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated. Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper. Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted. Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.

In these six sentences we may see much of what is good and bad about American journalism (the good far out-weighing the bad, in my opinion). In this case, the hallmark of the practice–the editorial process–broke down. Editors are responsible for what’s published in a newspaper. Reporters, even the highly skilled, need guidance and skepticism from editors because reporters can get too close to a story–want it too much, believe it too much, need it too much.

Further, what is news? Any proper definition must include the concepts of “new” and “drama,” although the word “drama” may be too starkly accurate (i.e. not euphemistic enough) for some journalists. Allegations of WMDs by seemingly credible sources is new and dramatic; reporting the sources’ politically-driven propaganda after the fact is not. Why? Because there are always new and dramatic situations popping up to replace the old.

Finally, journalists are a self-reflective bunch–even if too many of them have far too little grounding in various language, communication, and social-science theories (the profession itself is under-theorized) to help guide that self-reflection. Journalists understand themselves to practice a socially, culturally, and politically important profession. They care deeply that it is practiced well. And that leads to such “explanations” as The Times published yesterday.

May 26, 2004

Complex system…

Over the next few days I’ll comment on each section of the new survey of American journalists conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Check here for the survey methodology. Pew has conducted this survey twice before, in 1995 and 1999.

Today’s topic: Section 1, Views on Performance.

Journalism evolved into a profession in the latter 1800s, and objective methods of reporting became the norm in the early 1900s. For an excellent accounting of these changes, you should read Discovering the News, by Michael Schudson. Procedures and the values they assume arise together. These changes led to a system of professional ethics that prescribed professional behavior and normalized professional values. One of the longest enduring values of professionalization and objectivity is the notion that a free press is essential to democracy. And this value, among others, leads journalists to worry about their professional performances. This is one of the admirable traits of journalists.

Despite professionalization and objective methods, journalism remains an impossibly complex practice because, among other things, it deals with the human perception and evaluation of events and the relaying of those events in language and pictures. And at every conceivable point along the path from event to publication to consumption, journalists deal with coordination and collaboration in the production of an industrial product for two distinctly different customers–advertisers and readers. And let’s not forget bias in all its variety in the human system and the bias inherent in the structure of journalistic practice.

How could anyone be satisfied with the product of such a system?

May 24, 2004

: Campaign maneuvers…

John Kerry’s suggestion that he might delay acceptance of his nomination and the Republican response to that suggestions, are excellent examples of heresthetics–structuring the world so you can win. The late rational-choice theorist William Riker coined the term from an ancient Greek root for “choosing.” While Riker thought heresthetics was a counterpart of rhetoric, I consider it a tactic of rhetoric.

May 24, 2004

Screeching about ____ bias…

I’ve come to loathe the word “bias” even as I use it to explain journalistic behavior that I think is far more important to a proper understanding the press than the pointing out of political partisanship (overt or otherwise).

Jay Rosen does us a great service by pointing out the obvious:

To me, any work of journalism is saturated with bias from the moment the reporter leaves the office–and probably before that–to the edited and finished product.

There’s bias in the conversation our biased reporter has with his biased editor, bias in the call list he develops for his story, bias in his choice of events to go out and cover, bias in the details he writes down at the event, bias in his lead paragraph, bias in the last paragraph, bias when his editor cuts a graph. The headline someone else writes for him– that has bias. There’s bias in the placement of the story. (No bias in the pixels or printer’s ink, though.)

“Bias” demands modification. The bias Rosen speaks of is the kind no human can ever escape (nor would you want to). Bias is made necessary by the judgment required to make choices as presented to us in limited systems.

I modify “bias” with “structural” to speak of the frames of thought that I believe are far more important to understanding journalistic behavior than the “bias” many call “political.” All choices are political to one extent or another, so “political” is hardly modification at all.

To insist on partisan political bias (“the press is liberal” or “the press is conservative”), to take one of these sides to the exclusion of contrary evidence, is to engage in partisan struggle for rhetorical and political purposes. Claiming overt, partisan, liberal or conservative, political bias fits the needs of ideological struggle, not greater understanding. And this means we will continue to suffer the cultural white noise of all those flamers screeching about ______ bias.

May 24, 2004

Argue, insist, work…

William Kennedy has this to say about the press:

I think it’s impossible to overrate the importance of the press to a free society, and then I consider a recent statistic–that 25 percent of the age group to which students graduating here today belong, do not pay much attention to the press, which is deeply depressing, and dangerous. The press can be trivial, yes, and it’s not always trustworthy, as we know from recent scandals over reporters faking stories and getting away with it for years. But despite fakery, plagiarism, distortion, lies, government secrecy and media stupidity, there is an ongoing communal drive in the American media–print-press and broadcast–to ferret out the truth. This is the single most valuable thing we can do to preserve a free society–protect the right to know what’s going on in our world–argue for it, insist upon it, work for it.

Can the importance of the press be overrated? I would agree with Kennedy, but my agreement is based far more on my own commitment to the study and teaching of the profession than in a solid body of evidence explicating the relationship between a free society and a free press (one might argue there are not enough data). Academics, like journalists, find comfort and mission in the assertion that our endeavors are of primary importance to our republic.

Michael Schudson, a sociologist of journalism and American civic life, points out an interesting fact in his book The Power of News: Many of the important studies of democracy, and what it takes to build and maintain a free society, conducted by some leading academics, do not mention a free press. They don’t dismiss it or ridicule it. They just simply don’t mention it. Hmmmmmm…

Obviously, what some scholars may or may not think about the role of the press in regard to the essentials of democracy has little to do with its actual importance to our free society. If we the people believe that the press is important, if we the people act as if it is important, then it is important. And there’s plenty of evidence that, top to bottom, this society thinks the press is still important (that 25 percent figure quoted above sounds like the glass is half full to me).

In my previous academic life as an English professor, part of my pedagogical goal was to encourage critical democratic participation–something that requires a high level of news consumption at its foundation. I won small victories at best. In my new academic life as a journalism professor, I assume a high level of news consumption by students who plan to work in the media. But I’ll still be encouraging critical democratic participation. Journalists are players and observers. Some of the problems we’re seeing these days spring from the death throes of (philosophic as opposed to procedural) objectivity, i.e. the blurring of the imposed boundary between these two.

I hope the changes I see coming in the profession will create the kind of product that will excite young adults to “protect the right to know what’s going on in our world–argue for it, insist upon it, work for it.” Then it will be obvious that one cannot overrate the importance of the press to a free society.

UPDATE (1:05 p.m.): Here’s a new Pew Research Center survey of journalists’ views of the profession. I’ll have more to say about this later.

May 21, 2004

Think about what?…

Pardon me if I’ve told this story before (too lazy to look): During the last election cycle, a reporter of my acquaintance called me on deadline needing a quote. Her editor had asked her to get a quote from someone claiming that citizens are sick and tired of negative campaign ads. I explained to her that I could not provide such a quote because, roughly: “We really have no idea if such a claim is true. There’s no real evidence that voters are turned off by negative ads. My opinion is that people enjoy them.”

This went in one ear and out the other and never made it into print (for a number of reasons, I suppose, besides not being the quote she wanted).

Did this mean that this reporter, who I know to be quite capable and hard-working, is not allowed to think for herself?

I don’t suppose this, but perhaps Dave Copeland does. He says:

Because most in-the-trench reporters aren’t allowed to think for themselves, they rely on “experts” who can state their pre-determined opinion for them (don’t buy into all this objectivity crap; fairness is the only ideal any human can be held accountable for, and that’s difficult enough as it is).

I agree with his statement about objectivity. But I wonder about the rest of it.

On the surface, yes, I have to agree. But then what is it a reporter is supposed to be thinking in the first place? What was the reporter in my example supposed to do? The answer to the second question is, perhaps, easiest to answer: She was supposed to report and write an article assigned to her according to the standard practices of journalism. Part of those practices include an editorial process in which editors direct the content and ensure that it meets standards.

So what thinking was she supposed to do beyond what’s required to report and write while conforming to standards? She cannot state, based on her own experience, that voters are turned off by negative ads. She doesn’t know this; in the parlance of academia, she in inexpert. This assumes, of course, that the content of news articles (as it applies to a combination of sources) should approach something like the truth rather than the speculation or opinion of the untrained.

Yes, she’s a well-trained journalist. But she isn’t a well-trained political scientist or rhetorician. She may certainly have her opinions on the topic of negative campaign ads, but those are better left to the op-ed pages.

Copeland has launched a new feature on his blog. He proposes to expose quote-hunting by publishing reporters’ queries from ProfNet, a PR service that helps reporters find academic experts. This should be entertaining, and I look forward to his efforts (I’ve added him to the blogroll). But Copeland leaves me wondering about what he means about the thinking of reporters. Beyond journalistic practice, what should they be thinking about?

Copeland appears to assume that the reporter is seeking an expert to make sure the reporter’s personal thoughts or opinions make it into the article (his being an experienced reporter argues against my interpretation of his assumption). But I think we would find my scenario more accurate: such quote hunting happens when editors demand that it happen. Perhaps we need to direct this at editors, not reporters.

Isn’t most reporting quote-hunting of a sort?

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