December 30, 2004

Ask more, tell less…

I’ve been waiting for #5.

Jay Rosen has been running down his top ten ideas for 2004, ideas he developed or encountered in the course of thinking and writing about what he calls “pressthink.” All of them are interesting, but I have been waiting for #5 because I think this one represents the largest potential change in journalism in more than 100 years.

5. News turns from a lecture to a conversation. “Newspaper people (especially) still have the mindset of putting out the edition and then they’re done with it,” complains Glenn Reynolds. “We used to think that the news was finished when we printed it,” says Jeff Jarvis. “But that’s when the news now begins.”

Here’s how I said it describing the epistemology of journalism in the current noetic field (i.e. the current dominant rhetoric):

1- The journalist, as objectivist observer, is capable of discovering facts in the world or capable of accurately recording the fact-observations of sources. 2- The journalist is able to discern meaning in the observations of the source as the source understands that meaning. 3- The journalist is able to put these facts and observations into language that avoids distortion of the original observations and may even reproduce the original observations as a mental-emotional experience for the audience. 4- The facts and truth exist independently of the journalist, the source, and the audience. 5- The source is an authority capable of discovering facts and accurately reproducing them in language for the journalist. 6- The audience is capable of unpacking the journalist’s language and finding meaning that corresponds to the facts.

This is an objectivist rhetoric that works on a conduit metaphor of language and communication, i.e. ideas are put into words and words are sent to the auditor who then unpacks the ideas. This conduit is a one-way system metaphorically, but it is also a one-way system in reality for several reasons: 1- Reporters work within institutions and use a rhetoric that separates them from the public; 2- The public has limited access to the pages of newspapers or the air time of television stations; 3- The public has limited access to journalists; 4- The public has limited access to the journalists’ sources; and 5- Journalists presume they know more than the public by virtue of their institution, training, and access.

A noetic field and its dominant rhetoric is an epistemological system defining: 1) what can and cannot be known, 2) the nature of the knower, 3) the nature of the relationships among the knower, the known, and the audience, and 4) the nature of language. A noetic field is a closed system in the sense that any change to the field changes the system. Because journalism is an important discoursive practice in our culture, it necessarily fits the dominant noetic field. Journalistic practice conforms to and establishes the dominant noetic field. In the rhetoric of journalism there exists a one-way communication from those who know (sources and the journalists who gather information from them) to those who don’t (the public).

Again, from my field theory essay:

The language of journalism creates and maintains the relationships of the rhetorical situation by using language that treats these relationships as self-evident. Journalists rarely engage in the kind of qualifying that calls into question their observations and experiences or the observations and experiences of sources. Further, the ethos of journalism leaves such assessments for the reader to make and, by default, assumes that such assessments are possible given the information that’s available.

As Jay Manifold wrote in a recent comment:

I see journalism as a subculture, which like all others, must be at least somewhat self-reinforcing to survive. The same tendencies that keep it together, however, both limit its appeal as an occupation to a relatively narrow range of personality types and place constraints on its output that limit its credibility among other subcultures.

Again, all subcultures have such traits, but in journalism they’re more obvious, not to say more painful, because journalists are trying to describe reality to the rest of us. If most of the rest of us don’t identify with journalists, we won’t believe them.

Perhaps journalists should be drafted from the general population by a random lottery. ;^)

It’s not a lottery and it isn’t random, but the mechanisms of change do exist, and they are made possible by the interactivity of the internet. Let’s name two of them: open-source journalism and blogging–the audience talking back, doing journalism, and becoming an equal knower.

We need new metaphors. “Web” works a lot better than “conduit” in this new emerging noetic field just as it works better to describe the technology that’s making change possible. And journalism also needs a new metaphor for this field; as Rosen says: “news should be less of a lecture, more of a conversation.”

These are not merely semantic changes (when were such changes ever “mere”?). We are witness to a potential change in what we know, how we know it, who can know it, who can tell it, how they can tell it, and how we can understand and respond to it. The old rhetoric of journalism cannot operate in a new noetic field–at least it cannot continue to so operate and hope to survive in its old form for very long.

Let’s use blogging as a synecdoche for a moment: Blogging may kill the traditional newspapers (I say may because we are experiencing a moment of change that has not come to completion; we don’t know where we’re heading yet). That’s not to say blogging will kill newspapers in general or that print is doomed. But I think we may see the end of traditional newspapers within a generation. Print will survive by becoming something more converged and interactive, by becoming part of a local, interactive, multifaceted journalism product.

Blogging works as it does because it operates with a web-based rhetoric, i.e. a metaphor for a large and interconnected communications structure in which there are multiple knowers who share what they know with other equal knowers. Ideas may still be put into words, but they no longer move one-way. They spread like waves. They bounce and reflect. They multiply.

A few days ago I criticized Steve Outing for suggesting that bloggers consider journalistic theories of writing to improve their work. I called that bad advice. Let’s look at one example: The inverted pyramid structure of news articles. This is an artifact of objectivist, one-way rhetoric. It says that complex situations can be described by order of importance: 1- We journalists know what is important and in what order to tell it; 2- we will tell you our way; and 3- you will accept it because it’s the best available approximation of the truth (as guaranteed by our professionalism, fairness, and objectivity).

That won’t work on a blog. And it won’t work in the emerging noetic field made possible by the new interactivity.

Just the other day I asked if journalism has a class bias. In the epistemology of the old noetic field I shouldn’t ask. I should tell. I am a bona fide knower. Those three little letters after my name say so. But I am writing a blog, a communicative form of the new noetic field. My readers may interact with me. I want them to interact with me. I want a conversation. They know more than I do. So I ask.

What would happen if journalists began doing more asking than telling and then giving those they ask the space and time necessary to give good answers?

UPDATE (11:15 a.m.): Need an example? Here’s a “report” from the MLA conference to challenge The New York Times.

December 29, 2004

Rhetorica update…

I’m working today on finishing the Ozark Documentary Project for Fall 2005. This is part of an ongoing project for my JRN371 News Writing & Reporting class. I’ll post a link here when I’m finished.

What this means is: I won’t be doing any blogging today.

Other updates: As I said earlier, I’ll be taking a blogging break from 1 January to 10 January. Classes begin on 10 January, and I have a heck of a lot of work to do to get ready. Plus, I’m putting the finishing touches on the final manuscript for Word Politics, the second edition of a book of essays I’m co-editing with the original editor, Dr. Max Skidmore of UMKC. I’ll be avoiding all internet contact during this time.

December 28, 2004

How to write good on yer blog…

I missed this item published just before Christmas: Steve Outing follows up his advice for journalists with advice for bloggers, i.e. what bloggers can learn from journalists.

His list brings up an old question: Is blogging journalism? Here’s another: Should it be journalism? Or: Can it be journalism?

I think it’s clear that blogging may be used by/for journalism–from mining bloggers as sources of information to offering the public a level of interactivity unknown until now (open-source journalism).

What’s interesting about Outing’s list is that it is a curious mix of excellent advice and what I take to be a curious desire to see bloggers become more like journalists. Bloggers blog. Journalists report. These are different things although there are many areas in which the two cross paths and share goals.

His good advice:

1. Do more original reporting.
2. Ask before you attack.
3. Be accurate.

I think these are self-explanatory.

His bad advice:

1. Find an editor.
2. Find a code of ethics.
3. Consider journalistic style.

As I have said before, what separates blogging from journalism for me is the role of editor–a trained, experienced editor. Not just anyone good at rooting out stylistic errors will do. Where are bloggers to find such people? Further, is finding and employing them worth turning the dynamism of blogging into the hard slog of (good) journalism. The beauty of blogging is that for some bloggers the answer may be “yes.” Blogging is what the individual blogger makes it.

To be effective, a code of ethics requires an institution of some sort (a bunch of people agreeing to it creates an institution). I admire all attempts to establish propriety. But such attempts are attempted by someone or some institution. Since there is no institution at this point, that leaves the writing of a code to someone(s). Who? Why them? …and a dozen other like questions. Here’s a sample developed from the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists.

The basic news writing style developed for specific historical and technological reasons. This is a new era. The internet is a new technology. To suggest that bloggers write snappy headlines or inverted pyramid style is, well, a bit silly. This is old-school (rhetorical) thinking. The rhetoric of this style is exactly the one-way communication from those who know to those who don’t paradigm that interactivity challenges. Besides, don’t you enjoy the individuality of good blog writing?

December 27, 2004

Does journalism have a class bias?…

I may be adding a tenth bias to the list of structural biases of journalism. I say “may” because I’m not yet sure how it fits with the others on the list. And I’m not yet sure it even qualifies as a bias. Perhaps Rhetorica readers can help me sort this out.

Background: My wife gave me Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? for Christmas. I read it in two sittings. Interesting book.

What I find most fascinating about it is this: Frank, whether he knows it or not, considers the same thing George Lakoff considers in his book Moral Politics–what/how liberals and conservatives think and the moral values that unndergird that thinking.

Frank is dealing with “Cons” (working class conservatives) and “Mods” (wealthy moderate Republicans) as they exist in Kansas today–especially in the western suburbs of Kansas City. I am very familiar with this situation from having lived 20 years in Kansas City during much of the action that takes place in Frank’s book.

He’s trying to sort out a question that perplexes liberals: How is it that the Republicans convinced working class people to vote against their own economic well-being? You do not need to read Frank to discover an answer to this question. Lakoff answered in years ago, and it has to do with the role of moral values in political thinking.

Okay, my point here is not to enter a debate on moral values (unless you want to talk about how we articulate moral values and why we articulate them in certain ways). As long-time Rhetorica readers know, I think highly of Lakoff’s book and have used some of his thinking in compiling the information on the Media/Political Bias page. It is in the context of the parallels I see between the two books that I am wondering about adding to the list of biases.

Does journalism have a class bias?

When this question first occurred to me in compiling the original list, I dismissed it as simply a part of the status quo bias. But the status quo bias is really about power, not class. Here’s what got me thinking about it again, a quote from Barbara Ehrenreich on page 194:

For working-class people, relations with the middle class are usually a one-way dialogue…From above come commands, diagnoses, instructions, judgments, definitions–even, through the media, suggestions as to how to think, feel, spend money, and relax. Ideas seldom flow “upward” to the middle class, because there are simply no structures to channel the upward flow of thought from class to class.

I disagree with that final assertion because I think the internet (blogs) and civic journalism might be such structures–but that’s another discussion. What she’s saying here isn’t new. Any rhetoric scholar of my era can talk to you in overblown academic language about exactly what Ehrenreich identifies: a conduit metaphor of rhetoric and communication in which information and knowledge travel from a discourse community with power to one without power. It’s painfully obvious that this model accurately describes the situation (it describes the whole Aristotelian model of rhetoric). And it’s equally obvious that this situation quite rightfully upsets working class people who experience the content traveling through this conduit as intellectuals and the “elite” dumping derision upon them.

The conduit in the metaphor is complex. On one academic level it is language. But on an experiential level it is the media. Ehrenreich’s appositive just exploded off the page at me–one of those “well, duh” moments.

It is now routine for those who would practice journalism to earn a college degree, which puts them in an elite intellectual class and all but assures them admittance to the middle class. Those who practice it at its most visible levels make a solidly middle class income and above. None of this is surprising or new.

What I had not considered in compiling my list of biases is the very thing that some media critics have been discussing for years–the role of class in the production of news. For me, however, it is more complex than simply saying that middle class people with middle class concerns are going to cover the news in middle class ways.

Instead, I see this as a rhetorical problem–one that could be changing with the noetic field. Civic journalism and the internet (e.g. weblogs and open-source journalism) are destroying the conduit metaphor. Interactivity of all kinds is destroying the conduit metaphor. And the moral value system of the conservative working class (correctly and rightly) rejects the conduit metaphor. But the conduit metaphor is a founding pillar in the structure of the rhetoric of journalism–one-way communication from those who know to those who don’t.

December 27, 2004

Call a Ph.D….

Here’s a perfect example of the fairness bias at work and the trouble such a bias can cause.

Reporters are required to balance their articles. Professors of journalism teach them to do it as students. Ill-tempered editors insist they do it as professionals. What this balancing often boils down to in the heat of deadline pressure is making easy phone calls to sources you can rely on to take a certain stand.

So, doing an article about NASA? Need a negative point of view from an “expert” (def.: someone with a Ph.D.)? Then call Dr. Alex Roland. He, like many professors, is apparently a news hound willing to spout off. We professors get academic brownie points for being expert sources. I’m a big news hound. But I refuse to say anything just to be quoted, and I refuse to speak outside my areas of expertise.

Roland may or may not know much of anything about NASA or spaceflight. But he has those three little letters after his name and is willing to talk.

And it’s NOT that reporters who use him are trying to trash NASA, although such quoting may seem like anti-NASA bias. What’s going on here is the fairness bias–the professional ethic of making sure that each article is balanced, i.e. quotes both or multiple sides. It doesn’t matter that one or more of the sides may be complete poppycock. You’ve been taught to put it in the story. Your editor wants it in the story. So guess what you do?

This is why I say that understanding the structural biases is much more important and instructive than asserting simplistic political bias. Much of what passes for political bias is actually caused by one or more of the structural biases and not a conscious or unconscious effort on the part of journalists to slant the news. (Thanks to Jay Manifold for the tip.)

December 24, 2004

Have a safe and happy holiday…

December 23, 2004

Get back to fundamentals…

The simplistic rant against a so-called liberal media bias is a political maneuver, and it has worked. Here’s one bit of evidence–a news media train wreck.

In the midst of Lois Melina’s ineffective counter-rant we may find the damage caused by a generation-long harangue against a non-existent, pervasive political bias:

As the country prepares for at least two years with the Republicans in control of both the White House and Congress, it is vitally important that the news media look at how they have failed the American people and contributed to a polarized nation.

Journalists have allowed political operatives to successfully control what is discussed and how it is discussed. TV programs that pit an extremist on the left against an extremist on the right have made it clear there is no room for moderate voices. Walter Cronkite used to be the most trusted journalist in America. Now Jon Stewart–a comedian with a “fake news” show–may be.

She’s right about one thing (assuming she would agree with my explication): the he-said/she-said reporting mentality (a consequence of the fairness bias fighting constant bias ranting) has been used effectively by spinners to frame the debate and control content of news. Attempts to buck this system actually seem odd.

She’s right about one more thing: the news media share the blame for a polarized America, if that is what we have (I’m not convinced yet).

Neither liberal nor conservative partisans truly want a skeptical press. Each side prefers selective skepticism and selective compliance. Each side calls the skepticism it doesn’t like bias. Each side ignores counter evidence. This is, by the way, irrational. But we’re talking political struggle here, not reasoned civic debate. That means were talking about a zero-sum game–winning versus losing, which is anathema to the democratic bargain. The politicized role of reason is to figure out the winning tactics. It is not itself a winning tactic.

Melina does her cause no favors because she uses the very discourse that the bias ranters target. So this screed is easily dismissed as an example of exactly the kind political bias we may experience locally.

If what Melina intends is a critique, then I suggest she be more explicit about how to achieve a properly skeptical press. We could start by insisting that the press operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification–something I teach in my Introduction to Journalism class. When you’re losing the game it’s time to return to fundamentals.

There is, however, a way that we can say the press is Liberal with a capital L. Like most Americans, journalists and journalism generally believe in: American capitalism, one person one vote, keeping an eye on government and big business, the primacy of American culture, the overall goodness of the American people, the ability of the people to make effective political decisions given accurate information, the right of religious freedom, the right to free speech, the right to privacy, the Bill of Rights generally, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, motherhood, apple pie, etc. etc. etc.

These are Liberal ideas. We are a Liberal nation. We have a Liberal government and Liberal press.

December 22, 2004

Where are Springfield’s bloggers?…

Calling all bloggers in Springfield, Missouri! If you write a blog from anywhere in southwest Missouri (or within the circulation limit of the News-Leader), please contact me by using the feedback form. What’s this about? See the post below.

Do you know a blogger in this area? Tell that person about this message.

December 22, 2004

Open source for Springfield?…

Jay Rosen continues his coverage of the open source journalism project in Greensboro. I have only two things to add at this time.

1. I’ve sent e-mail to Don Wyatt, executive editor of the Springfield News-Leader, suggesting that he read Rosen’s coverage and further suggesting that Springfield is a good market for a similar project.

2. I am interested in the educational opportunities open source journalism might provide my students.

I’m re-working my JRN371 syllabus now to include an open-source assignment, in which the students must contribute to an open source project. Right now I’m thinking Wikinews. Wouldn’t it be fascinating if there were a local project such as the one in Greensboro? My students would then be able to produce local journalism for local readers outside the university community.

In a year or two, we’ll be graduating students for whom the idea of an online, open-source world is just the way of things. They will know that it’s folly to suppose that only journalists can produce journalism (here’s what one art major had to say).

December 22, 2004

Alien Gets CBS Anchor Spot!…

What is a “tabloid“? It is a odd combination of two things: the size of a newspaper page and its sensational contents. To say “let’s change our format to tabloid” is to say “let make the paper smaller and run photos of half-naked women.” It’s right there in the denotation. We don’t have to add a pathetic connotation.

That said, I think it would be a good idea for many American newspapers to choose the tabloid format if not the “typical” contents. And, really, there are many examples of quality journalism reproduced in this size.

The broadsheet is cumbersome, although I like it on Sundays when I’m planted for a couple of dedicated hours of reading.

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