June 26, 2008

Freedom of the Press

Who owns freedom of the press? The answer to that question is very simple: All Americans. The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press does not refer to the modern profession of journalism as we understand it (although pro journalism certainly enjoys this freedom). Every American has the right to publish information for public distribution. And when the World Wide Web was born, every American with access to a computer could become a publisher.

You can’t take back a technology once it has been introduced. And you can’t control what use people will make of it. Create a widget for purpose A and, sure enough, the folks will start using it for purpose B.

American citizens began using the web to publish journalism.

And, as Jay Rosen points out:

Today, the press is shared territory. It has pro and amateur zones. This is appropriate because press freedom is itself shared territory. It belongs equally to the amateur and the pro. Online the two zones connect, and flow together. (Go to Memeorandum to see how.) It still works vertically: press to public. It also works horizontally: peer to peer. Part of it is a closed system—and closed systems are good at enforcing editorial controls—the other part is an open system.

Open systems are good at participation, community formation, and locating intelligence anywhere in the network. They are good at sharing, and getting good at surfacing the good stuff. The two editorial systems don’t work the same way. One does not replace the other. They are not enemies, either. We need to understand a lot better how they can work together.

And that is where the idea of pro-am journalism comes from. I think the hybrid forms will be the strongest—openness with some controls, amateurs with some pros—but that means we have to figure out how these hybrid forms work. Arianna Huffington, Amanda Michel, Mayhill Fowler, Marc Cooper and myself, along with 3,000 signed-up members are in the midst of one attempt, OffTheBus.

That’s the tech part–the part that explains how such change happens because of a technology that makes something new possible. And it’s the sociology part–the part that shows what happens when old systems and old cultures are challenged.

No one knows what the business model will be yet–a question of great importance, but far outside my area of expertise. 

What about the rhetoric part? Remember that odd post I wrote not long ago about journalistic intention (and my assignment in regard to it)? I’m back home, back to work (at least until the end of July when I leave for a conference), and thinking about this whole intention thing. Stay tuned…

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June 23, 2008

Rhetorica Update

I forgot to post the napping cat photo that indicates a blogging break. I spent last week visiting family. I’m back to work today. I expect to be back to blogging almost immediately. I’ll be busy the next few weeks preparing a conference paper for the International Society for the Study of European Ideas. I’ll be attending the conference in Helsinki in late July.

June 11, 2008

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Jay Rosen sent e-mail yesterday asking me to gloss my recent post about rhetoric, ethics, and intention. I was responding to the questions raised about how the ethics of journalism may be changing now that anyone can gather and publish information easily. The cases in question involve Mayhill Fowler.

Rosen wanted me to explain a few things. What happened next was a fascinating exchange of e-mail that allowed me to completely ignore other work that I had to do yesterday and think about something I really enjoy–the intersection of rhetoric, ethics, and intention.

As long-time Rhetorica readers are surely aware, I write this blog to please myself. And I use it as a space to float ideas. Every academic essay I’ve published in the last six years has begun here as a floater.

Thanks to Rosen, I have another idea for an academic essay 🙂

But, that’s not what this post is about. This post is about trying to make sense of something I floated: Just what is a “journalistic intention”? On Sunday I wrote:

But what are journalists’ intentions? This is not an easy question to answer because of the complex rhetorical situation of journalism as a social, political, and economic practice of individuals acting alone and within institutions.

Here’s where I’m going with this: I’d be a lot more comfortable with Fowler’s ethics if she admitted to something like a journalistic intention.

(But what is a journalistic intention? I’m torn between expansive and limited understandings of this concept. So let’s just move on and see what happens.)

And move on I did. That’s the part that’s interesting for me but can be frustrating for readers. Journalistic intention? I just made that up. It occurred to me that something like that must exist and have some bearing on the Fowler case and journalistic rhetoric and ethics.

Rosen did the peer-review thing can called me on it. He asked a series of questions designed to, among other things, elicit a reasonable definition of “journalistic intention.”

Here are the questions Rosen asked:

I think the post you wrote has 3-4 different interpretive communities and you are the one who knows which part is for which.

What does it mean to act with proper journalistic intention?

How do we know when someone is?

Anyone can report because everyone has the technology for capturing sound and sight and saying to the world, “here is my report”…and because anyone can put a report on the web where the search engines can get it. But what does it mean to report with journalistic intention?

How do we know when someone is doing that?

Does it mean something different when a person is reporting with journalistic intention “as merely a citizen”?

Does it mean something special when a person is reporting with journalistic intention “as a professional”?

Or is reporting with journalistic intention exactly the thing that’s exactly the same for citizens and pros and pro-ams?

What other “intentions,” not journalistic, can people report–journalize–with?

How do we know when they are doing that?

Why don’t you write a new post as a series of proposed “philosophical guidelines” for OffTheBus contributors like Mayhill Fowler?

Like my original post, my initial answers were stabs. I’ll share them later. What I want to do now is rise to the occasion offered by Rosen’s last question. That requires me to do the hard thinking about theory (which I love to do) and then do the harder thinking about how to make it practical (which I too often do not do).

Gimme a few days 🙂

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June 10, 2008

Less Than Nothing

Can cable television “journalists” envision nothing more for themselves and their medium than live blathering?

Stewart nails it…again.

What about slowing down? I suggested just that in my rambling post about rhetoric, ethics, and intention the other day–especially when working with citizen journalists. What about TV slowing down?

Is it the medium of television that demands immediate live blathering or is it our (mis)interpretation of the medium’s demands?

We know this for sure (well, duh): TV must have pictures and sound.

I understand the need to feed the beast, but does it need to be a live meal?

It seems to me that while journalists report –e.g. try to find the answers to questions — those left in the studio and newsroom could be doing something else. Hmmmmmm… what would that be?

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June 8, 2008

Rhetoric, Ethics, and Intention

That could be a book title. Maybe someday it will be 🙂 Right now it’s simply the over-grand headline on a too-short blog post about today’s Ideas & Trends column in the Week in Review section of The New York Times.

The column attempts a short round-up of ethical questions that spring from new media technologies. Specifically, how does our ability to gather sound and video with tiny devices, and post the product instantly to the web, change the heretofore normative ethical standards championed by the Society of Professional Journalists?

The cases in question are Mayhill Fowler’s capturing audio of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama saying things that they might not have said in an interview with a reporter.

Here’s a Q & A with Fowler from April in the Columbia Journalism Review. And here’s the part that caught my attention–the part that has to do with my over-grand headline:

Jordan Michael Smith: Why did you go to the Obama fundraiser?

Mayhill Fowler: Just to enjoy myself. I had come back home for a few days, from following the Obama campaign around Pennsylvania. My husband and I had gone to other events—the ballet and the theatre—and this was one more vaguely pleasurable, somewhat boring event in that light. In fact, I almost didn’t take my tape recorder. I left my tape recorder upstairs and thought, ‘Oh, should I go back up and get it?’ I did go upstairs and get it, but that’s why when I went to the event.

JMS: Why did you record Obama’s words there?

MF: A lot of the things I go to I never write up. If there isn’t anything interesting to me, I don’t write it up. A lot of things just become background. I never in a million years thought there would be anything probative in this event, because I’ve been to a number of fundraisers, and except for a human interest/amusing kind of piece, there’s never anything newsworthy there. The idea that candidates huddle with donors and tell lots of secrets is some sort of paranoid fantasy, I just don’t think that’s true. But having followed Obama around, when he started speaking, I realized instantly that these were new sentences and phrases, so I started paying attention and recording it.

The rhetoric of journalism is partly constructed to persuade news consumers that the news product is trustworthy. It is a rhetoric of credibility–a rhetoric that is changing in the new media environment. This is not at all surprising. I’ve done a lot of thinking and speculating about how our noetic field is changing today and what that means for journalism.

The (inchoate) ethical standards journalists set for themselves are clear in this regard: The codes are aimed squarely at credibility (which, in the past, was also good for business).

But what are journalists’ intentions? This is not an easy question to answer because of the complex rhetorical situation of journalism as a social, political, and economic practice of individuals acting alone and within institutions.

Here’s where I’m going with this: I’d be a lot more comfortable with Fowler’s ethics if she admitted to something like a journalistic intention.

(But what is a journalistic intention? I’m torn between expansive and limited understandings of this concept. So let’s just move on and see what happens.)

(Am I willing to dismiss “news” that springs from intentions I find troubling? How do journalistic intentions affect my interpretation of events? Perhaps I could just run everything through CF(p)r -> PE? That’s my revision of the illocutionary act of speech-act theory. It’s intended to explicate intention: intention = context, illocutionary force, propositional content and rhetoric that leads to some effect on the auditor.) 

The working reporter sometimes has no choice. You get an assignment to cover something, and you by-god go get (create) the story. What of the dilettante? What were Fowler’s intentions? According to the Q & A: fun (assuming for a moment this isn’t bullshit). Seeking her own enjoyment may have played a role in her admitted misunderstanding of whether or not she had something newsworthy. But don’t all reporters struggle with this same lack of confidence from time to time? What is news anyway?  

All human communication involves rhetoric, ethics, and intention to some extent. Communicators who would have their words affect the public should have a far greater (self) understandings of these. How can one achieve greater understanding? 

How should we assess Fowler’s ethics? What standards should new media practitioners follow–pro and amateur? These are large questions, and I do not have complete answers. But here’s a stab:

Rhetoric: Journalism to be journalism–no matter who is practicing it–must operate in part with a rhetoric of credibility (otherwise, what good is it?). What are the new rhetorical standards following from new media technologies? 

Ethics: It’s always appropriate to ask (from my Issues in Media Ethics syllabus):

  1. What constitutes an ethical problem or dilemma and from whose point of view?

  2. What are the sources of ethical standards, and whose agendas do/should these standards serve?

  3. How do we solve ethical problems, and whose interests are served by the methods we use to arrive at solutions?

Any assertion of an ethical standard should be examined using those questions.

Intention: Journalists must be honest with themselves about what it is they are doing and why they are doing it (because I think every person must be…). Does Fowler intend to play “gotcha”? I have no idea. Only she knows. If the answer is “yes” for anyone who would gather and report the news, then the ethical lapse is clear because “gotcha” is not typically the stuff of the information citizens need to be free and self-governing

Unless… Surely some gotcha material is publicly useful information (Yikes! What role does politics play in that?). And if the journalists involved in the story have done a proper job of journalism — i.e. 1- acted as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification, and 2- Dealt openly, fairly, and completely with the context of the gotcha — then I’m OK with it.

(Time for me to run that assertion through those three questions listed above.)

How often does this “proper job of journalism” happen in the never-ending news cycle that the new media made possible? Are we comfortable with loosening those standards for certain types of useful information? How should we make such choices? When and under what circumstances should we slow the hell down (especially when working with amateurs)?

And, thus, the need for self-understanding and cogent expressions of journalistic rhetoric, ethics, and intention.

UPDATE (12:30 p.m.): Want to practice a bit of rhetorical analysis with my formula of the illocutionary act? Run the question Fowler asked:

“Mr. President,” Fowler asked, “what do you think about that hatchet job somebody did on you in Vanity Fair?”

Hmmmmmm… What’s that word “hatchet” doing there? What does the verbal “did on” suggest? And are we to believe that Fowler doesn’t know who Todd Purdum is? We know that can’t be because she makes the assertion to Clinton that the guy is married to former White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers.

How might Clinton have reacted if she had asked: “Mr. President, what do you think about the article Todd Purdum wrote about you in Vanity Fair?” (This, BTW, is the rhetorical approach I’d expect from a professional reporter with journalistic intentions. Pros don’t always get it right–whatever that means.)

You can use other methods to figure out what’s going on here. Just check the Rhetorica Critical Meter. I’m wondering about Fowler’s invented ethos. There are two kinds of ethos: 1- situated ethos: who you are before the text, and 2- invented ethos: who you are in the text. Who is Fowler creating here, and for what persuasive purpose?

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June 7, 2008

The Engine of Bullshit

You don’t have to say something (specific) to say something.

For example, you can inflect your voice in a particular way.

SHE looks nice.

She LOOKS nice.

She looks NICE.

These are three different statements using the same three words in the same gramatical relationship. Now, for the next step:

SHE looks nice. (I didn’t SAY the other one is ugly.)

She LOOKS nice. (I didn’t SAY she’s a bitch.)

She looks NICE. (I didn’t SAY she’s a slut.)

Here’s another way to say something (specific) without saying something: the enthymeme — a rhetorical syllogism, in which part of the logical sequence is left unstated. Its persuasive power comes from an interesting fact of human interpretation: The audience will fill in the missing part.

But what do they fill in with? That’s the tricky part. The speaker can never be in complete control. But the speaker can, by manipulating the rhetorical situation, steer some members of the audience in a particular direction. And if that direction is, say, bullshit, then the structure “I didn’t SAY X” becomes a useful way of distancing one’s self from one’s bullshit.

Now that I have you all primed, go read this interesting examination of the McClellan book by Shelodon Rampton. Here’s the money quote:

In other words, the White House found ways of creating the appearance of a relationship between Iraq and 9/11, while being careful not to actually say so specifically. This is the essence of spin, bluffing, or bullshitting if you prefer to call it that. And it turns out that a great deal can be accomplished by way of deceiving people, without necessarily telling specific, nailable lies. For obvious reasons, politicians prefer this approach whenever possible, but in the process they create an environment — McClellan calls it a “permanent campaign” — which makes the distinction between truth and falsehood indiscernible, even (and in fact especially) to the spinners themselves. They can therefore “shun the truth” without seeing themselves as liars and later claim that they were not “willful or conscious” of what they were doing.

Aristotle describes the enthymeme in On Rhetoric. That was about 2,400 years ago. Man, stick with what works!

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June 5, 2008

Rhetorica Update

Summer is a good time to do house cleaning around the Rhetorica Network. For example, I’m updating links and fixing links. I’ve added a link to my blog on the Springfield News-Leader site (holler if you have any problem getting there). Rhetorica continues to function well, so I’m not planning any software or design updates. I have, however, implemented a WordPress test blog here. I may cross post a few things just to play with it. You won’t find any new or unique content there.

Next semester I’ll be teaching two sections of Media Ethics and one section of Introduction to Journalism–my two favorite classes. I’ve deleted the blogs for both–no more Golden Mean, no more Bang It Out! For intro, I’ll have the students start their own blogs. This will allow them to do more with the form; I’ll be asking them to do more with it.

I had been using The Golden Mean as dump site for reading response. That’s just not an effective use of blogging. So they get to hand in their weekly papers on paper from now on. I am, however, considering creating a media ethics Drupal site at MSU–something open to all MJF students (ethics is required for all our majors). More details as I dream them up. If you have any suggestions, drop me a line (which you can do on Facebook if you like–just add me as a friend).

June 4, 2008

The Great Debate…maybe

John McCain has approached Barack Obama with the idea of holding a series of town hall meetings between now and the Democratic Convention. Here is the detail paragraph from McCain’s letter (doing double duty as a press release) to Obama:

I propose these town hall meetings be as free from the regimented trappings, rules and spectacle of formal debates as possible, and that we pledge to the American people we will not allow the idea to die on the negotiation table as our campaigns work out the details. I suggest we agree to participate in at least ten town halls once a week with the first on June 11 or 12 in New York City at Federal Hall until the week before the Democratic Convention begins at locations to be determined by our campaigns. Federal Hall is particularly fitting as it was the place where George Washington took the oath of office as our first President and the birthplace of American government hosting the first Congress, Supreme Court and Executive Branch offices. These town halls should be attended by an audience of between two to four hundred selected by an independent polling agency, could be sixty to ninety minutes in length, have very limited moderation by an independent local moderator, take blind questions from the audience selected by the moderator and allow for equally proportional time for answers by each of us. All of these are suggestions that can be finalized by our campaigns. What is important is that we commit to participate in these history making meetings to join in the higher level of discourse that Americans clearly would prefer.

Apparently the Obama campaign will consider it. This could be a fascinating study in rhetorical situation. I hope the two campaigns work out the details and hit the road.

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June 4, 2008

How Could Hyperlocal Fail?

The Wall Street Journal reports that the hyperlocal LoudounExtra.com project by the Washington Post has largely failed. Isn’t hyperlocal supposed to be the saving grace of newspaper journalism? See if you can figure out what went wrong:

Though LoudounExtra.com seemed to promise an ideal combination of innovation and marketing muscle, it has failed to benefit from the reach of Washingtonpost.com. Mr. Curley says whenever a big story breaks involving Loudoun County, the Post typically publishes it on Washingtonpost.com without a link to LoudounExtra. That deprives LoudounExtra of potential traffic. Nor does the Washingtonpost’s own dedicated Loudoun County page send visitors directly to its online sibling. In September, when Time Warner Inc.’s AOL unit announced it was moving its headquarters from Dulles, Va., to New York, the Post linked to the story on LoudounExtra.com for a couple hours before moving the story back to its own site. That window of promotion fueled the Loudoun site’s best traffic day to date, Mr. Curley says.

Mr. Brady now says he is considering replacing the current Loudoun County page on Washingtonpost.com with LoudounExtra.com, although he adds he doesn’t want LoudounExtra.com or future hyperlocal sites to be too dependent on Washingtonpost.com for traffic.

Another problem: Mr. Curley’s crew was trying to reach a much different audience than they were used to. Unlike Lawrence, Kan., which had a small populace linked by an easily identifiable set of interests, Loudoun County is a 520 square-mile area with seven towns whose residents share little else besides a county government.

To penetrate those communities requires a more dedicated effort than the LoudounExtra.com team was putting forth. Mr. Curley himself acknowledged he spent too much time talking to other newspaper publishers about the hyperlocal strategy and too little time introducing his team and the site to Loudoun County.

All in all, the site has yet to catch fire. “We certainly didn’t get the numbers that our team was accustomed to getting,” Mr. Curley says. “Even in Lawrence, Kan., we were attracting more traffic than we were accustomed to getting [on LoudounExtra.com], and Lawrence is a town of 80,000 people.”

The Post’s Mr. Brady said he still plans to unveil a hyperlocal site for Fairfax County, Va., which has more than a million residents, and is considering a number of others down the road. But he said the site needs better integration with Washingtonpost.com and more such user-generated content.

Several media analysts agreed LoudounExtra.com doesn’t do enough to engage the community. Hyperlocal sites range from the fully service-oriented — filled with databases, calendars and news — to repositories for blogs, commentary, photos and video from visitors to the site.

But there were hazards involved in putting an autonomous team of outsiders in charge of new digital initiatives at a major media company. Mr. Curley says his team had been developing online tools to funnel Loudoun County-related video and photos to the site from other sites like YouTube, Facebook and Flickr, but couldn’t get approval from the Post’s legal team to launch the application. According to Mr. Brady, the legal team voiced concerns about who had legal claim to the content of those sites.


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June 3, 2008

What a Textbook Says News Is

A textbook for an introductory class in journalism ought to be able to define “news” in such a way that I can ask “what is news” on a test and get reasonable answers. I do not suppose there is a simple definition, but I do hope that news can be defined in a way that most journalists can apply the definition with some measure of consistency when judging situations that may demand public attention.

I have used Telling the Story to teach JRN270 (although I’ll be using an expanded version of the same book this fall). I reviewed the previous edition for the publisher for the purpose of making the current edition better. It’s fair to say that my comments about the definition of news offered on pages 3 to 5 were scathing. The reason: A college textbook should not offer students blatant tautologies for definitions. The current edition is better. But the big problem remains.

(I have yet to find a textbook with a definition of news that I like. I could do no better. I would find my own stabs at definition equally frustrating.)

Here’s what the book claims: The criteria journalists use to decide what’s news “can be summarized in three words: Relevance. Usefulness. Interest.”

From there, we get a list of “more specific elements,” including: impact, conflict, novelty, prominence, proximity, and timeliness.

From there we get examples–the stuff of “I know it when I see it.” It’s that inductive process I mentioned earlier.

None of this tells us what news is. These are criteria for judging newsworthiness.

The reason I’m asking the question “what is news” is because I’m wondering what role a more cogent expression of news might play in helping journalists avoid propaganda and other forms of manipulation. Or avoid other vagaries that afflict and confound the daily practice of journalism.

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