June 30, 2007

Talking Points from the Institute, Part 4

From the McCormick Tribune Specialized Reporting Institute Talking Points

The Poynter Institute faculty at the McCormick Tribune Specialized Reporting Institute generated a list of talking points to help reporters create coverage plans for the presidential nominating process. There are 12 points, and I’ll cover two per entry.

7. Do I challenge the master narrative? Am I conscious of the overall storylines that are developing around particular candidates or issues? Do I seek stories that “zig when everyone else zags?” Do I seek sources with different perspectives?

Storylines do not develop on their own. No stories actually exist independently of human thought. A story–a narrative–is a cognitive maneuver humans use to help make the events of the world make sense. Everyone does it. I claim journalism has a narrative bias. But the truth is that humans have a narrative bias.

What’s important about this is merely that journalists should understand that they are not discovering stories. Journalists create stories. These things we call master narratives in journalism are 100 percent the creation of the journalists (even when politicians try to spin stories for journalists). If humans can conceive of a thing one way, then they can conceive of it another way. In other words, choice. The problem is, however, that master narratives–mythology–are powerful things. The purpose of narrative is to make sense of the world. So once journalists accept a narrative (they have created) as real–as descriptive of the world–it becomes common sense.

8. How can I avoid being manipulated? Am I absolutely clear with campaign sources about my methods, my intentions and my plans for stories? Can I develop relationships of trust with my sources without getting too close?

What is manipulation? Is it bad or good? Why?

Hidden in this talking point is an interesting assumption about the journalist’s relationship to reality and (something like) the truth. And that assumption is: The source is the source of truth. Which means journalists should look to the last question of talking point #7 for the answer: Do I seek sources with different perspectives? (and different narratives)

June 21, 2007

Talking Points from the Institute, Part 3

From the McCormick Tribune Specialized Reporting Institute Talking Points

The Poynter Institute faculty at the McCormick Tribune Specialized Reporting Institute generated a list of talking points to help reporters create coverage plans for the presidential nominating process. There are 12 points, and I’ll cover two per entry.

5. How transparent am I? Do I tell my audience how I know what I know? Do I tell my readers, listeners and viewers as much as I can about my sources–even the unnamed ones? Do I include in stories my unanswered questions?

If I just bust out and say “Let’s add meta-reporting to the long list of stuff reporters need to do!” you might get the impression I have no idea what it means to be a reporter these days, i.e. the workload. Adding to the workload is not the issue here. Instead, meta-reporting is actually a complete re-thinking of journalistic discourse (see #6 below, too re: lecture versus conversation) and what it is the journalistic knower does.

In lecture mode, the journalistic knower is observer of the scene and privileged partner with the source–the official knower. Citizens are understood not to know by virtue of being separated from sources. A common and ironic circumstance of this arrangement is that journalists all too often require official sources to confirm the firsthand experiences of citizens. Another problem that follows from lecture discourse is the tendency on the part of some journalists to think they know much more than they actually do. Read the political coverage by The New York Times and the Washington Post any day of the week for excellent (sad) examples. You’d think these reporters had advanced degrees in psychology and anthropology from the things they write about candidates.

The discourse conventions of journalism in the late 20th century–the journalism we still teach and the journalism the profession is desperately clinging to now that the noetic field is shifting–convey “how we know” in particular ways (e.g. how references are handled and what attributive verbs are used). The rhetoric of journalism positions the journalist as “objective observer” and the source as expert. The effect is a lecture from those who know to those who do not know.

The most stunning moment at the seminar for me happened when Butch Ward, of the Poynter faculty, made this comment: “Have the courage to tell how you know what you know.”

Journalism already does this! The features of journalistic discourse are designed to do exactly this–by the dictates of the old noetic field. But the field is shifting, and one interesting bit of evidence is that Ward means “courage” in the sense of: Revolt against discourse! Out with the old. In with the new. Dialogue; don’t lecture. The official source may be a spinner and a propagandist–an interested communicator, not a expert. Cut through that agenda. Report that agenda. Be able to write the sentence that explains how you know what you know. And if you can’t write that sentence, don’t report it.

Courage indeed.

6. Is this a lecture or a dialogue? How can I use interactive technology to involve my audience in my journalism? Do I solicit ideas, content, and feedback from readers? How do I determine what my audience needs to know or better understand?

Important: It ain’t about the technology; it’s about the discourse. It’s about what the technology makes possible. The technology is teaching citizens they have the right, duty, and ability to talk back to the media. In other words: You don’t get to lecture anymore because the technology is the bit of grit around which the crystal of a new noetic field is forming.

Using the technology in interactive ways is a perfectly fine thing to do. But the journalistic establishment won’t understand technology, or use it to its full potential, until it understands the lesson of all technological advancements in human communication: the discourse changes.

June 18, 2007

If Not the Horse Race…What?

Check out the latest from Jay Rosen, in which he explores alternatives to horse-race coverage of political campaigns. Lots of interesting ideas here.

Here’s the answer I’ve been pushing for years now: Tell a different story. You’ll find an academic treatment here.

June 15, 2007

Talking Points from the Institute, Part 2

From the McCormick Tribune Specialized Reporting Institute Talking Points

The Poynter Institute faculty at the McCormick Tribune Specialized Reporting Institute generated a list of talking points to help reporters create coverage plans for the presidential nominating process. There are 12 points, and I’ll cover two per entry.

3. Am I a stenographer or a referee? Will I confine my reporting to chronicling what the candidates say, or will I use my expertise to observe and call out candidates when their claims are inaccurate or misleading?

My first thought was: false dichotomy. But that’s not quite right. Journalists act as stenographers everyday–some damned proud of it! But they certainly should not aspire to the role of referee. What “expertise” are we talking about? If we’re talking about expertise in the subject matter, this choice is wrong-headed. But if we’re talking about expertise in operating as a custodian of fact with a discipline of verification, then we have a real choice here. This is not merely a quibble about what to call stuff. Journalists get into trouble when they suffer from the conceit that they are experts in the subject matter. Unfortunately, journalism education and the profession as currently practiced encourage this dangerous form of arrogance.

4. Do I aspire to a higher truth? How can I elevate my stories beyond the incremental? Can I help my audience place an incident or event into a meaningful context? Can my coverage over time help people understand a candidate’s character or make sense of a complicated issue?

I agree with what this talking point is arguing for, but the articulation is troubling. Memo to all journalists: Don’t use the term “higher truth” to describe what you do. If you feel the urge, force yourself to to say or write “context” because that is what you really mean. Context is a good thing. Higher truth is for theologians and philosophers. Higher truth implies something carved in stone tablets and delivered from the mountain top. Journalists should not have to aspire to “context” because it ought to be a normal part of any reporting.

June 8, 2007

Talking Points From the Institute, Part 1

From the McCormick Tribune Specialized Reporting Institute Talking Points

The seminar ended on Wednesday. The Poynter Institute faculty generated a list of talking points to help reporters create coverage plans for the presidential nominating process. There are 12 points, and I’ll cover two per entry.

1. What’s my bias? What are the experiences and beliefs that could affect my reporting? How are my biases influencing the stories I choose to cover? Who in my newsroom can help me check my biases? Do I have a discipline of verification that lets my readers, users, listeners and viewers know the sources of my information?

These are certainly good questions to ask. Every reporter should have clear, cogent answers to these before engaging in any political reporting. In addition to these questions, journalists should consider how the structural biases of journalism affect the coverage of politics. These biases are far more predictive of journalistic behavior, and some of them lead to what appears to be political bias.

2. What are the untold stories? How do I routinely check my coverage for my blind spots? Are there colleagues, editors or members of the public who can help me identify people or issues that need to be included in my coverage?

The status quo bias of journalism is a strong structural frame. Among the problems it causes is a default reliance on official sources–traditional authority. This can lead some to rather odd behavior, e.g. journalists preferring second-hand official accounts of news events to those of non-official participants (or victims).

Talking point #2 is partly a cry for expanding sourcing in order to tell different stories. You’ll find my argument for this here.

One of the answers to point #2 should be: The story of the nominating process is only partly about political struggle among candidates. A bigger part ought to be the story of governance–the story of citizens helped and hurt by the governance of the candidates.

June 8, 2007

So What? Get Serious

Paul McLeary at CJR has this to say about ads on the front pages of America’s newspapers: So what? He elaborates:

It’s true that ads on the front page of a newspaper eat up valuable column inches that could be put to more newsy-y use. But with circulation numbers and ad rates falling, newspapers are going to do what they have to do to survive.

No, they are not doing what they have to do to survive. So many of America’s newspaper are doing exactly the opposite of what they have to do to survive–on purpose and proud of it. They are doing the typical thing they think they have to do to survive, and it is wrong-headed.

People read newspapers for all kinds of reasons and in all kinds of ways. During the first week of my Introduction to Journalism class we spend a lot of time discussing what it means to read a newspaper. Headline scanning. Leads and cutline. Sports first. Comics first. Obits first. News in the morning; features in the afternoon. There are as many ways to read a newspaper as there are people reading it. One thing most of them have in common: The ads play a minor role in this with some exceptions (e.g. Wednesday food ads, Sunday classifieds). In other words, people who read newspapers read them primarily to get news and entertainment–to discover what’s going on in their world(s).

Putting ads on the front page screams: We’re not serious! Treating readers seriously is the primary thing American journalism needs to do now to begin working its way out of its current mess.

June 6, 2007

I Have a Suggestion

From the McCormick Tribune Specialized Reporting Institute

One of the reporters attending the institute was in the room when John McCain (almost) made his “bomb Iran” joke. She chose not to lead with it. She chose not even to mention it. Good for her.

Her experience with this story arose in a discussion of how to cover the same stump speech over and over again. Glassy-eyed journalists bored with the same ol’ same ol’ find their ears perked by verbal slips, ill-considered jokes, and other fodder of the classic gotcha moment.

The solutions discussed: Look for new ways to tell the story. Counter the master narrative. Dig deeper. Yadda yadda yadda. All of this is good advice I suppose, but these are as typical as the problems they propose to solve.

My solution: Tell a different story.

Suppose Senator Numnutz is running for president and visiting your town. Do you cover this stump speech as news? Do you pray for a gotcha moment? Or do you get a copy of the speech, compare his proposals and promises to his performance in office, and then tell the story of those citizens affected by his governance?

UPDATE (2:05 p.m.): Dave Catanese, who is attending the institute, asked me how to make this idea work. The paragraph above is exasperating in a number of ways if you’re a reporter looking for specific advice. So I will give that specific advice in a separate post after I return home.

June 6, 2007

Who Gets It?

From the McCormick Tribune Specialized Reporting Institute

Lauren Vicary, political editor of MSNBC.com, gets it and thanks an online political communications operative for it: It’s the pan, stupid.

That’s the quote you have to get in order to get it. It is the internet.

In other words, the internet is not a slice of the media pie. It is the pan. It contains all of it. Everything you produce can go into it and remain there, searchable, forever.

This is not to say that it is taking over. This isn’t an argument that the new media should drive out the MSM. No one (with a lick of sense) is making that argument. What the “pan” metaphor indicates is the way the internet is a medium of its own. Being the pan is what it does.

June 6, 2007

Coverage of the GOP Debate

From the McCormick Tribune Specialized Reporting Institute

The 16 journalists attending the institute and the faculty from Poynter and Drake University watched the debate last night at the Olmstead Center on campus. This morning, we’re discussing the coverage.

Some of the early complaints involve the amount of coverage allocated to the candidates. Three candidates dominate the coverage–the same three that “lead” in the polls (see this post from yesterday for a clue about why I used the scary quotes). And many here are noting how the coverage characterizes the conflict among the candidates. The big story last night–as in the master narrative of the conflict–was an isolated John McCain fighting for the immigration reform he’s sponsored. For example, the lead from the Washington Post:

Sen. John McCain of Arizona found himself isolated Tuesday night as he staunchly defended controversial immigration legislation against a barrage of criticism from his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, who argued that the bill is deeply flawed and should not be approved by Congress.

(Tom Rosenstiel is now giving us a right proper warning about the evils of the master narrative.)

Journalism necessarily edits reality (in the course of creating it) by structuring it for delivery in so many column inches. It’s exactly this that I don’t like in regard to covering something as complex as a debate: How can a debate among so many candidates possibly to crammed into the typical inverted pyramid structure of journalistic discourse?

I saw no leads last night (McCain’s walk was interesting for him, just over-done). But I heard several (in no particular order): 1) willingness of the candidates to use nukes against Iran, 2) unanimous support for don’t ask/don’t tell, 3) criticism of immigration reform legislation before implementation. All of these are important issues and could be handled in separate articles. But news organizations generally don’t have the resources to write and publish/broadcast three or four stories of a single event such as this.

My suggestion: Try structuring debate coverage by the questions asked and offer a synopsis of the answers given by all candidates. Also: Publish the transcript and link to the video.

June 5, 2007

Polls: What Do They Add Up To?

From the McCormick Tribune Specialized Reporting Institute

No journalism student in America should graduate without a class in statistics (and rhetoric and linguistics for that matter, but that’s a discussion for another day). The first session after lunch discussed covering polls.

Upshot: 1. It is very easy misunderstand what it is a poll actually means; and, therefore 2) It is very easy to mischaracterize the results of a poll.

The questions from the participating journalists demonstrate to me that many of them never took a college-level statistics class, in which basic concepts such as sample size, margins of error, and confidence would have been covered. But just as important as gaining an understanding of those nuts-n-bolts concepts is gaining a proper understanding of how statisticians think about what numbers say and do not say (although 4 out of 5 eggheads do not always agree).

Kathie Obradovich, political editor of the Des Moines Register, said that articles focusing on who’s ahead and who’s behind based on polls does a “disservice” to readers–especially so early in the campaign. Such reporting runs the risk of encouraging some voters to make up their mind before primary voting begins.

Dave Catanese, of KY3 in Springfield, is a participant in the institute and asked an important question because it highlighted a trouble spot: If Candidate X had 34% and Candidate Y has 30% and the margin of error is +/- 5, is it fair to lead a story saying Candidate X is ahead by 4%. Two of the statisticians on the panel disagreed about how to handle this. One argued that journalists should not burden citizens with too many stats, but journalists should state the margin of error and what else the stats could mean. The other statistician, however, argued that journalists should report polls in far more complexity.

I vote for more complexity. But, more radically, I contend that polls should not generally be reported as news pegs. Polls should be reported, for the most part, as part of larger articles about other matters.

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