August 28, 2007

JRN270: Work Really Begins

I always take the entire first week of a new semester to introduce students to the course. I like to make sure that students understand what I expect of them and what they should expect of me. Folded into this process of introduction is some consideration of the themes of the class. For JRN270, that means discussing (really just beginning the discussion about) what journalism is, what news is, and what their roles may be as students, citizens, and (perhaps) journalists.

The first chapter of Telling The Story is typical of such introductions: 1) It offers a vague definition of news using a list of adjectives open to wide interpretation; 2) It privileges a role for journalism that I would call “traditional,” i.e. “a society’s conversation with itself” (which also happens to be ironic); 3) It tends to confuse chickens and eggs (“We should underrate [newspapers’] importance if we thought they just guaranteed liberty; they maintain civilization.”); 3) It assigns “traditional” roles to journalists, e.g. monitor power, uncover injustice, tell stories, sustain communities; 4) It promotes the three virtues of objectivity (this book gets it almost right), accuracy, and fairness.

All of these will soon come under examination as I… what?

Let’s review something I wrote after my first year teaching journalism at MSU:

I know journalism. What I am unwilling to do is teach it uncritically. So my syllabus reflects all of the skills of the craft–all of the religion as handed down from on high. And my students learn these skills. I have some evidence already that I’m doing a pretty good job of it. But I present everything critically in the way of my academic discipline. No student leaves my classroom thinking, for example, that the inverted pyramid structure is just an innocent little writing convention they have to master to get a job. They master it fully by understanding its historical, social, and technological context. They master it fully by understanding that it represents choices that have real consequences for civic communication. They master it fully by understanding that as a convention it is a human construct and can be reconstructed based on a re-examination of (professional, social) values. They master it fully by understanding there is just no way in hell to represent a news situation in an artificial hierarchy of “facts” without pissing someone off.

I’m teaching a (dis)course.

August 23, 2007

New Student Bloggers Coming Soon

Watch for new entries on Bang It Out! (Intro. to Journalism) and The Golden Mean (Media Ethics) from student bloggers–coming soon!

Both classes will post short bios by Tuesday of next week. Then the real deal begins.

August 22, 2007

Building News Upon a Shaky Foundation

In W. Lance Bennett’s excellent book, News: The Politics of Illusion, we learn that more than 70 percent of the news you read in a newspaper or see on TV originates in a public relations effort of some kind. That in itself should embarrass the living hell out of every journalist in America, but it does not. Such PR efforts include those by universities and other organizations doing scientific research, and these efforts are partly responsible for the under-nuanced and often mistaken reporting on scientific “discoveries.”

Language Log has more:

The people who write the PR materials have a hard job. They need to take complicated results, full of background assumptions and layers of caveats, and present them in a form that non-specialist journalists will understand, and will find interesting enough to choose from out of the flood of competing alternatives.

The PR people are not specialists themselves, and in many cases may not have a lot of scientific or mathematical background.

There’s a whole bunch o’ noise in that system, i.e. 1) non-specialist PR person boils down complicated research to fit the discourse demands of a press release, 2) journalists cover the “discovery” and, operating under journalism’s structural biases, attempt to make a “story” of it–make it dramatic–complete with antagonists, protagonists, plot, climax, and denouement.


August 21, 2007

JRN270: First Day Introduction

I announced in mid July that I would do a semester-long blogging project to consider what goes on in my JRN270 Introduction to Journalism class, including critical examination of the concepts and practices enshrined in the textbooks. Class begins today at 5:00 p.m.

As an ice-breaker, I’ll have them read and discuss the science article I recently criticized.

We’ll also do the usual formalities, although I save discussion of the syllabus for the second class.

For those of you following along, here are your class materials:


Telling the Story

Working With Words

Discovering the News

August 21, 2007

Springfield Bloggers Meet Tonight

I’ll get back to podcasting the Springfield Bloggers meetings if I ever get a new battery for my laptop. Be that as it may, we do meet tonight at the Patton Alley Pub at 7:00.

August 20, 2007

The New Columnists

I find this fascinating:

One gets the uneasy sense that the blogosphere is a potpourri of opinion and little more. The opinions are occasionally informed, often tiresomely cranky and never in doubt. Skepticism, restraint, a willingness to suspect judgment and to put oneself in the background — these would not seem to be a blogger’s trademarks.

My question: Exactly how is this different from opinion journalism as currently practiced? We got cranky. We got occasionally informed. We got never in doubt. We got big personalities.

I would suggest, in a right properly and academically qualified way, that “blogs” making up the “blogosphere” are part of a thing that is too big (and too important) to characterize in the sweeping and dismissive fashion of Michael Skube’s column (setting aside the journalistic arrogance for another time). There’s certainly a lot of nonsense in the blogosphere. Hell, there’s a lot of nonsense in today’s newspaper masquerading as opinion journalism. That there is nonsense in something as large as the blogosphere is, well duh, to be expected. I would suggest, however, that nonsense has no place in something as comparatively small–and professionally edited (?)–as a newspaper.

Jay Rosen delivers the big smack-down. My qualified academic reaction: Woooooooooooo!

(Editor’s Note: I also find it fascinating that an academic would ridicule anyone for stridency. Man, have you ever been in a room full of eggheads at a conference? Now, I have claimed on this blog that the proper academic attitude may be seen in the desire to be proven wrong, i.e. the search for knowledge and truth above one’s vision of how the world works. This doesn’t mean we can’t be certain. It means we have to be careful. You may note a hint of certainty in this post. That’s because I’m certain of the things I’ve claimed–very little really. If I’m wrong–show me. I’m totally cool with that.)

August 20, 2007

Hoyt Chimes in on the Whole Context Thing

Clark Hoyt has the right idea:

But there are special lengths that The Times–or any other news organization–must go to when dealing with an issue so protracted, so complicated, and so politicized. It must take pains when reporting today’s events to add yesterday’s perspective. It must attribute information exhaustively to keep sources’ credibility and motives in view. And it must be willing to revisit old ground when new developments change the context.

But how can this be accomplished along with everything else journalists must do?

How about this: Get rid of some of the fluff and nonsense. Free up space (and thus the time) to allow journalists to provide the context that helps the news make sense (the thing print can do well and television has a very difficult time doing). Otherwise, the news is merely an information dump of little socio-political utility (which is a fancy way of saying such journalism fails to meet its primary purpose, which is: give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing).  

Let’s review Neil Postman’s articulation of information theory:

Information: Statements about facts in the world.
Knowledge: Organized information embedded in a context.
Wisdom: The capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems.

Information is foundational to knowledge and wisdom, but it is of little use by itself. Journalism, to be any good at all, to be of any use at all, must be a knowledge practice.

What would a newspaper look like if we cut out stuff that is mere information–especially information about stuff that hardly matters to helping people make the world work? Would people read such a newspaper? Hmmmmm… it’s for sure that fewer and fewer are reading what’s now offered.

August 9, 2007

Knuckle-dragging Reporting of Science

Journalism all too often mucks up the reporting of science. An AP article in today’s Springfield News-Leader offers us a good opportunity to examine this (and for those of you planning to follow my intro class this semester, I’ll be using this as an example).

The headline suggests big news: Discovery Puts Kinks in Theory of Evolution.

But from the start we see that the presentation of this story does a great disservice to the decades-old research in regard to evolution. The story reports the results of a study that continues to confirm something scientists have understood about evolution for a very long time: that it is not a linear progression of improvement. You can read a popularization of what this more complex understanding means to us in Stephen Jay Gould’s book Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, published in 1996.

The noun “kinks” creates an interesting problem in the headline. To put a kink in something is to disrupt it. Is it really the theory of evolution being disrupted? No. Clearly the article demonstrates it’s the simplistic and popular cartoon of evolution–ape to briefcase-carrying man–that right properly needs to be kinked.

Problems continue in the lead:

Surprising fossils dug up in Africa are creating messy kinks in the iconic straight line of human evolution with its knuckle-dragging ape and briefcase-carrying man.

True enough, but what this lead fails to do is let readers know that scientists have now long believed that iconic straight line was a load of nonsense. In trying to make the story more dramatic, the reporter has missed the lead. We find it at the end of the article: a 7-year study may confirm the current, complex understanding of the theory of evolution (note the proper academic “may”). But that isn’t dramatic.

August 6, 2007

Rhetorica Update

The fall semester begins in two weeks. I’ve been preparing my classes and having fun with my family. So the past few weeks have been an unannounced blogging slow-down. Things will pick up around here soon.

I announced two blog projects in the last two posts: 1) I’ll be blogging specifically about my Introduction to Journalism class, taking a critical look at the current state of what it is I’m teaching, and 2) I’ll also be taking a close look at selected campaign stories and suggesting ways that journalists could/should tell a different story.