May 31, 2007

What a Quote Means, Part 3

In part two of this series, I began listing what quotes in journalism mean in terms of journalistic intention. The first three cover epistemological and ethical issues in professional practice: 1) The journalist intends discover from the source some aspect of the news event and to transcribe that aspect from the language of the source to the printed page; 2) The journalist intends to transcribe aspects of events that correspond to a culturally-accepted range of understanding the world; and 3) The journalist intends to discover and deliver information thought to conform with the public’s civic and political needs.

I’ll continue to build this list now using the theory of structural bias.

I assert that the press applies a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events (narrative bias). But this is not really saying much because all humans do this to some extent in communicating. A good non-journalistic example of such story creating for the purpose of “understanding” ambiguous events is mythology. The importance of this statement is not to be found in its obviousness but in the way journalists embrace the telling of stories without understanding that they create the stories, i.e. the stories are not there in the world to be found; the narrative structure is there in the journalist’s head waiting to be applied. Events are always ambiguous until we apply a narrative structure. Ambiguity here does not mean we don’t know what happened (or even why in some cases). It means that what an event means is ambiguous until structured narratively by assigning roles as antagonists and protagonists and identifying the central conflict within a context.

(So what does this really mean? It means that journalists make choices about how to fit events into the narrative structure. If choice, then alternatives.)

Cultural differences in narrative structure do exist. To way over-simplify it for the sake of illustration, examples would be: Some cultures tend to see stories progressing in linear fashion with clear A-to-B causal connections; some cultures tend to see stories unfolding in less linear fashion or spiraling around a central theme. Journalism in the U.S. follows a linear narrative path. A causes B.

Moving such a narrative along requires action. One way to add action to a story is to use dialog. This is especially important today for reasons I discussed earlier about journalistic epistemology: journalists believe the source has original knowledge or experience that makes him/her the primary knower in regard to a news event. In other words, the source knows what the event means and the conflict between sources becomes a large part of the story.

(Now might be a good time to review my blog essay about the coverage of pre-primary presidential campaigns where I argue that journalism needs to tell a different story–an alternative. You’ll find an academic essay on the same topic here. Journalism should tell the story of citizens’ experiences with governance more than the story of politicians’ struggles to be elected. This would help journalists do a better job of fulfilling intention #3.) 

4. The journalist intends to tell a story using the words of sources to drive the action, identify the players, and define the conflict.

To come in this series: A consideration of more structural biases in regard to journalistic intention. I’ve decided to save my formula for rhetorical intention for last.

Part 1
Part 2

May 29, 2007

What a Quote Means, Part 2

“A quote means whatever the journalist intended by its use.”

I left that line hanging at the end of part 1 because I enjoy the mixture of complexity and interpretive ambiguity in the concept of intention. What does a journalist intend?

There are several ways to answer it. Let’s start by reviewing what I have written about the standard epistemology of journalism. To paraphrase my description this epistemology: Reality is located in the material world and human actions within that world. What can be known are empirically verifiable phenomena. We are connected to the world by our senses and certain faculties of the mind, which are capable of perceiving the world through the senses and then thinking about, and acting upon, these impressions. Journalism’s challenge is to perceive the world correctly and then represent perceptions correctly through language. Journalists arrive at truth through induction by collecting data from the senses and reasoning from these data to generalizations about the world. Truth comes before language. Language is a sign system for transcribing truth as it is witnessed or experienced by the reporter and/or the source. Reporters observe events and/or speak to those who have. Because humans disagree about the meaning of events (opinion), reporters collect data from “both sides” and present these data without comment, allowing readers to apply their own reasoning to discover the incorrect opinion versus the correct representation of events.

[Editor’s Note: Now’s a good time to remind you that this discussion, like so many on Rhetorica, is focused on reporters and the news they produce–not editorials or columns.] 

The source plays a very important rhetorical and ethical role in this way of knowing. The journalist claims to be an objective observer expert in the given subject by virtue of his status as observer. But journalists privilege a even greater knower: the source.

The relationship between the reporter as knower and the source as knower creates much of what we understand as journalism. The reporter shifts between the roles of knower and conduit of the known.

Reporters are rarely on the scene when events transpire that are subsequently defined as news. Much of the reporter’s knowledge comes second hand through the source–the one who has observed, or played a role, first hand.

Let’s begin to number the answers to the question “What does a journalist intend?”

1. The journalist intends discover from the source some aspect of the news event and to transcribe that aspect from the language of the source to the printed page.

But journalists recognize that sources disagree about what events mean. Standard journalistic practice dictates they must present “both sides.” [re: fairness bias]

2. The journalist intends to transcribe aspects of events that correspond to a culturally-accepted range of understanding the world.

Journalists operate within a mythology that understands there to be a long tradition of serving the public by giving it the information it needs to make democratic life work. This mythology is codified in nearly all professional codes of ethics and in many of journalism’s finest expressions of best practices.

3. Journalists intend to discover and deliver information thought to conform with the public’s civic and political needs.

In part 3, I’ll discuss my formula of rhetorical intention and further innumerate journalistic intentions specifically in regard to the use of quotes.

May 28, 2007

"Thanks" Doesn’t Cover It

On this Memorial Day: I support the troops, not the war in Iraq. The troops do not equal the war. If they did equal the war, then blunders and failure would be their fault. And we know that’s not true. As we learned, or should have, in Vietnam, politicians can make disastrous choices. Soldiers do their duty despite political bungling. 

I believe in the pride, loyalty, initiative, and skill of the American soldier. I believe in his/her call to duty and admire his/her courage in battle. And given a proper task (one with a military solution) with proper support (political, social, economic), I know the American soldier can succeed at any task. Some will pay the ultimate price. And I admire the willingness of the American soldier to pay that price to defend the Constitution of the United States of America.

May 25, 2007

What a Quote Means

Suppose you pick up the morning paper and happen to read an article about a topic of local interest. Let’s further suppose that you read far enough to reach a quote by a source. You’ll know it’s a quote because it will most likely be structured this way: “Making corn liquor ought to be a man’s right,” said Dentin Fenders.

The basic structure includes the words spoken by the source, a “neutral” attributive verb (said, says, asked, asks), and the source’s name (or situational identifier if anonymous, e.g. a highly-placed White House official).

I spend a lot of time drilling students in my Introduction to Journalism class on the common structures of journalistic discourse. This simple attributive structure is part of the rhetoric of journalism and plays an important role in the canons of invention and style. One of the most important means of persuasion in journalism is the source (also see my thoughts on the role of sources in journalistic epistemology). The source is understood to know something of value or civic utility to the public. To find and quote the right sources, and to quote them in the proper rhetoric of journalism, then, is to make a particular type of argument.

[Editor’s Note: Journalists usually do not think of themselves as making arguments. But, to remind Rhetorica readers, from my theoretical perspective, all human communication has rhetorical intention, i.e. we want our auditors to do something in regard to our communication.]

Perhaps the most important value driving this rhetorical maneuver is “accuracy.” Accuracy plus a knowledgeable source equals journalistic legitimacy. And journalistic legitimacy is necessary to any understanding of the primary purpose of journalism: to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

But there’s a big flaw in this system: Journalists have a difficult time quoting sources accurately. For the latest on this, read what Mark Liberman has so say on Language Log (more discussion here).

What does accuracy in regard to a quote really mean?

Quote marks are intended to indicate that everything between them came out of the sources mouth in exactly the way rendered on the printed page.

Part of the reason for the problem is right there in my assertion: “rendered on the printed page.” You see, writing is a graphic representation of language. It is not itself language. Language includes many features the standard notations of writing cannot reproduce except as commentary, e.g. “Making corn liquor ought to be a man’s right,” snorted Dentin Fenders. Ooooops. See what happens? That attributive verb is no longer “neutral.” And you can imagine a bunch of other verbs that could be used there that require the reporter to make a qualitative judgement about Fender’s statement.

Another problem with rendering language in print is that humans speak, for the most part, in phrasal bursts and not complete sentences. The idea of the complete sentence (signaled with punctuation marks) is a convention of print.

The point is simply this: Any quote is a representation and not the original thing itself.

Setting aside error in transcription for another day, let’s quickly examine the professional standards for rendering quotes. News organizations are surely free to decide standards. The Associated Press Stylebook, however, is as close to a universal standard as you can get in journalism. The AP rule is don’t change quotes, which assumes you got them right in the first place, because what’s between the marks should be “exactly” what the source said. The problem is obvious: What was “said” is language (including tone and gesture and a lot of other stuff). So right from the start the AP standard is suspect.

I disagree with AP in regard to changing a speaker’s “grammar.” Let’s suppose this is a “more accurate” representation of what Fenders said (assuming no noise in the system): “Makin’ corn liquor oughter be a men’s right.” How would this be more accurate? It requires the reporter to render not only basic language in print but also dialect and accent. Are we to trust reporters to get the sound right as well as the substance? I don’t think so. Far too many graduate college without ever taking a course in rhetoric or linguistics. Further, we live in a society that tends to look down on people who do not speak standard English (whatever that is) or make minor errors in writing (e.g. dismiss something because a word was misssspellled).

Assuming a good faith effort on the journalist’s part (a good assumption, I believe, despite so much grousing about bias) and proper adherence to professional norms, what does a quote mean?

It means whatever the journalist intended by its use.

May 21, 2007

Too Much to Ask

I’ll be teaching JRN270 Introduction to Journalism this fall. I enjoy this class because I see it as an opportunity to help students get their heads screwed on straight before they begin their program in journalism. Part of that means offering them the chance to study the history of journalism in the United States. I think it’s impossible to understand what’s happening in journalism today, and why it’s happening, without understanding where journalism has been.

I’m happy to report that most of my students, the ones paying attention anyway, would not make this mistake:

The humble interview, the linchpin of journalism for centuries, is under assault.

This could just be Howard Kurtz letting the writer get the better of the reporter for dramatic reasons. But I suspect the truth is he knows little about the history of journalism and much about its popular and erroneous mythology.

Fact: The interview is a fairly new technique. Interviewing was largely unknown before the Civil War. What little interviewing there was by the 1800s was mostly of the Q and A type. We have to get past the rapid “professionalization” of journalism and the move toward “objectivity” in the late 1880s before interviewing becomes a legitimate, yet limited, tool of journalism. We have to get into the late 1910s before interviewing becomes anything like what we understand it to be today.

Hardly “centuries.”

Why is this a problem? Because a lot of the hand-wringing over technological and social change in journalism can be understood and dealt with rationally and effectively if one knows that we are living through just one of a string revolutionary moments in the history of journalism.

One of the important aspects of this moment is that citizens and sources are discovering and wielding power through technology. Here’s an interesting example from PressThink: the movement (not suggesting a trend yet) toward granting only e-mail interviews to reporters.

May 21, 2007

Publius No More?

At the last Springfield Bloggers meeting, Tony Messenger, editorial page editor of the Springfield News-leader, mentioned that he’d be writing an editorial about anonymous blogging. The News-Leader recently changed its editorial page format. It’s now a section and includes more citizens’ voices, including quotes from local and state bloggers who put their names on their work. His editorial appears today:

The fact is that the best blogs in Springfield and Missouri have names attached to them. We’ve made a conscientious decision to pull mostly from those blogs when we republish their content on our pages. The blogging form is valuable because of its raw emotion and its immediacy. It’s history and perspective offered in real time, and that’s why we’re a fan of the medium.

Messenger makes the claim, for the most part true I think, that anonymity leads all too often to snarky discourse that does little good in helping us solve our civic and political problems. Related to this is the idea of bloggers adopting a code of ethics. I wrote about this most recently in April. My claim:

Ethics codes, personal or otherwise, it seems to me, help promote civility. And civility helps promote understanding (if not persuasion). For this to work, however, “understanding” has to be valued more than “winning.”

I also said that I did not think that bloggers should have codes of ethics because the blogging form is so big and individual voices so varied that no code could possibly cover it all. I think the same goes for writing a blog under your real name. For some bloggers it’s appropriate, and for others it’s not.

Here’s the “but.” I think in most cases, however, signing your name and adopting a code are steps toward legitimacy and civility. And these are among the things the News-Leader is looking for in deciding which bloggers to publish.

Does this mean we bury Publius? Recall that Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison used the name of this Roman consul as a collective pseudonym to publish the Federalist Papers. I could get all golden-age on you and claim theirs was a more literate and enlightened epoch, but that’s a lot of nonsense in a number of ways. We remember the great expressions of our founding period but forget that the public square was also full of cranks every bit as ill-informed and loquacious as today’s cranks.

Bloggers will continue, and should continue, to decide for themselves about ethical standards and anonymity. But to be taken seriously, I think, demands stating your standards and stating your name.

May 18, 2007

Don’t Get Too Excited

Brian Montopoli interviewed CBS News Senior Political Correspondent Jeff Greenfield for Public Eye. Here’s the part I found interesting:

Brian Montopoli: What mistakes would you counsel a journalist covering the 2008 campaign to avoid? 

Jeff Greenfield: One above all: Stop rushing. It’s the spring of 2007. Stop taking these polls seriously. Stop assuming that because there’s a particular political terrain developing now it’s going to be this way by the time people actually get to vote. I do think that, by and large, political journalists are like kids in the back seat of a car pulling out of the driveway on a family vacation screaming, “Are we there yet?” We’re not there yet. Let this thing happen. Let voters actually meet these candidates. Let’s see where the country is six months from now, or eight months from now, when somebody actually goes to the polls…

Let’s just have a sense of perspective about this, and not go, “Oh my god, Obama’s up! No, no, no, Hillary’s up! No, wait, Edwards is leading in Iowa! Edwards is losing to McCain in Michigan!” It’s insane. It’s largely irrelevant to what’s going to happen because what’s going to happen is dependant on stuff we can’t know.

We can’t see–I can’t see the future. If I knew what was going to happen in six months, I’d have the Mega Millions ticket in my pocket, and we would not be here, because I’d be somewhere on my private island, having a grape peeled for me. It doesn’t work that way.

This is generally good advice–especially regarding polls, which should be reported with far more skepticism (and far more detail regarding methods, margins, and confidence) than is now the standard (even for our best news organizations).

But we can predict the future, or, rather, we can look to academic models that predict with a high degree of accuracy how systems will work. If journalists were to read this about the ethics of pre-primary campaign coverage, for example, they might begin to learn something about how the system actually works and what their role in it actually is.

Greenfield is right about slowing down, but he needs to urge his colleagues to make one more step in the direction of good political coverage–the kind that gives citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

And that step would be: Tell a different story.

Oh, yeah…he mentions political bias. Yadda yadda yadda. Click here instead.

May 15, 2007

Springfield Bloggers Meet Tonight

Come to the Patton Alley Pub tonight at 7:00 for the Springfield Bloggers meeting. This will be Zach Cobb’s last meeting before he moves to Kansas City.

In other news: It’s finals week at MSU. I’ll be sprung by Thursday. I should resume something like a normal blogging schedule by Monday. This morning I sent the proofs for Politics & Language back to the publisher. I have just a few more clean-up items to take care of. Then it’s on to new projects. Details soon.

May 14, 2007

How to Write a Letter to the Editor

An interesting situation in Missouri gives me the opportunity to be pedantic regarding the proper rhetoric for letters to the editor. What you perceive as bias in how an editor chooses letters may in fact be a reflection of your own inability to write a proper letter. Then again, it could be bias. But assuming so does not make it so. You’ll find background on Tony Messenger’s blog here and here. In his latest entry, Messenger publishes a note from a local writer accusing him of publishing a “thin skinned blog attack against claims that newspapers including the Leader have censored voices of conservative Missourians.”

If this person’s response is anything like his/her letters to the editor, it’s no wonder they don’t get published.

There are as many ways to choose letters to the editor as there are editors doing the choosing. Some editors surely handle the job with grace, intelligence, fair-mindedness, and sensitivity. Others surely don’t. So my advice is generic, i.e. it will help you write a good letter that ought to get a favorable reading much of the time.

So, FWIW, I offer you Dr. Cline’s tips for getting your letter published:

1. Be partisan if you want; just don’t be stupid. Not all liberals are baby-killing, Hollywood-loving traitors. Not all conservatives are ignorant, fascist warmongers. Using demonizing stereotypes as the basis of your portrayal of the opposition marks you as stupid. Why? Because not all liberals think alike. Not all conservatives think alike. Letters based on such stereotypes do not encourage civic discourse and do not help discover solutions to our civic and political problems.

2. Opinions belong to the community. The ancient Greeks had the right idea about opinion. No one has a “personal” opinion, i.e. an opinion that belongs to you alone. So realize that when you write a letter to the newspaper, the chances are next to 100 percent that at least one other person has sent a similar letter. Newspapers get bunches of letters every day and can only publish a fraction. “Your” opinion is actually meaningless. Your point, however, may be important.

3. Have a point; make a point. A point is different from an opinion. For example: You may hold the opinion that teachers are underpaid. No one cares. But you might have a good point about how to correct what you believe is a problem, e.g. propose a specific solution. The two biggest mistakes you can make here are 1) not having a point that follows from your opinion, or 2) making more than one point.

[Editor’s note: I am not suggesting that letters must propose specific solutions or that you must so propose to buy the right to criticize. This is just an example.]

4. Practice good kairos. That’s a word from ancient Greek rhetoric that means roughly “timing and proportion.” It’s not a good idea to go off on a rant just because you’re feeling grumpy. A good letter to the editor responds to something or draws attention to something new or urgent. That’s the timing part. The proportion part is about not going off half-cocked. While writing a rant might make you feel better, it’s not going to get a favorable reading from an editor (partly because he/she has to wade through so many rants to find publishable letters).

5. Write tight. Letters to the editor should be short–fewer that 150 words. If your paper has a suggested word count, stick to it. If you don’t know, find out before you write. More is never better.

6. Avoid fallacies. Some fallacies are so obvious that even a newspaper editor can catch them 🙂 Clever writers may use fallacies as tools of persuasion. Such dishonest discourse is merely naked propaganda and unworthy of honest civic discussion. If you want to be that kind of a person, go for it. Just don’t whine when the paper doesn’t print your letters.

7. No Astroturf. That’s nifty word for “fake, grassroots support.” Don’t send canned letters written by political operatives. The internet makes it easy to catch this nonsense. I can’t tell you for sure that editors black-ball certain letter writers. But I’d bet that sending Astroturf is one of those offenses that will lead your local paper to overlook your future contributions.

8. You can change the world, just not right away. Letters to the editor should be thought of as bits of a sustained civic conversation. You are not going to change hearts and minds with a single letter. But you might have a chance with several, well-written letters offered over time. Write for the moment. Write for the one point you’re making today. Don’t write as if you expect to slam-dunk the issue for all time. Ain’t going to happen.

9. Don’t be a whiner. If you’re not getting published, make an appointment to speak to someone at the paper about it. You may be surprised to learn that it has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with mistakes you’re making.

10. Be a local character. This one is not good advice. But there are plenty of examples of blithering idiots who are regularly published in the paper precisely because they are blithering idiots. A few years back I asked the News-Leader editorial page editor (not Messenger) why he’d published a particularly odious letter (one of many he’d published) from a well-known local white supremacist. His answer: “Sometimes you have to shine a light on the cockroaches.”

To conclude: You do not have a First Amendment right to be published in your local newspaper. You do, however, have the right to publish your own newspaper, or a blog, or you can stand on a soapbox and speechify to your heart’s content.

May 8, 2007

It’s Bias Plain and Simple

You may recall that reporters at the The New York Times have said they may no longer attend the White House Correspondents Association dinner. To that I say: Great! But that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I’ll quote at length from an interesting moment in Jay Rosen’s examination of this situation:

Rutenberg’s article made me wish I had followed, in this instance, blogger Dave Winer’s policy. When asked for a phone or e-mail interview, he usually declines. “If you have a few questions, send them along, and if I have something to say, I’ll write a blog post, which of course you’re free to quote,” he said last week. Responding to Winer, and to this event with Jason Calacanis and Wired magazine, Jeff Jarvis wrote: “The interview is outmoded and needs to be rethought.”

I know I’m rethinking it. Rutenberg and I had a pretty detailed conversation about the put down of the establishment press under Bush, certain failures of imagination in Washington journalism, the interpretation of Colbert’s performance in 2006, and the “musty” feel that the invitation to Rich Little had. I pointed out, for example, that Little was at his peak at roughly the same cultural moment that the Washington press corps was at its peak in the afterglow of Watergate.

But what Jim needed me for was the bloggers vs. journalists debate. “In hiring an impersonator practiced in an old-school approach to comedy, meant to entertain but not offend, the White House Correspondents’ Association has, however, provoked left-leaning political activists, who see his assignment as a retreat from last year’s dinner.” (Subtext: Wow, the left is as angry with the press as the right was. Just listen to the so-called Net roots attack us for not carrying their message.)

Notice that it is “activists” who are upset with the White House press, and it is their conflict with civil, professional and reasonable journalists that creates friction enough for a story. I wanted nothing to do with that narrative. I told Rutenberg that I did not see the press as “in the pocket of Bush” (as many on the left do) but as overwhelmed by the phenomena of Bush-as-president, and by the radicalism of his Administration, especially the expansion of executive power. This included in one aspect the rollback of the press and its de-certification as questioner of the president.

But Rutenberg recruited me into his narrative anyway. Colbert wasn’t the first comic to insult the president, he wrote. “Imus angered the Clinton White House in 1996 when he made fun of Mr. Clinton as a philanderer at a Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association Dinner.”

I haven’t spent much time examining interviewing on Rhetorica, although it is as much a rhetorical performance as writing the news. Rosen’s example here demonstrates why. Recall that I have claimed that the press applies a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events. This application of narrative structure actually occurs long before the writing begins. It happens in many cases before the reporting begins. It happens all too often in the minds of editors who believe they know what the “story” is before reporters begin doing their jobs.

I shouldn’t have to point out that this is a problem and why it is a problem. But I will in brief: This is an example of bias (not necessarily of the simplistic liberal or conservative kind, although it can be).

Those of us with with advanced academic degrees often become the focus of reporters seeking specific quotes–quite often at the urging of editors–, i.e. they need expert X to make claim Y. Claim Y may or may not be valid, but that is beside the point because it, apparently, “balances” the story (or, in less professional moments, it says something a journalist wants said–beat and general assignment journalists should not, however, want anything in particular said–ever–unless writing clearly labeled analysis or commentary). The reporter needs it because the editor needs it. And the poor citizen is left all too often to sort it out for themselves. Again, journalists should be custodians of fact operating with a discipline of verification.

(We teach this stuff. I swear we do.) 

Journalism cannot cover in a single article all the complexity of a news situation. Good journalism must unfold over time. And, at times, any given portion of that coverage may lack something important or may emphasize something that doesn’t deserve it. We just have to live with this because journalism is not in a position (never was) to report and write the by-god final say on anything on the first go-round.

So it would work much better if journalists would take a deep breath and then approach any given news situation as if they are learning rather than teaching, as if they are involved in a conversation rather than a lecture.

UPDATE (2:50 p.m. CDT): Check out the latest from Rosen.

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