November 30, 2007

Will More Young People Vote in 2008?

You can begin your quest for an answer here.

I had a young man from Florida in my freshman English class in the fall of 2000. I made a point of asking him if he’d voted. He had not.

I had an interesting case study in an advanced rhetoric class at UMKC during the 2000 election. It was a special topics class about the press/politics of the campaign. One of the assignments was to write an op-ed for the Kansas City Star and try to get it published. Several students were published. One particular student was not published. She had written one of the best op-eds I’d ever read from a student in any class–a personal account of her struggle with a nasty disease. She wanted to know why the candidates always discussed health care in terms of older Americans.

The Star turned down her cogent, well-written op-ed because it was “too personal” they said. But that’s a dodge because papers such as the Star publish personal op-eds that speak to current events all the time. The real reason, I suspect, is that her op-ed bucked the master narrative, i.e. who gets sick and who needs help with health care.

And then there’s the other problem: Candidates won’t care much about young voters until young voters start voting. That’s also when the press will begin to care.

November 30, 2007


I said yesterday regarding the CNN You Tube debate: “A problem remains: CNN chose the questions. That is a legitimate editorial function, but I do not care to trust CNN to do a good job of choosing.”

Seems there are many others who think the same thing. Howard Kurtz has a round-up.

My problem with CNN choosing the questions has nothing to do with so-called liberal bias for reasons you can easily discern from my previous work on that topic (the most popular single page on The Rhetorica Network, BTW).

My problem is twofold: 1) CNN is a TV product, so the imperatives of that medium will drive the choices people make, and 2) Journalists are biased in favor of drama and bad news.

You could add a third thing to that list: Lack of care in vetting. Clearly, Retired Brig. Gen. Keith Kerr should have been more carefully checked out. And he should never have been allowed to deliver a mini-speech at the debate.

But what surprises me is the idea that Republican candidates should only face questions from Republican sympathizers–clearly the implication of many of the complaints. It would be irresponsible and unethical for CNN not to include questions from a variety of perspectives.


CNN Admits Holes in Screening of Questioners

November 29, 2007

Hidden Local Politics

Nope. This isn’t about the shady deals pols make in smoky backrooms. It’s about hyperlinks and stereotypes.

The Springfield News-Leader is trying hard to make the web work as an interactive medium for its traditional, mainstream news product. I commend them for this effort. It isn’t easy for a number of reasons.

OK…here comes the BUT part. Why do these two things: 1) Hide the links to your two newest community blogs (Ozarks Left and Ozarks Right); and 2) Try to cram the complicated political experiences of our community into two simplistic, divisive, stereotypical boxes?

Click the link to the News-Leader front page. Give yourself a pat on the back if you can find a link to these blogs in less than five minutes. Try not to let the garish colors distract you. Or, go to the opinion section of the site and try to find any links at all to these blogs. Curiously, you won’t find them in the section called Blog Zone.

Editorial Page Editor Tony Messenger has been working hard to beef up the community conversation in the Voices section of the print product. The section is robust, enlightening, infuriating, maddening, and delicious. The web portion must expand on this. Being interactive is a given.

Here’s what I propose: Stop with the divisive and oh-so-typical right-left dichotomy and create a single, community political blog with the same contributors. This would allow for more cross conversation. And it would properly allow all the complication and nuance of the bloggers’ positions to be understood by readers outside of a confining frame, i.e. one might read an opinion a bit differently if not slapped with a (tired) political label.

Oh, and put a prominent link on a newly designed front page. Something like this would look nice.

November 29, 2007

How to Study Journalism

I subscribe to Rolling Stone, and I enjoy Matt Taibbi’s political writing. But he ain’t no Hunter Thompson. And, really, reading his work is a guilty pleasure meant to stroke my liberal self. My academic self is right properly aghast.

Here’s an interesting moment from a Q & A interview with Taibbi in Campus Progress:

You wrote a column in the New York Press a few years back referring to journalism as “shoveling coal for Satan.” I believe you also said that journalism as a career was worse than being a worker in a tampon factory. Should any sane young person consider a career in journalism?

If you have no real knowledge or skill set and you’re lazy and full of shit but you want to make a decent wage, then journalism’s not a bad career option. The great thing about it is that you don’t need to know anything. I mean this whole notion of journalism school—I can’t believe people actually go to journalism school. You can learn the entire thing in like three days. My advice is instead of going to journalism school, go to school for something concrete like medicine or some kind of science or something and then use the knowledge you get in that field as a wedge to get yourself into journalism.

What journalism really needs is more people who are reporting who actually know something. Instead of having a bunch of liberal arts grads who’ve read Siddhartha 50 times writing about health care, it would be really nice if some of the people who are writing about health care were doctors.

I could quibble, but I won’t because, for the most part, I agree with Taibbi (understanding that the man never makes a point without beating the living shit out of it–a problem of kairos).

Here’s how I’d change this outburst from an exercise in hyperbole to something like useful advice:

Journalism is not rocket science. It is a craft and one that any reasonably smart person can learn–even on their own. I’m not at all sure journalism school is a good idea (i.e. a comprehensive 2-year program that’s part of a 4-year degree) unless it includes course work that addresses–specifically for journalists–the legitimate issue Taibbi raises about understanding more than the craft. Journalism does need “more people who are reporting who actually know something.” Or, as good, we need people who are reporting who know they don’t know and are comfortable doing what it take to know.

Coming to know something about stuff other than the craft of journalism and attending “journalism school” (or a non-comprehensive program such as the one at Missouri State University) are not mutually exclusive. But I think we can see in the profession the results of too many j-grads who know very little about much of anything other than the craft upon graduation. And, as I have discussed before, the profession encourages journalists to become arrogant about knowing more than they actually do.

Now I teach journalism. I teach the craft. But I am an academic, and that means a big part of what I do must include teaching about journalism, i.e. encouraging students to think critically about journalism as a human behavior and a cultural practice.

November 29, 2007

You Tube Debate Format Works

I think the You Tube debate format is a success and should be continued. What I mean by success: Candidates are forced to deal with real issues from real people.

The format also works well if, as we saw last night, CNN is willing to allow the candidates to challenge each other and the audience to react (cheer, boo, whatever) when the mood strikes.

A problem remains: CNN chose the questions. That is a legitimate editorial function, but I do not care to trust CNN to do a good job of choosing. Thankfully, CNN resisted some of the more oddball submissions. But several of the questions were purely political and/or partisan (intra- and inter-faction), i.e. exactly the kind of thing we’d expect from certain journalists (i.e. the ones who usually get to host such things). Last night we saw that citizens too can ask less-than-helpful questions.

I cannot easily bracket out that part of myself that is a rhetoric scholar, but I did try to watch the debate as a source of information about issues that concern me (because, among my other subject positions, I am a citizen and a voter). I was pleased to discover that the rhetoric scholar and citizen both found the You Tube format effective in allowing candidates to address issues and to address each other in regard to issues.

Caveat: We’re not talking depth here. Depth isn’t possible on TV with so many candidates and so little time. But that’s OK if many of the questions spring from real concerns (they did) and the moderator insists that the candidates address them (he did).

(Reminder: Following the Rhetorica tradition of campaign coverage, I will deal with issues of rhetorical performance and not issues of policy.)

In terms of rhetorical performance, I was most impressed with Mike Huckabee. He seemed the most genuine of the candidates in terms of giving straight answers. When he ducked, he did so with skill and grace.

I’ve always had a soft spot for John McCain. I thought he exuded moral authority on most of the issues. I wish, however, he had been a bit more willing to follow the debate rules. Anderson Cooper should have been more forceful with him.

Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani suffered from having been placed next to each other–that and they each have a lot of ducking to do regarding past policies that don’t sit well with certain factions within the Republican party.

Fred Thompson is an actor, but he’s no Ronald Reagan. I found him low on delivery–a rather gross political-rhetorical sin these days.

How should CNN choose the questions for a You Tube debate? Here’s my advice:

Don’t use anything blatantly political/partisan (e.g. the Bible dude).

Don’t use questions from political insiders.

Don’t use “questions” that ask candidates to make pledges (these are necessarily dumb).

Don’t use questions from people who don’t have their facts straight (which means–egad!–CNN should do some fact-checking).

Do use questions that spring from the experiences of citizens.

And, finally, under no circumstance should CNN allow any member of the audience to deliver a speech (i.e. the gay general).


Washington Post
New York Times

November 28, 2007

Who Asks Better Questions?

Interviewing skills are tough to teach. I only touch on the subject briefly in my Introduction to Journalism class. I’m far more concerned that they learn the discourse first (and something of journalism history).

I’m prompted to write about interviewing today because of this short post at the Center for Citizen Media blog (quoting Slate):

You know it’s 2007 when a candidate, in this case Mike Huckabee, holds a bifurcated conference call, first with reporters, then with bloggers. I listened in on both calls to see what the differences were. The reporters’ questions were much more concise and polished. But the bloggers’ questions were more substantive by a long shot.

The only thing wrong with this picture is the bifurcation. Put them all on the same call, candidates.

Scroll down this blog essay and you’ll find this interesting bit:

I saw an interesting moment on Hardball with Chris Matthews on Friday, 23 May. MSNBC pollster Frank Luntz was questioning a panel of voters. His opening question: “Regardless of who you’re voting for, what characteristic do you want in a Democratic nominee?” After several people responded, Luntz said (with my clarifying remarks):

We’ll [the press] talk about personalities for the Democrats and you [the panel] all keep bringing it back to policy. That’s an interesting dynamic. Up until now, people [who?] were looking for, as you used, bold leadership, honesty, a vision for the future. [Luntz turns to the camera] And yet they’re all talking policy. [To the panel] Is that where the Democratic nominee is going to go, rather than focusing on attributes, they’re going to focus on policy?

Luntz continues to mention, with a sense of wonder, the panel’s interest in policy. Matthews and his guests ignore it. Here is Luntz’s concluding remark that Matthews cuts off to return to his guests:

I asked them to talk about candidates, talk about attributes and they kept coming back to issues. That says to me that there’s no Democrat out there that’s really captured the hearts and mind of the public as an alternative to George Bush. It is early, but there’s no one out there that’s got a clear…

In other words, the panel’s interest in policy, the day-to-day stuff of governance that affects peoples’ lives, is proof that no candidate has a convincing presidential image or master narrative…Luntz wants them bow to the press’ master narratives. But these citizens realize there is another narrative to be told, a narrative largely ignored during campaign coverage: The story of how policy affects the lives of average Americans.

It’s not at all surprising that journalists’ questions are often more “concise and polished.” But what if they are are not asking the right questions, i.e. questions that attempt to get the information that interests citizens?

(Wow. Think about that. A journalism that fails to ask the right questions is not simply useless, it’s dangerous. And stupid.)

Citizen journalists, bloggers, people who go to town hall meetings, usually ask substantive questions because–SUPRISE!!!–they are interested in governance–the stuff that affects their lives. When you’re worried about health care or the moral direction of the country, it’s damned hard to work up any interest at all in which candidate has raised more money this quarter or who’s ahead in the polls in Iowa.

Take a look at this Power Point presentation that I created to teach advanced students about interviewing. You’ll get an idea where my head is on this. But please note that professional political journalism isn’t ready for this concept I call “critical reporting.” The pros won’t be ready until they learn to do the very basic task of asking the kinds of questions that get the kind of information people actually want and need.

November 28, 2007

Rhetorica Update

Moving on… Yes, I do intend to cover the nomination campaign. I’ve simply been busy with other matters lately (as in the past year). For example:

I finished an essay with co-writers Doug McGill and Jeremy Iggers for the Journal of Mass Media Ethics (JMME). You’ll find it in the current issue (Vol. 22 Iss. 4). It’s part of a special topics issue: “Who is a journalist”? Our essay concerns McGill’s coverage of the Anuak genocide in Ethiopia, entitled Death in Gambella: What Many Heard, What One Blogger Saw, And Why the Professional Media Ignored It.

I recently finished another essay on one of my favorite topics–coverage of the pre-primary process in presidential nomination campaigns, entitled Tell a Different Story: How the News Media Ought to Cover the Pre-primary Presidential Campaign. It will appear in Media Ethics soon.

JMME has accepted my essay about Daniel Okrent, entitled Ethics and Ethos: Writing an Effective Newspaper Ombudsman Position. In it I examine the subject position Okrent created, how he created it, and what it all means for ombudsmen who wish to assert moral authority in journalism. It’s slated for publication in late 2008.

And I’ve mentioned a couple of times recently the book chapter I’m writing about bias in communication.

Further, I’m working on two studies with a colleague in the psychology department. More on that later. BTW, if you’d like a hint at what we’re up to (and if you would like to do our quick-‘n-easy online exercise and survey), send e-mail to dr.cline # rhetorica # net. I’ll send you the URL. 

November 27, 2007

Citizen Journalism on the March

Check out the story about citizen journalism in today’s Washington Post. There’s nothing much surprising here– plenty that’s encouraging–although I laughed out loud at this part:

“The term ‘citizen journalist’ has an Orwellian ring to it,” says Andrew Keen, author of “The Cult of the Amateur,” who’s criticized the Web 2.0-Wikipedia world, where everyone can become their own editors.

“People are becoming Big Brother, either with a camcorder or a keyboard, and following the candidates around. It’s ridiculous. You can’t just be a great journalist, the same way you can’t be a great chef or a great soccer player.”

Journalists, he continues, “follow a set of standards, a code of ethics. Objectivity rules. That’s not the case with citizen journalists. Anything goes in that world.”

Hmmmmmm… Big Brother? Does this guy understand that any concept of Big Brother requires that the dictator (singular or collective) have actual political power?

Oh, and the part about objectivity–priceless. To learn something about the concept of objectivity in journalism, start here.

For a consideration of citizen journalism by someone who knows what he’s talking about, click here.

November 27, 2007

Nothing Like Clarity…Sort Of

As I mentioned earlier, I’m working on a chapter about bias in communication for a book–an edited collection–to be published next year. I am in the literature review process of writing this thing. So my head is swimming with all kinds of data and theories that I need to come to terms with.

This thought occurred to me (again): “Just the facts” versus “journalistic interpretation” is a false dichotomy, yet that is the choice journalists often present (or is presented to them) regarding the job they ought to be doing. Some say the job is one; some say it’s the other. Do/should journalists just report the facts or do/should journalists also tell us what the facts (and the news) mean?

Here’s the problem: Whatinthehellis “just the facts”? How can you possibly have a fact without first having an interested person look at/for the fact? How can you say anything about the fact without the resulting statement being interpretive (e.g. you had to look for the fact, choose it from among others, and then present it in an expression of some kind)?

For your review, here’s what I’ve written about information theory regarding facts in journalism. And here’s a bit on the facts-values dichotomy.

November 24, 2007

More Fun & Games With Stats

I’d like to propose that we re-think the entire project of higher education in journalism. A journalism degree should indicate more than that the graduate can do a job roughly described as reporting and writing the news. The graduate ought to have an understanding of language (rhetoric and linguistics) and history following from the liberal arts and a social-scientist’s understanding of human behavior (politics, psychology, and economics).

Oh, and statistics.

That’s a tall order to be sure, if for no other reason than news organizations don’t pay enough to encourage students to get such an education (as opposed to professions such as law and medicine that demand it).

Problem is: Journalism is an important cultural, social, political, and economic practice. Done well, it has the potential to help us understand our world, our place in it, and how we can operate within it to achieve our personal and collective goals. Done poorly, it can hurt or kill; it can blind us to the truth and cripple our personal and collective abilities to cooperate and achieve.

Click here. Follow the links–especially the two discussions about suicide rates among returning soldiers following from recent coverage in the news.

A news story about suicide rates among returning soldiers, like any situation in which statistics are used to discover and/or indicate something like the truth, must properly deal with the complexities and uncertainties of social, political, and economic situations (not to mention getting the numbers right). And because this is difficult to do, the default position should always be: Get more information. Find experts who know. Be damned careful and damned sure before publishing anything.

An easier way to think about this: Stop with the trend stories already!

In some cases, trend stories are merely frivolous and do no more harm than to cause stupidity among those stupid enough to read them. In other cases, trend stories can shift societal thinking away from truth and into inadequate–yet socially or politically comforting–mythology.

Journalism, if it must continue reporting “trends” (and anything in the sciences) needs an ethic of the non-sexy disclaimer (an ontology, really). If you’ve never seen one of these, pick up a copy of nearly any respectable academic journal of social science. You’ll usually discover in the conclusion of many studies a statement that qualifies the study and cautions against certainty in interpretation. The reason: We’re all still trying to figure it out; things could change; we might be wrong.

The rhetoric of journalism, however, is the rhetoric of certainty. Wouldn’t it be cool if…

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