September 27, 2007

JRN270: Essentialism in Journalism

As usual, Language Log cogently analyses one of the many disconnects between journalists and science (and math and linguistics and rhetoric and sociology and psychology and, well, you know). Mark Liberman examines the rhetoric of statistics. Among his observations:

Most people think in essentialist and non-statistical terms, as if all the members of a category were uniform copies of an invariant prototype. I suspect that most journalists think this way too, but in any case, they certainly write as if they do.

I would argue that journalists write that way because they think that way, and they think that way because they write that way. The standard discourse of news just doesn’t do a very good job of dealing with subtlety, nuance, or qualification of a sort academics favor.

(E.g. We teach them to avoid appositives and subordination–structures that indicate some ideas are more important than others or that some ideas have particular relationships to other ideas. A sentence such as the one I just wrote, or the one I am writing now, would be cut down to simple, starkly-modified declarations–ideally of 20 words or fewer.)

To boil events down into short, declarative sentences (with a limited, approved vocabulary) seems to require that one view members of a category as uniform copies of an invariant prototype–unless you want to write a whole bunch of sentences to account of numerous differences. This is what accounts for the standard journalistic dichotomy: Get both sides of the story (antagonist and protagonist). As if that were truly possible. As if the world could be so neatly divided.

I fight this kind of thinking, in some small way, every time I step into my Introduction to Journalism class. I must teach them the discourse because they cannot thrive professionally without being able to use it skillfully. But I try to situate it such that they are able to understand what it is they are doing when they use it. And I mean by that: They need to understand they are doing far more than just telling a news story, i.e. a simple communicative transaction, of a particular kind, between writer and reader.

What I want them to do is think while they write.

While I’m certainly interested in the rhetorical use of statistics by journalists (next week is the unit on math for journalists), what fascinates me even more in terms of teaching journalism is how much the narrative bias of journalistic practice disrupts the possibility that citizens will glean something useful from academic and scientific study. In other words, the inability of journalism not to tell a dramatic story means that, in cases such as Liberman discusses, citizens learn less than nothing; they are actually harmed!

September 24, 2007

More on Bad Kairos

Clark Hoyt, public editor for The New York Times, properly spanks the paper for giving an undeserved price cut to for its General Betray Us ad. And this part seems right on to me:

For me, two values collided here: the right of free speech — even if it’s abusive speech — and a strong personal revulsion toward the name-calling and personal attacks that now pass for political dialogue, obscuring rather than illuminating important policy issues. For The Times, there is another value: the protection of its brand as a newspaper that sets a high standard for civility. Were I in Jespersen’s shoes, I’d have demanded changes to eliminate “Betray Us,” a particularly low blow when aimed at a soldier.

The ad is a classic example of bad kairos–assuming one’s purpose is to persuade by means of reason, which is not a good assumption in the case of and political organizations of its type (across the political spectrum).

The name-calling allows critics to dismiss the entire ad. A quick examination of it, sentence by sentence, demonstrates that it is largely built on testable assertions rather than character assassination.

General Petraeus is a military man constantly at war with the facts.

This is a rather typical opening line that sets the context for what is to follow. One may judge it true or false based on the accuracy and cogency of the subsequent argument.

In 2004, just before the election, he said there was “tangible progress” in Iraq and that “Iraqi leaders are stepping forward.”

Did he say this? In what context did he say it? Did his text (spoken or printed) give clues to how he defines the two key terms?

And last week Petraeus, the architect of the escalation of troops in Iraq, said, “We say we have achieved progress, and we are obviously going to do everything we can to build on that progress.”

Same as above.

Every independent report on the ground situation in Iraq shows that the surge strategy has failed.

This is an assertion of fact. How many reports have been issued? Who issued them? What does “independent” mean? How were assessments made? What other reports were (may have been) issued? What did these say?

Yet the General claims a reduction in violence.

Should the general’s claims be in alignment with these reports? Why or why not?

That’s because, according to the New York Times, the Pentagon has adopted a bizarre formula for keeping tabs on violence.

What is the formula? Why is it used? What are the alternative formulas? Why are they not used? How/why is the formula “bizarre”?

For example, deaths by car bombs don’t count.

Why not? Is it intuitive that they should count? Do reasons exist for including/excluding these deaths? Do these reasons spring from the “independent” reports?

The Washington Post reported that assassinations only count if you’re shot in the back of the head — not the front.

See above.

According to the Associated Press, there have been more civilian deaths and more American soldier deaths in the past three months than in any other summer we’ve been there.

This is an assertion of fact attributed to a secondary source. Is it true? If so, what does it mean? What reasons account for it?

We’ll hear of neighborhoods where violence has decreased. But we won’t hear that those neighborhoods have been ethnically cleansed.

What is ethic cleansing in this case? How do we know it’s occurring? What reason might the military have for avoiding its mention? Does the military avoid its mention? Does cleansing lead to a decrease in violence?

Most importantly, General Petraeus will not admit what everyone knows: Iraq is mired in an unwinnable religious civil war.

Might he agree that it is a civil war but counters the characterization of it as “unwinnable”?

We may hear of a plan to withdraw a few thousand American troops. But we won’t hear what Americans are desperate to hear: a timetable for withdrawing all our troops.

Is it his job to tell the American people what they want to hear? How do we know what they want to hear?

General Petraeus has actually said American troops will need to stay in Iraq for as long as ten years.

This is an assertion of fact. What does the adverb “actually” mean to indicate? Has he ever made a different claim?

The purpose of all that was merely to demonstrate that the balance of the ad makes testable claims. One may not like the claims. Making them, however, does not equal name-calling or character assassination.

What would be good, in terms of a civic discourse that helps us understand and solve our problems, would be for (and any political organization from any political wing) to avoid name-calling, i.e. practice good kairos. The assumption upon which I base my contention, however, is a poor one. My contention assumes that political organizations intend to win by appealing to reason. Mostly they intend to rally the base and win by appealing to emotion. They do so at the cost of a reasoned and reasonable civic discourse.

September 22, 2007

Three Cheers for MSU

Missouri State University returned a recording of John Ashcroft’s recent speech. It was made for an archival record–a proper thing for a university to do. Such records allow scholars, students, and the public to use the material for research and education. But the contract between IMA and Ashcroft put unacceptable limits on its use by MSU. A university with a public affairs mission cannot allow itself to be used in this way. MSU made the right decision.

For more on this, see the articles in The Standard and the Springfield News-Leader.

More background on Rhetorica.

September 22, 2007

What Has Actually Been Betrayed

Should Democrats repudiate for its General Betray US ad?

I think we can all agree that the ad’s headline stoops to an unacceptably low level of civic discourse. The balance of the ad (with the exception of the last line) makes assertions that may be examined and challenged/affirmed.

But, wait…no, we can’t all agree. To a very great extent, the Republicans “started it.” Despite getting bipartisan support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Democrats still had to suffer constant questioning of their patriotism from the right-wing noise machine, e.g. (including but nowhere near limited to): Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and Dick Cheney.

Well, no…that’s not quite right either. Such playground name-calling, from every political party, has been a part of American politics (and public discussion of same) from the very beginning. For example, George Washington was once accused of being a traitor by a political rival. This stuff is just broadcast faster and easier to a wider public now.

I think reasoned and reasonable civic discourse is something worth aspiring to, something worth encouraging, something worth demonstrating. It requires a number of things, e.g. a certain reverence for facts within some shared cultural/political context for starters. The problem of name-calling arises, however, from the need to win politically. Each party (and each politician within each party, and each bloviator engaging in partisan bloviating) understands its leadership to be a moral good. It doesn’t take long, then, to slip into Machiavellianism, arguably the most popular moral philosophy in America.

So let me go on the record and say, without qualification, that I repudiate the name-calling in the recent ad. Such pathetic antics do not (I hope) persuade anyone of anything. Such antics merely encourage partisans to remain mired in dogma. I wish they would not stoop to this low level of civic discourse. I am a liberal. But they do not speak for me when they poison the well.

[Editor’s Note: I have written several different concluding statements and deleted each one before posting. How should this post end? Hmmmmmmmm…] 

September 18, 2007

Springfield Bloggers Meet Tonight

Check out the action at the Springfield Bloggers meeting at 7 p.m. tonight at the Patton Alley Pub. Have a blog? Com’on down! Interested in blogging? Com’on down! Just like hanging out with bloggers? Com’on down!

September 17, 2007

Sez Who?

It’s the rare student who escapes one of my journalism classes without seeing “sez who?” scribbled a few times across his/her articles or hears me ask (nag) the same in class. Columnists can (but shouldn’t) get away with making unsupported claims and assertions. The reporter writing a news article must never write anything unjustified by a source (in the multiple and complex understanding of what sources are).

In today’s business section of The New York Times, we see that reporter Richard Perez-Pena and/or his editors have violated this basic rule of good journalism in an article about the business and journalism of USA Today. In the fourth paragraph we learn:

The newspaper has grown up from a caricatured outsider to a respectable part of the establishment that competitors, government and business must take seriously.

Nothing in the story as printed supports this claim except the unremarkable observation that “McPaper” has improved over the years, e.g. runs some serious, longer articles.

I see a danger in all the fawning over USA Today now that it has reached 25 years and profitability: That publishers will continue to use it as a model for “invigorating” newspapers. I would make this caution: Check the circulation; USA Today remains the leader in chain hotel circulation. Quite an inspiration, huh?

September 13, 2007

News Master Narratives as Rhetoric

Jay Rosen began his blogging career with an excellent examination of the master narrative in journalism. I have also dealt with it in various ways, most notably in my argument that the press should “tell a different story” of politics (blog essay here; academic essay here). Do a site search on Rhetorica for “master narrative” and you’ll discover that I’ve mentioned it often.

Rosen posted a new essay about how coming up with a new master narrative changes the reporting of on-going events and allows journalists to discover new (politically useful) stories.

This is particularly interesting from a rhetorical perspective because it so glaringly points out that news is a mental construct that may be deconstructed and re-constructed based on numerous values. In a sense quite uncomfortable for objectivist thinkers, there is no news outside of a constructed master narrative. And these narratives are always interested.

To construct (or blindly/mindlessly adopt) a master narrative is to make an argument (but, then, I believe all human communication is rhetorical, therefore an argument, so take that FWIW). What if good journalism is about examining a news situation from a number of master narratives? An interesting question for a reporter to ask a source would then be: “What’s the story here?” And rather than simply jot the quote and move on to find the balance quote, the reporter might begin to follow the response as a narrative frame and think about it in relation to other narrative frames as differently constructed and differently experienced bits of a complex reality.

Yes. I know. There’s hardly time to do a barely-adequate job much less go sniffing the thin atmosphere of rhetorical theory as applied to the under-theorized practice of journalism. Yet…yet… perhaps all it takes is to read what Rosen has to say and then, simply, look for other possible stories–realizing all the while that these are constructions to help discover (construct) truth and not necessarily truth in themselves.

September 13, 2007

Speech With No Sound

So John Ashcroft gave his speech yesterday evening on the MSU campus, and no sound was allowed to escape the auditorium (background here and here).

That’s too bad because it was a good speech. Ashcroft is a skilled extemporaneous speaker. He had interesting, provocative, and important things to say. Perhaps you’ll get to find out what someday.

Finding out what he said will be the topic of discussion this morning in my media ethics class. I recorded the speech without permission. I’m going to put the question to my students: May I ethically post a podcast on Rhetorica?

UPDATE: Randy Turner has more re: “devices of democracy.”


September 12, 2007

Greatest Show on Earth

Any politician with a lick of sense will try to control his/her message to the fullest extent. And any journalist with a sense of duty to the primary purpose of journalism will do whatever he/she can (within the bounds of ethical practice) to get the information citizens need to be free and self-governing.

Here’s the story from the News-Leader this morning. It seems a recording will be made of John Ashcroft’s speech for the university archives. Try getting your hands on that by deadline.

Restricting and avoiding the press are popular tactics of message control. What we too often forget is that any tactic that restricts the press also restricts citizens who may wish to gather information for themselves.

So Ashcroft will speak tonight on the MSU campus, but the press may not use electronics to capture the speech. The (incredibly silly and condescending) reason given: He and the promoters don’t want a “media circus” to mar the event.

(BTW, how will this restriction be enforced? The N-L story says part of the money raised for this event pays for security. Are we talking campus police? On duty? Off duty? City police? State police? Local goons? What?) 

I claim this restriction has nothing to do with any circus and a lot to do with the need for plausible deniability as part of effective message control. Want to avoid a circus? Don’t take questions from the press. And Ashcroft says he won’t. I have no problem with that. But why deny print reporters the use of digital recorders? What is it about this small, hand-held device that would cause a media circus? If you answer “not a gull’darn thing,” then move to the head of the class so I can slap a gold star on your forehead. We can keep this exercise stepping along with the same result until the press is fully back in attendance.

While Ashcroft’s restriction is condescending (in its implications for citizens), it’s actually nowhere near as bad as what John Edwards pulled at MSU a couple of years ago. The need for plausible deniability arises from speaking extemporaneously, e.g. taking live questions from an audience (or the press). Edward’s technique: Allow only canned questions from approved questioners. This allowed him to recite his talking points without the mental distraction of a tough question.

September 11, 2007

It’s in the Sentence Structure

According to Public Eye, one way to mitigate the problems of reporting fact-checking (i.e. debunking previously-reported nonsense) is to write left-branching sentences. For example:

Gather readers or viewers attention by elliptically letting them know they’re wrong and then setting them straight–like “Despite widely circulated claims to the contrary…” and then include the salient information. Otherwise, you’re not part of the solution–you’re just perpetuating the problem.

Here’s what this is all about:

According to an interview from this past weekend’s NPR “On the Media” it seems that every time a reporter takes the time to bring up something in order to correct it, the mere recitation of the original flawed fact only serves to reinforce it, even if your entire point was to debunk it.

Hmmmmm… and I promote the writing of right-branching sentences in my JRN270 class.

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