March 31, 2006

Duelling O-words…

Michael Kinsley has some interesting things to say about the cult of objectivity. And I, naturally, have a few quibbles. Let’s consider this:

Abandoning the pretense of objectivity does not mean abandoning the journalist’s most important obligation, which is factual accuracy. In fact, the practice of opinion journalism brings additional ethical obligations. These can be summarized in two words: intellectual honesty. Are you writing or saying what you really think? Have you tested it against the available counterarguments? Will you stand by an expressed principle in different situations, when it leads to an unpleasing conclusion? Are you open to new evidence or argument that might change your mind? Do you retain at least a tiny, healthy sliver of a doubt about the argument you choose to make?

I agree with that. Here’s the problem: Kinsley creates an either-or fallacy between objective journalism and opinion journalism–with the caveat that opinion journalism should still be journalism (and it should). He does this because he understands objectivity for what it has come to mean–a stance–instead of what it was originally meant to be–a process. So this leads him into fallacious thinking. He apparently cannot conceive of a journalism that neither promotes an overt opinion nor attempts to do the blatantly impossible (i.e. see the world “as it is”). So he gives us a false choice.

Discussion of objectivity in journalism has become deeply strange. You see it in statements such as this: “Yes, it’s impossible, but it’s still an ideal worth trying for.” That’s like saying: “Yes, it’s impossible to turn lead into gold, but the payoff will really be worth the effort.”

Objectivity, properly understood, has nothing to do with stance, opinion, bias, or the avoiding of these. Properly understood, objectivity has everything to do with practicing a discipline of verification as a custodian of facts.

Here’s the Rhetorica canon regarding objectivity:

Disturbing news…
Onward rhetorical soldiers…
Reporting the facts…
Interest and objectivity…
Interest and disinterest…
Tell (something like) the truth…
More on objectivity…
The facts-values dichotomy…
The O-word again…

March 31, 2006

Take that!…

I think we’d all be better off if news organizations took pot-shots (def.: in-depth reporting and cogent criticism) at each other. What would journalism look like if a news organization asserted itself as the best–ethically and professionally–and then proceeded to criticize its competition for not measuring up?

Or how about this: Make covering media a beat–not just the focus of a few columnists.

March 30, 2006

Re-write documents…

The term “re-write document” identifies something that journalists freely use, often without credit or (much) editing, as source material for articles. The term’s connotation is decidedly negative, i.e. journalist’s know one should not rely on re-write documents but it happens a lot anyway.

Typically, a re-write documents is a product of public relations (e.g. press releases). But the internet in general, and blogs in particular, have increased the numbers of these things to such an extent that using them seems irresistible.

One particularly strange use of the re-write document is the blog round-up story, in which an online reporter checks in with the (usual suspect) blogs to check out the buzz on a particular issue. CBS News quoted me recently in this way. While I’m always glad to be quoted, I was less than impressed with the results. Such round-ups should not be written without calling the blogger to do a follow-up interview. Such verification is necessary if for no other reason than to ensure the reporter quotes the blogger in (something like) the proper context.

Josh Marshall (I would call him a journalist) is a bit miffed at having his hard work used without attribution or verification:

My point is to call out the assumption among too many reporters that original reporting on the web amounts to free pickings, a separate class of journalism they can snag and call their own. That’s gotta stop.

This problem occurs partly because the commercial enterprise of journalism and the arrogance of institutional affiliation encourage the idea among pay-check journalists that they alone practice the craft. One amusing thing about this: Journalism ain’t rocket science. Anyone with a modicum of smarts and the will to learn can gain the skills necessary to do a good job. All they have to do is read (besides the local paper, here’s a good starting point).

March 28, 2006

Back from the north…

It’s spring in Springfield, so in that sense I’m glad to be back from my visit with Doug McGill, in Rochester, Minnesota. We had a great time jawboning about the state of journalism and putting together our proposal for a colloquium on the topic “Who is a journalist?” I think we have a strong proposal. Now the waiting game begins.

Boiled way down, here’s what we decided: Commercial news organizations do not get to decide who counts as a journalist; audiences get to decide who counts. So would-be journalists must create legitimacy among the publics they would serve. And we suggest three ways that may be done outside of a traditional newsroom: 1) be loyal to the audience first, 2) make the invisible visible (i.e. cover those people and topics the so-called mainstream media ignore), and 3) operate with a discipline of verification and as a custodian of facts. Do these things and you may properly call yourself a journalist.

(Alert Rhetorica readers my be snorting: “But you used to claim that journalism required an editorial process! What gives?” Well, this: I’m apparently changing my mind about that. More anon.)

March 25, 2006

Rhetorica podcast…

I’m in Rochester, Minnesota this weekend working with Doug McGill on a proposal for an academic colloquium sponsored by the Journal of Mass Media Ethics.

Rhetorica Podcast

March 23, 2006

Good news from Iraq…

Do journalists ignore the good news in Iraq? That’s an excellent question.

In any city the size of Baghdad, if stuff is blowing up almost daily, if people are being killed and kidnapped almost daily, if troops are dodging insurgent bombs almost daily, then guess what’s going to dominate the news?

It simply isn’t true that no “good news” stories make it into the American press. But it certainly is true that more bad news gets covered. That’s not surprising. It’s not surprising if you’re still operating under the assumption that the news media has a liberal bias. And it’s not surprising if you understand what it is that actually drives journalism. And here’s another reason it’s not hard to understand:

Rumsfeld and Bush must know that “it’s incredibly dangerous and that the media has a very difficult job,” said Jerry Burke, executive producer of daytime programming at Fox News Channel. “We have to cover some aspect of the story so we cover what we can cover without getting our anchors and our reporters blown up.”

Hmmmmmm…if you risk getting blown up if you venture out to cover a story, then what exactly is the story? My introductory journalism students can answer that one for you correctly–including the conservatives among them.

March 23, 2006

Question begging…

Today’s Presidential fallacy: question begging. This fallacy is a circular form of argument that assumes as true the question in dispute. From President Bush’s remarks yesterday in West Virginia: “If I didn’t think we’d succeed, I’d pull our troops out.”

He’s not pulling the troops out so: 1) Bush thinks we’re succeeding, and 2) We must indeed be succeeding if he thinks so because he’s not pulling the troops out.

Dizzy yet?

Now, we may certainly be succeeding. A fallacy does not suggest that the propositional content of the speech-act is false, i.e. not conforming to a reasonable understanding of the facts. Instead, a fallacy is an “error” in reasoning.

Fallacies are errors, by the way, only if you don’t get away with them. In other words, a fallacy is a rhetorical weapon. Like any weapon, it may be wielded well or poorly. And it has counter-weapons. Fallacies are particularly dangerous weapons to use if your interlocutor can point them out, thus using interpretation (and humor) as the counter.

I haven’t made up my mind if I think politicians use fallacies because they don’t know any better (i.e. speech writers don’t know and better) or if they think the people don’t know any better. One way to find out: Journalists should start pointing them out; they are reportable facts.

(Yes, I’m picking on the President right now. He’s an easy target. But I really do believe in this idea of fallacies, and other rhetorical features of political texts, as reportable facts. So I promise to be a lot more even-handed as we approach the mid-term elections.)

March 22, 2006


What to make of this:

“They ought to take their message to the people and say, ‘Vote for me, I promise we’re not going to have a terrorist surveillance program,'” he said. Bush also taunted those Democrats who opposed the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act, the law that provides the government with broad surveillance powers: “If that’s what the party believes, they ought to go around the country saying we shouldn’t give the people on the front line of protecting us the tools necessary to do so.” No Democrat has made such a statement.

This is called “either-or” thinking, and it is a terribly simplistic fallacy popular with politicians. (Last week, an AP reporter pointed out Bush’s employment of the strawman fallacy–a fallacy, BTW, that journalists use and shouldn’t.)

Notice Jim VandeHei’s terse statement of fact: “No Democrat has made such a statement.” But he’s missing another reportable fact: Bush used a simplistic “either-or” fallacy. Why not point it out?

Reasons for doing so:

  1. It’s a fact (i.e. what it is and that he used it).
  2. It’s a political tactic employed specifically.
  3. It’s a tactic that harms civic discourse.

One reason such facts are not reported is that journalists think reporting them would constitute bias. And that is utter nonsense. Facts are the things reporters are supposed to root out and deliver to the public for civic use.

Pointing out an employed “either-or” fallacy is not the same as stating an opinion. It’s right there in the words–in the text and on the tape.

What do you suppose might happen to political speeches–especially during election cycles–if journalists reported the plain facts of political discourse?

March 21, 2006

Rhetorica podcast…

Plotting. Scheming. Drinking. Just another Springfield Bloggers meeting:

Rhetorica Podcast

March 21, 2006

Just a stepping stone…

This made me laugh: “So The New York Times is now a training ground for Google and Yahoo.”

Doug McGill considers the future of journalism in which those two names appear prominently. I laughed because McGill so matter-of-factly describes the results of a revolution that began the day a new technology as born. We can’t take it back. But what we can do is learn to use it properly. One thing that has to mean: For journalism to continue to fulfill its ethical purpose of giving citizens the information they need to make civic life work (see page 12), we must discover how to transfer the concept of “newspaper journalism” to the internet.

For what that means, I suggest reading Davis Merritt’s book Knightfall. Rhetorica readers may recall that I was pretty hard on this book in my review. I was hard on the style and structure of it, but this quote from Merritt outlines something far more important than my criticisms:

Given the inexorability and pace of technology, we may not need newspapers in our media mix at some point in the future–perhaps sooner than later. But we will need newspaper journalism, because democracy can thrive without newspapers, but it cannot thrive without the sort of journalism that newspapers uniquely provide.

Buy it. Read it. Then take what you learn into cyberspace.

So the question McGill asks: Will Sergei Brin, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, Terry Semel, Daniel Rosensweig, Jerry Yang, and David Filo step up and be the next generation that nurtures and encourages newspaper journalism, which by definition must operate for the public good? Will they avoid doing the things the corporate owners have done to harm the ethical purpose of journalism?

On a personal/professional note: I’ll be traveling to Minnesota later this week to meet with McGill. We’re putting together a presentation proposal for colloquium on the topic “Who is a Journalist?” I’m thinking we may need to podcast some of this.

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