June 21, 2004

Keep on truckin’…

Okay, this is it. I’ll be very busy moving for the next two weeks. I leave Kansas City this Wednesday morning. I’ll camp out in my new house in Springfield that night. The mover arrives on Thursday. I then have many days of work ahead of me to get the house ready–you know, the usual stuff. You should expect that I’ll be posting little or nothing during that time. I expect to be back to a “normal” summer schedule by 5 July.

June 18, 2004


I said it this way:

The press is often thought of as a unified voice with a distinct bias (right or left depending on the critic). This simplistic thinking fits the needs of ideological struggle, but is hardly useful in coming to a better understanding of what is happening in the world.

Jay Rosen adds the flesh.

One point of clarification: When I say “hardly useful in coming to a better understanding of what is happening in the world,” I am talking about the desire to understand our world in general, i.e. how and why it works–an ongoing effort to be sure. Bias crusaders divert your attention from such understanding for their own political gain, although we may add their efforts to the list of things we would hope to understand.

I find the bias wars annoying because they fool people into thinking that the news media have one political bias (right or left). In fact, they have many political biases. But it is far more important to understand the structural biases if what we wish to do is understand how journalism works and why journalists do the things they do. On this I have said:

For that better understanding we need a theory.

A theory offers us a model that tells us why things happen as they do. Further, a theory allows us to predict outcomes and behavior. Assertions of ideological bias do neither. While we can expect the press to demonstrate ideological biases in regard to certain issues or other localized phenomena, these and other behaviors are explained and predicted by the structural biases. Since the press sometimes demonstrates a conservative bias, asserting that the press is liberal neither predicts nor explains. Since the press sometimes demonstrates a liberal bias, asserting that the press is conservative neither predicts nor explains.

Let me state this more forcefully: Claims of political bias do not predict journalistic behavior. This means a claim of political bias against the news media in general (right or left and stated as theory), that ignores the structural bias theory, is propaganda.

Again, we may point to any number of localized instances of political bias. And these instances must always be challenged by critics and news consumers. But such localized events do not add up to a liberal or conservative news media in general.

June 17, 2004

Information and authority…

Yesterday I began exploring the practice of quoting anonymous sources with these questions in mind: How are the concepts of “discipline of verification” and “custodian of fact” related? And is a discipline of verification really opposed to the idea that reporters can and should state the facts as they understand them outside the confines of verification by anonymous sources? These questions followed my reading of Daniel Okrent’s column in The New York Times on Sunday and responses by Jack Shafer and Tim Porter (be sure to read the comments on yesterday’s entry).

The discipline of verification is the adherence to an institutionalized set of journalistic practices for arriving at the most accurate portrayal of events. These practices include standardized methods of gathering and evaluating information and writing and editing the article.

Being custodians of fact means that journalists should not merely relay “both sides” of a story equally. Instead, they should fact-check all sources and then report the results of such fact-checking, thus creating a proportional representation of sources. This concept, however, challenges the fairness bias and is, therefore, controversial.

What is the relationship between these concepts?

The latter is a point of view in regard to information derived from sources. This point of view regards all information as suspect until verified (not just official statements). The reporter acting as a custodian of fact understands that all human communication is rhetorical, political and value-laden. This requires the reporter to check all statements from sources to see if they conform to fact, i.e. a generally accepted understanding of what the situation is and the measurements/observations that make up that situation. (I am bracketing out a correspondence theory of truth here because I don’t believe it corresponds with the truth. Instead, refer to Lakoff and Johnson’s embodied theory of truth.) The reporter then presents information from sources in a hierarchy based on veracity. This means information from sources with a high level of veracity is given more play and/or attention than information from sources with a low level of veracity. Source information is played proportionally rather than equally. (This also challenges the status quo bias because veracity in this paradigm trumps authority.)

The discipline of verification ensures that facts and information correspond to our understandings of a situation or reports based on measurements and/or observations.

I raised the issue of custodianship yesterday because I think it is a way to begin thinking about how to deal with anonymous sources. The current paradigm requires merely that political reporters “get both sides of the story.” That Senator Blowhard might be spewing nonsense in an official statement is hardly a journalistic concern today in Washington (partly because, if we believe Shafer and Porter, all official statements are considered less than forthcoming). Making sure to get Senator Numbnutz’s reaction to Blowhard is a concern. The reader is left to figure it out.

The question I have asked many times in regard to this is: How is the reader to figure it out? A press that sees itself as custodian of facts provides one possible route to an answer, i.e. change the paradigm.

Sources have rhetorical intentions that are well served by anonymity. Reporters have a constant professional and economic need to discover new information. Being custodians of fact allows journalists to counter anonymity in this way: Proportionality in the presentation of source material may put pressure on sources to be more forthcoming.

Obviously, reality is not nearly as neat as I just portrayed it. In politics, it is often the case that the reporter has no route to the facts except through the human source. And if the source has propagandistic intentions, there’s little the reporter can do about it except present “both sides” and hope the truth will out.

This brings me to my second question that follows Okrent, Porter and Shafer: Is a discipline of verification really opposed to the idea that reporters can and should state the facts as they understand them outside the confines of verification by anonymous sources?

Should reporters state the facts as they understand them based on their own authority? Much of the institution of American journalism would answer: No. But we also know that it happens frequently by the citing anonymous sources. When reporters invoke anonymous sources, they ask readers to accept facts based on nothing more than the authority of the news organization. We news consumers have no idea who highly placed sources are or if (re: Jayson Blair et. al.) they even exist without a name and a title. I am not suggesting that journalists are liars or that they routinely manufacture quotes. I don’t believe that. But journalists do ask us to take it on faith when they quote anonymous sources. The only authority in such situations is the news organization itself because it is the only identifiable authority (just because the “highly placed source” is placed in, for example, the State Department doesn’t shift the responsibility away from the news organization because anonymity allows deniability).

I corresponded with Tim Porter yesterday by e-mail regarding his entry (linked above) and my intention to cover this topic today. He wrote, in part:

Much of this goes to the issue of “authority.” Is the newspaper the authority? Is it a vehicle upon which the citizens can rely for authoritative, i.e., accurate, sound, truthful, information?

Reporters strive, as their careers advance, to write with more authority, meaning to report and write stories that convey solidity, depth and knowledge in contrast to the “according to” convention taught in basic reporting classes. Yet, even though good reporters become more knowledgeable in their fields, the forms of journalism discourage overt expression of that knowledge.

Yes, the rhetoric of the profession expresses its epistemology: the reporter is not the knower; the source is the knower. Yet reporters do come to know and want to act on that knowing. The rhetoric of the profession, and its fairness bias, constrain their ability to relay all that they may know (both Porter and I assume, for the sake of argument, talented and honest reporters).

When the knower won’t take responsibility for the known, the responsibility falls to the reporter and the news organization. By invoking a “highly placed source,” the news organization implicitly accepts responsibility.

It seems to me that journalists who practice a discipline of verification and operate as custodians of fact are in a better position to accept the responsibility for anonymous sources. Further, being custodians of fact argues for maximum transparency. If reporters allow a source to give information anonymously, then they should tell readers as much about the context of that decision as they know and the results of verification.

Should reporters, then, state what they know to be true on their own authority? The discipline of verification is opposed to the idea that reporters can and should state the facts as they understand them outside the confines of verification. But as long as professional standards of verification are followed, I believe we may begin to accept that reporters, as players in the game, can and should tell what they know on the authority of the news organization. Yes, there are a thousand things that could go wrong here. I am asserting only a shift in the rhetoric of journalism that I believe is well underway. What the best practices should be in this regard must be debated.

Information (statements about facts in the world) does not exist without a human intention. Every little bit of information relayed by the media everyday springs from some human intention to communicate it. And, I would further argue, that those intentions are rhetorical, i.e. to move hearts and minds. For information to become knowledge (information embedded in a context), news consumers must know something of its origin, context and purpose. Whether information is cited from anonymous sources or stated on the authority of the news organization, it is politically useless without trust, accuracy, and an understanding of its origin, context and purpose. To be good, journalism, whether it relies on anonymous sources or not, must meet these needs.

June 16, 2004

Wouldn’t it be nice to know?…

Jack Shafer takes another look at anonymous sources following Daniel Okrent’s column in The New York Times on Sunday. I found this interesting:

I haven’t changed my mind since my last anonymous-sources cogitation, but I have come up with a few new ideas on the subject. Anonymous sources appeal to those reporters and readers who believe

June 15, 2004

Rhetorica update…

I’m in for a crazy couple of weeks. We finish packing this week, and we leave for Springfield the middle of next week.

I’ll take a blogging break from 23 to 29 June. There’s a possibility I’ll post a couple of times during that period. It all depends upon how smoothly the move goes and how quickly I can get three home offices up and running. Cable TV and internet will be the first thing I set up when I arrive in Springfield on 24 June. Gotta watch Wimbledon! Go Agassi!

I updated Professors Who Blog last week after a freelance writer contacted me about doing an article on the topic of academic bloggers. It seems my list is still the most “complete,” which merely means it’s the largest that I know of. I have no idea how many academics are writing blogs, but I suspect the number is far greater than represented on that page. I promise to do a better job of updating. Let me know about any academic blogs not linked.

I’ve also added a few new (to me) bloggers to the sidebar. And I’ve deleted a few who are no longer blogging. As always, let me know if you have suggestions for links.

June 14, 2004

According to…

I think routine meta reporting would make political journalism far more interesting and useful. Daniel Okrent’s column this week, about anonymous sources, suggests a few ways journalists could and should make the reporting process more transparent.

Here are two examples: First, journalists could explain the rules of professional practice. Each granting of anonymity, for example, includes a basic set, and situationally specific set, of rules that govern how and why the reporter allows a source to hide behind such appellations as “highly placed source,” or “senior official.” Second, reporters could explain the motivation behind a request for anonymity. Reporters understand why sources request, and are granted, anonymity. Why shouldn’t readers also have these same understandings?

Would reporters be guilty of editorializing if they made a greater effort to explain the motivations of sources who wish to be quoted anonymously? If they are speculating, yes. But reporters are in a position to know exactly these kinds of details. Without understanding these details, any agreement to grant anonymity makes no sense at all. Unfortunately, as Okrent’s column demonstrates, some reporters and editors have made a habit of nonsense.

June 11, 2004

Getting to the bottom of it…

Editor & Publisher is on the hunt for political (read “liberal”) bias in the news media. My hope is that any study the magazine undertakes will add to our understanding of the practice of journalism rather than add more fog to the simplistic and anecdotal arguments that obscure the issue today. Here’s what I think.

June 11, 2004

Press clippings…

Let’s revisit an old metaphor of journalism: It is the first rough draft of history. Now there are plenty of reasons to challenge this, but let’s set them aside a moment and consider this article about how the news media have covered the death of Ronald Reagan so far.

Here’s the concluding quote from Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism (he’s also co-author of an excellent book entitled The Elements of Journalism):

“It will be interesting to see whether journalism we’re seeing on Reagan’s death becomes the accepted, revised view of the Reagan presidency—almost an unalloyed positive–or a momentary tribute.”

In other words, journalism is more than a first rough draft. It is an evolving draft that leads to something like a final draft (drafts are always open to revision). But I wonder with what data such a draft will be compiled. Is a fair and accurate account of the Reagan presidency possible when journalists are loathe to consider the entirety of the Reagan record this week?

June 11, 2004

Another blog essay…

I’ve compiled my recent series on the Pew Research Center survey of American journalists into a blog essay entitled What Are Journalists Thinking? I’ve added a link to the Blog Essays section in the left sidebar.

UPDATE (10:35 a.m.): I’ve (finally) updated Professors Who Blog. Keep sending links!

June 10, 2004

One thing leads to another…

Concluding my commentary on the new survey of American journalists conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press: Today’s topic: Commentary by Bill Kovach, Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell.

I want to end this blog essay with some observations following from the commentary section of the Pew survey. I have no grand conclusions to offer regarding the survey because I simply don’t have enough data. Further, I’m not sure grand conclusions are even possible considering the complexity of the journalistic enterprise.

First, let’s consider this:

Five years ago, people in the news business shared two overriding concerns. As we said back then, “They believe that the news media have blurred the lines between news and entertainment and that the culture of argument is overwhelming the culture of reporting. Concerns about punditry overwhelming reporting, for instance, have swelled dramatically in only four years.”

Today, the concerns are more varied and less easy to categorize. The worries about punditry are still there but they have diminished both nationally and especially locally.

A bigger issue now is a sense of shallowness. Roughly eight-in-ten in the news business feel the news media pay “too little attention to complex issues,” up from five years ago to levels seen in the mid-1990s, at the peak of the fascination with tabloid crime stories like O.J. and JonBenet Ramsey.

I think the concerns of today are related to the concerns of five years ago. The culture of argument (I don’t like that choice of words) is puddle deep. Entertainment as news has always been as thin as rice paper, but, then, it’s supposed to be–although I’ve certainly worn out enough keyboard plastic complaining about it.

Punditry (which is what I take the “culture of argument” to indicate) and news as entertainment lead to shallowness. So the concerns of five years ago were well justified, I think. As is the concern today for the resulting shallowness. At the release of the next survey will journalists be complaining about problems that (obviously?) follow shallowness? Hmmmm…

What can be done about it? Let’s blame readers!

Ultimately journalism is predicated on faith in the public. Here, journalists’ views have become dramatically more pessimistic.

The percentage of national journalists who have a great deal of confidence in the ability of the American public to make good decisions has declined by more than 20 points since 1999. Confidence among local journalists has fallen as well.

What is going on? Does this suggest that as news people get closer to their audiences they conclude people are less wise than they once believed? Is it possible that market research data is persuading journalists today that they understand their audiences better and also that those audiences are dumber than they thought?

Or, is the loss of confidence in the public more tied to journalists’ views about the content of news? They see news doing a poorer job of covering complex issues and conclude that this will leave Americans unprepared for making good decisions.

It is also possible that journalists are leaping to another conclusion: They see the content of the news becoming shallower and conclude that this must be what the public wants or why else would their organizations be providing it?

And the authors posit one more possibility which will act as a lightening rod for the simplistic thinking of the typical bias critic:

There is also a fourth possibility: liberal journalists unhappy with President George W. Bush’s policies could be dismayed that the public chose Bush in 2000 and until recently have largely approved of his performance.

Until recently it has appeared that the press has approved of Bush’s policies, too. For example: all the recent bellyaching about not being more skeptical in the build up to the war in Iraq. But never mind.

The commentary also spends a lot of ink on the economic woes of the profession. Journalists live with very real economic constraints that hurt news coverage. Far too many news organizations are owned by companies that demand a profit margin that would make a robber baron blush. It’s difficult to practice good journalism under such conditions.

But good journalism can still be practiced because, ultimately, what it takes is fidelity to the best practices of the profession. One can, among other things, take readers seriously, be custodian of the facts, follow the objective process of reporting, seek fairness and understanding, and edit with sensitivity and skepticism without spending very much money.

Previous entries:

Complex system
To be good
Information utility and the internet
The big difference

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