July 26, 2007

How to Report on Politics

Earlier this summer I attended the McCormick Tribune Specialized Reporting Institute on political reporting and made a point of promoting the tell-a-different-story brand of reporting that I have been discussing on Rhetorica for years now. The basic idea is this: journalists and their news organizations ought to spend less time and space on so-called “horse-race” and “inside baseball” coverage (the story of political struggle) and more time and space on telling the stories of people affected by politics and governance.

The reason: Much political reporting today is politically useless, i.e. it doesn’t help citizens make political decisions; it merely keeps them informed about events that have low political utility. If the primary purpose of journalism is to give people the information they need to be free and self-governing, then journalists ought to provide information with high political utility.

The idea is really very simple, but many journalists I’ve spoken to about it ask the same question: How do I do this?

That question is more complex than it seems at first because all journalistic practice comes wrapped in the package of institutional journalism–the commercial organizations that own and run professional journalism as a business. Institutional journalism often operates with very different priorities than do the individuals that work within it.

I’ve been thinking about how to handle this question of “how.” And it seems the best way is to extend the answer over time by examining actual coverage. So, along with my semester-long examination of my Introduction to Journalism class, I’ll regularly discuss telling a different story as the pre-primary campaign enters the fall.

That will mean Rhetorica will sound like a 2-trick pony for a few months. But I think the results will be interesting and useful. 

July 13, 2007

How to Write a Good Lead (or Lede)

Consider this lede:

Except for a tragic accident, the 35th annual Bath Heritage Days parade went off without a hitch.

Setting aside for the moment that the story fails to mention anything about a tragic accident, doesn’t this make you want to read the story? As Wife Rhetorica said this morning: “You could write stories as long as you want with ledes like that!”

We teach students to craft ledes that make readers want to read the story. But what does that really mean? And what are the consequences? All the journalism textbooks mention this as an important aspect of the lede. This idea needs a lot more study (and rhetorical analysis). I’m teaching JRN270 Introduction to Journalism this fall. This goofy lede has given me an idea: I will attempt a semester-long, play-by-play analysis of what I’m teaching in JRN270, including critical examination of the concepts and practices enshrined in the textbook.

Rhetorica readers will get to follow along. I’ll put the class materials online–including the syllabus and assignments (I’ve always done this).

How do you write a good lede? Perhaps we’ll find out.

July 12, 2007

Talking Points from the Institute, Part 6

From the McCormick Tribune Specialized Reporting Institute Talking Points

Last in the series:

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.

11. Are we meeting voters where their values are? How am I identifying the driving concerns of the audience? How am I determining whether or not a campaign is in tune with the electorate’s values?

Of the dozen talking points, this one is perhaps the most interesting from a social science perspective. There’s still wide disagreement about why people vote as they do, or why they bother to vote at all, to be able to come to some consistent (and theoretically stable) understanding of these questions. I am not a strong media theorist. But you may have detected such in  my grumpy little snit yesterday in which I challenged The New York Times to lead rather than following regarding coverage of Paris Hilton. I asked: “Has it occurred to anyone in American journalism that people pay attention to what they are taught and encouraged to pay attention to?” I did not mean to suggest that journalism is the only thing teaching/encouraging people to pay attention to nitwits such as Paris Hilton. Think about it this way: When journalism does such a thing it has an effect because journalism is supposed to be serious. So I would make a first stab at answering this talking point this way: What do you suppose your readers/viewers need to know in order to make an informed decision (setting aside for a moment the possibility that they never do such a thing)? So now all the journalist has to do is decide what kind of information that is. You’ll find my suggestion here.

12. Am I using polls well? Are we using poll information to understand the public or merely to answer the questions we’ve formulated?

As I wrote during the discussion of polling at the institute, “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.”


The reasons should be obvious. If they are not, then get down to your local community college and enroll in a basic statistics course. Now!

July 11, 2007


OK, so there’s this MEme thing going around the Springfield, Mo. blogosphere. The deal is someone tags you and then expects you to write eight things about yourself that you haven’t previously told readers. Granny Geek tagged me.

I need to protest just a little. Item #9 of my blogging policy clearly says I will: “Avoid posting off-topic entries unless I explain why I feel the need to go off topic.” But, seeing as how I’m the boss and I do go off topic from time to time, I’ll play along.

1. As some of you are already know, I’m learning to play the electric guitar. I recently participated in setting a world record for the most number of guitarists playing Smoke on the Water at the same time. But do you know the first song I learned to play? Anarchy in the U.K.

2. Favorite poet: Walt Whitman

3. I grew up in Wilmington, De. and attended Brandywine High School where I was a less-than-stellar student.

4. I like cats.

5. One of my favorite things to do is sit out on the front patio and have happy hour with my wife.

6. I’m a morning person. Best time to begin a day of writing: 6 a.m.

7. Favorite TV show at the moment: Lost. Although I’m getting into Big Love now, too. I watch these and others on DVD. This is the only way I watch a series now.

8. I’m an avid tennis player. NTRP rating: 3.5.

Sooooooooo, now that I’ve done this I get to tag someone 🙂 Hmmmmmmm. I know Tony Messenger has been tagged by someone else and has yet to respond. So I’ll pile on. Com’on Tony!  

July 11, 2007

What Interests Readers/Viewers?

Sam Sifton, the culture editor of The New York Times, says the Times cannot ignore news of Paris Hilton because many Americans are apparently interested in her. And I must ask: Has the Time’s motto changed to “All the news that fits the desires of the easily amused”?

Of course you can ignore Paris Hilton. You’re The New York Freaking Times fercrissakes! Lead. Don’t follow.

Has it occurred to anyone in American journalism that people pay attention to what they are taught and encouraged to pay attention to?

(Perhaps I should baby-step through why this is an important question. If no one asks it: that’s bad. If someone does ask it and continues to feed readers/viewers a steady diet of celebrity crap, then that’s unethical–if one accepts that the primary purpose of journalism is to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. If one does not accept this primary purpose as primary, then one is not really a journalist.)

Further, while it is certainly true that some people do want news of Paris Hilton and her sorry ilk, perhaps many more people do not–perhaps all those who drop their subscriptions or turn off their televisions. Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out?

The one thing left to try is still: Take your readers/viewers seriously.

July 5, 2007

Talking Points from the Institute, Part 5

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.

9. Am I mining data for stories? How routinely do I explore publicly-available databases for story ideas?

Here’s’ a terribly embarrassing statistic: More than 70 percent of the news published and broadcast in the U.S. follows a public relations effort of some kind by interested persons or organizations (read this book). Searching the databases for stories is certainly a fine thing to do if you have the time and the ability to recognize the news in the numbers. But, really, before we even get there, reporters must get back onto the streets of their own communities. That’s where they will find the different stories to tell that I’ve been talking about.

Here’s a “but”: The internet does, in a very real way, create another street. (More on this later.)

10. Are we responsible for the quality of the public discourse? How am I using contextual reporting, analysis and interactivity with the audience to elevate the public’s discussion of issues?

I could simply link you to Bob Somerby to answer this one 🙂

Rhetorica is all about answering this question in regard to the press and its relationship to politics.

I’m going to ignore the role of the individual reporter for now to make a much easier, yet important, point: Journalism–especially its opinion function–certainly plays a central role in the quality of civic discourse. You can’t continue to broadcast and publish the worst partisan windbags–with very little editing and fact-checking in most cases–and then claim you have no responsibility for the resulting discourse. You can’t continue to broadcast group shoutfests and claim no responsibility.

There’s a humongous difference between properly covering a wide range of opinion and giving space and time to those who poison our discourse as a form of entertainment.

July 4, 2007

What Do We Celebrate?

I finished reading the Springfield News-Leader a few minutes ago and decided to write something about Independence Day. I looked back over the Rhetorica archives to see what I’d written in the past and found very little. One reason for that: It is my favorite holiday, so I spend more time celebrating and enjoying Independence Day than writing about it. But this morning I must write, if briefly, because of the tone of what I’m reading in today’s paper. Here’ an example.

Independence Day is not a military holiday; it is not about celebrating the defense of our freedoms. Ms. Overstreet’s beautiful column would be more appropriate for Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day.

We do not celebrate the fight for independence or freedom on Independence Day. We celebrate the declaring ourselves independent on Independence Day. If it were a military holiday, we’d celebrate on, say, October 19.

But wasn’t it on the battlefield where independence was truly won? Well, no. The real fight is elsewhere. The central idea of the Declaration of Independence was, and remains, radical in the scope of human history:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

We have military holidays. And I make a regular point of noting them on Rhetorica. Today, I felt the need to take this one away from those who would make it about fighting for freedom (or would use it to whip us with a narrow view of patriotism). Today is about our Founding Fathers signing their names to a radical and dangerous idea.

Have a safe and happy Fourth of July!