September 29, 2005

Too many cooks?…

Can an open-source site “correct” a badly written (e.g. typos, factual errors) article? A.J. Jacobs has tried to find out. You can check out the action here. Esquire will publish the results.

A good point [emphasis added]:

[Wikipedia Founder Jimmy] Wales pointed to a recent experiment in which The Los Angeles Times tried a “wikitorial” in which its readers could collaboratively work on editorials.

“It was more or less a complete disaster,” Wales said, “because they didn’t have a community built up, so they just had tons and tons of random people (involved). They had to take it down because there was too much vandalism.”

September 29, 2005

King of trivia…

I was sitting in my doctor’s office this morning–routine check-up–and happened to read something interesting on a wall calendar:

Cardinals Trivia Question

Since 1900, three Cardinals players have won multiple batting crowns. Can you name them?

It struck me that this makes a perfect illustration for the interaction of several concepts I’m dealing with in my current blog essay about context in journalism.

I can answer this question! The answer is: “No, I cannot name them.”

We may discover the intention of this message in its rhetorical situation (one understanding of context). There are also numerous textual clues (e.g. the headline).

The authorial intention of an utterance and its rhetorical situation (together = illocutionary act), however, do not guarantee that the auditor will interpret it as we wish or act upon it (the perlocutionary act) as we wish. The auditor may have other intentions. Also in this case, the question is ambiguous (and obviously trivial, which makes it an excellent example).

September 29, 2005

Enthymemes and cojones…

Representative Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said yesterday regarding his appointment as (temporary?) House Majority Leader:

“I’m confident that a full examination of the facts in this case will clear Tom’s name and return him to his position,” said Blunt, the third ranking Republican in the House. “Largely on his effectiveness as a leader, he became a target,” Blunt said.

That last statement is an example of political enthymeme, requiring the auditor to complete the argument. Is Blunt suggesting that the charges are trumped up? If so, how does he know? Or, is this merely a rhetorical flourish to encourage the loyal? The statement also happens to be entirely true from what I can tell. There is no contradiction between becoming a target of political enemies because one is politically effective and also being guilty of corruption.

Tom DeLay is innocent until proven guilty. That his accusers may be out to get him says nothing about his guilt or innocence.

I am surprised that the job was given to someone with the cojones to keep it. Hmmmmm…

September 27, 2005

Will this be on the test?…

The MSM would never report rumors as facts.

[Hang on a minute…I just cracked myself up.]

Today in my News Writing & Reporting class I’ll be discussing “advanced” interviewing techniques. Part of what makes my presentation “advanced” is the radical idea that reporters should operate with a discipline of verification and be custodians of fact. My job is made more difficult by the reality of professional practice as demonstrated by the initial reporting of Katrina. It’s as if I’m teaching some Ivory Tower nonsense that students may safely forget as soon as they’ve regurgitated it on a test.

A reporter cannot simply ignore a mayor or police chief who makes disturbing claims in the midst of a crisis. But those claims, and the claims of others, must be verified (tested, challenged, questioned) before they are reported. And if verification is not possible, then such claims should only be reported with proper (i.e. strong) qualification.

Journalism is a discoursive practice that gets at the truth over time. The irony is that journalism hurts itself by not getting at the truth more quickly. And that happens quite often because competitive pressures encourage journalists to set aside the fundamentals–the very things that would allow them to get at the truth sooner in the news gathering process.

Question: How soon is soon enough?

September 26, 2005

Context part 2, supplemental…

As an aside to my developing blog essay on context in journalism, let’s consider a sentence out of context:

“There is no reason to suppose that any language lacks the means to develop ways of talking about anything that becomes important to its users.”

I read this over the weekend in Proper English: Myths and Misunderstandings about Language, by Ronald Wardhaugh, a professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto. Geoffrey K. Pullum at Language Log recommends this book. Me too.

The sentence is written in the context of an examination of the myth that some languages are “primitive” and others “advanced”–primitive languages being those that lack certain concepts that others (i.e. ours) contain.

But it seems to me this sentence also speaks, in terms of language use, to my consideration of context as (differently) understood by the public and journalists. Journalistic language may be described this way (emphasis added):

I have briefly discussed the how journalism conforms to and creates the noetic field of our age. And I’ve shown how journalism creates various relationships among the elements of the rhetorical situation. Now, let’s briefly consider the last of the questions I raised: How does journalistic language create the relationships of the rhetorical situation and deliver the news?

As previously discussed, journalism operates with an objectivist epistemology. Journalism’s challenge in this epistemology is to perceive the world correctly and then represent perceptions correctly through language. You may be thinking that this description is inadequate because, quite often, journalists delve into subjective worlds that cannot be known through empirical methods or inexpert observation. For example, political reporters today are prone to discussing subjective assessments of politicians as if these were observations of verifiable facts. The reason is simple (and terribly complex): The noetic field is changing.

For now, it is important to understand that the dominant noetic field, as described by the epistemology of journalism, still undergirds most journalistic practice.

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.

It works this way: A news consumer reads an account of reality that considers two points of view and/or other actions or events chosen by the reporter/editor as newsworthy. Because the reporter recreates reality as it is, the reader may then apply a process of rational thought to the issues and make a decision about which of the two points of view are true or best represent the socio-political values of the culture. The implication is that one correct interpretation exists. The reporter, however, is barred by professional practice from making that assessment (pundits and editorialists, however, may).

And this way:

From George Lakoff’s Moral Politics (U of Chicago P), journalism falsely asserts that:

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.

It is my opinion that the language one uses plays a crucial role in what it is one sees when looking at the world. So language use, in this case the particular language (and rhetoric) journalists use to understand and portray the world, is bound up in any consideration of context. This is one of the reasons I began my examination of journalistic understandings of context with a brief metaphorical analysis. Which, by the way, comes straight from the analytical techniques I learned from George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (begin your journey here).

To be able to add context or to put something into context, journalists must be able to see (a/the) context(s), which may require an addition to the professional standard language. Such additions to the professional standard language may be acquired and used if, as Wardhaugh suggests, alternative contexts become important to journalists.

For an interesting look at how one might use the metaphors of context as critical probes, check out this by Tim Schmoyer.

To be continued…

Part 1: Considering the ‘C’ word

Part 2: Context as ingredient and container

September 23, 2005

Context as ingredient and container…

In part 1 of my examination of “context” in journalism, I approached the question of what we mean by “context” from the point of view of the reader who may charge that a particular article lacks context. What do they mean when they say it? One answer is:

The story journalism tells is always the story of the context (the rhetorical situation) of journalism. As long as it constructs, structures, and mediates the stories of others, those others will always feel their contexts have been lost or ignored. Cries for context, then, are cries to walk a mile in [another’s] shoes (which, it seems to me, is impossible).

To ask that journalists provide more context is to ask them to consider different narratives. And if they can “see” a standard narrative structure, and if that narrative is compelling based on their structural biases, then journalists will provide that “context”–albeit appropriated by journalism for journalistic purposes.

This prompted two interesting responses:

1. Marc Schneider in the comments to part 1

But I’m struggling with something that has increasingly bothered me about journalism–or perhaps more accurately, about the epistemology of journalism. How do we deal with the fact that journalism operates in this noetic field and that any particular presentation will necessarily privilege some points of view over others? I guess my issue is how do we deal with the fact that there may not be a single “truth” in a situation but a multiplicity of “truths”? Can we realistically expect journalism to provide these multiplicity of truths?

2. Jay Rosen in the comments to part 1

I thought you might say what I would say (how dumb is that?) which is that context is always related to purpose. This, I think, is how a pragmatist (in the philosophical sense) would see it. If our purpose is the recovery of memory, that might be one way of adding context. If our purpose is “making sure this doesn’t happen again,” that would point to another. If the purpose is “helping Missourians cast an intelligent vote next month,” that might tell you which context to add.

So to the question: “well, which context should we add?” a pragmatist would say: depends on your purpose in telling me this story, what’s your purpose here?

Today I’ll begin making a stab at context from the journalist’s point of view. Then, with a little luck and enough time (i.e. more parts to this essay), I’ll try to tie the two together somehow.

Jay and Marc ask a similar question in different ways. And before I begin to answer them, I want to bring in a third voice. Here’s what Stephen Baker had to say:

Here’s a simple test for necessary context: Is the story misleading without it? For example, if you point out that Company B’s stock has risen 5% in the last year, but neglect to mention that it’s still 80% under its 2003 peak, the reader’s getting a false picture. If you write that a Democrat on the judiciary committee is supporting one of President Bush’s Supreme Court nominees, you should also mention that eight or nine others are opposed or uncommitted.

Simple stuff. The point is that news writers are usually covering only a sliver of history. They often can provide the necessary context with a thoughtful sentence or two–and too often they (we) forget to.

It is not at all surprising to me that Baker would call this “simple stuff.” The current epistemology of journalism encourages such thinking (although the challenges to it are mighty). And the narrative bias of journalism encourages such thinking–particularly because narrative bias encourages journalists to see the world in terms of binary oppositions, the stuff of conflicts, plots, climaxes, resolutions, and denouements. For Baker, adding context appears as simple as getting the other side of the story.

The problem is, however, that this structure is artificial; it is applied to the world in order to make some sense of it. In reality, there are many many “sides” (contexts, truths) to a story. And if the journalist fails to adequately cover a particular side, then the members of that side are likely to think the story lacks context (among other things).

I told students just yesterday in class during a discussion of Chapter 2, “Truth: The First and Most Confusing Principle,” from The Elements of Journalism: “It is not possible to cover it all. You cannot represent all truths and contexts in a single news article. Good journalism, instead, unfolds over time. It’s a mistake to think of it as product of discreet units limited in time. Journalism, as a whole, gets at the truth eventually.”

So how do you choose? You have to choose. You have no choice in that matter. Journalism is a product of an editorial process, and it is limited on any given day by time and space (among many other things) depending upon the medium of delivery (among many other things).

I think the first way that journalists choose is by conforming to the purposes of the profession. I conceive the purposes as some combination of the structural biases, news culture, professional practice, and socio-political intentions (e.g. “The purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” from Elements). And this takes us squarely to Rosen’s suggestion that context is related to purpose. I think that’s an astute observation–certainly rhetorical, which warms my heart.

So let’s go in that direction for a while. I’ll start, and end this part of the essay, by quickly examining context as metaphor. Then I’ll take up Tim Schmoyer’s questions regarding intention. And finally (I hope) end this series with some statement that attempts to bring reader and journalist together regarding “context.”

Journalists generally understand context as an ingredient or a container.

Context is an ingredient: If a story lacks context, we must add it. By adding context, we are increasing the volume of the story, making it more substantial. It becomes something we can chew on and digest. As an ingredient, it is part of making the story whole or complete. In this metaphor, the story–the finished meal–is a combination of ingredients that creates an irreducible whole. Without a particular ingredient, the story is incomplete (half-baked?).

Context is a container: If the news situation is bigger than any particular story, then journalists may think of context as a container. The story must be put into context. Context is something like the whole truth, and the story is a part of that truth. If not put into context, the story appears to float, to become detached from meaning. It becomes merely a disconnected moment. Once put into context, the story becomes part of the whole and is understood in conjunction with other stories.

These metaphors show us two initial purposes in journalism: 1) Make sure a story contains all the necessary ingredients, and 2) Make sure a story gets into the proper container (truth, context). These are not necessarily opposed or exclusive.

Baker says, in effect: It’s simple–add the proper ingredient. Rosen asks, in effect: Yeah, but to whose taste? Schneider wonders, in effect: How many diets can and should we possibly consider?

To be continued…

Part 1: Considering the ‘C’ word

September 21, 2005

Another Wednesday night in America…

Another meeting of the Springfield Bloggers. After the meeting, we’re off to The Moxie!

September 21, 2005

Hot air a’blowin’…

Tune in to Radio Rhetorica this morning at 9 a.m. CDT. Just click the on-air button in the sidebar. Then choose audio stream #1.

In other news: Co-host Paul Katona and I are thinking about making Radio Rhetorica a streaming video show. I’ll keep you posted about that.

Also, the Springfield Bloggers meet tonight. If all goes as planned (i.e. if Steve gets the tickets), we may attend the opening night of The Moxie–Springfield’s new independent movie theater. I’ll podcast from the meeting and the theater.

And: Yes, part 2 of my examination of “context” is coming soon. This is turning into a rather big project–at least in my mind.

September 19, 2005

Context part 2 (is coming soon!)…

Today I was unable to “complete” part 2 of my consideration of context in journalism. By that I mean: I have a sketchy outline, and I simply had too many other things going on today to get around to writing it up. I’m home now. My brain is fried. So I’ll have to finish it tomorrow, or asap. Thanks to Jay Rosen (in comments) and Tim Schmoyer for interesting questions and observations leading toward part 2.

September 19, 2005

Help them meet the real world…

My media ethics students are going full-steam at The Golden Mean. Take a look. Give them a hard time 🙂

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