May 20, 2009

The Future of Journalism

I have no idea what the future of journalism will be. I’m not even prepared to speculate about what it won’t be. But I have been telling students for five years now exactly what Josh Marshall told students at Columbia University:

Despite the financial and, perhaps, existential crisis journalism is facing (“you don’t have to look very hard for Cassandras saying it’s a dying business,” Marshall noted)—and also because of those crises—“there’s no time…that I would rather enter the profession than right now,” Marshall said. “It’s the people entering the profession now who are going to create the publishing models, the business models, that are going to shape journalism in the 21st century.”

Marshall is an excellent example of his own speculation. He’s running a successful news organization. Does it operate like a newspaper? No. Does it follow all the craft rules? No. Is it always recognizable as traditional journalism? No. Does it hide behind a false objectivity? No.

I am not claiming that Talking Points Memo is entirely new or represents the future. It still operates with some of the “systematized accidents of history” Marshall alludes to. What it does do, for me, is offer an example of how journalism might be imagined by my students because they will have to re-imagine it. They have absolutely no choice in the matter. Welcome to the revolution; it’s yours, like it or not. Make of it what you will.

How will they do this. Marshall is spot-on again:

We need to bring a critical sensibility not only to our thinking about the journalism, Marshall suggested, but to journalism itself. We need to foster forms of journalism—and build publishing models—that, in turn, foster the “constant process of re-examination that is absolutely critical to our own work.”

Remember this? “I know journalism. What I am unwilling to do is teach it uncritically.” A big part of what I do (what I hope I do) is teach and then challenge the “systematized accidents of history.” Education happens in the “challenge” part, the critical part. In other words, it’s never been more damned important than right now to send young journalists into the world with good critical thinking skills, i.e. the courage and skill to question everything about the craft and business of journalism while not being bound to “systematized accidents of history” or even their own new ideas.

It’s all up for grabs.

Even newspaper journalism? Hmmmmmm…

May 14, 2009

Those Darn Shortcuts

How do you make a first-class idiot out of yourself in a hurry in journalism?

OK, yes, there’s actually a long list of answers to that question. The reason is that journalism is a tough craft to practice well, and it is subject to all manner of human foibles and failings.

The particular failing I want to highlight today is my favorite. You know what’s coming…

Journalists should operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification.

One of the latest lapses: A fake quote lifted from Wikipedia. What really hurts: The fake quote was placed by a college student in order to test “how our globalized, increasingly Internet-dependent media was upholding accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news.” That’s the “story,” anyway.

Hahahahahaha! I love it!

Here’s the scoop from AP via CNEWS:

When Dublin university student Shane Fitzgerald posted a poetic but phoney quote on Wikipedia, he was testing how our globalized, increasingly Internet-dependent media was upholding accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news.

His report card: Wikipedia passed. Journalism flunked.

The sociology major’s obituary-friendly quote — which he added to the Wikipedia page of Maurice Jarre hours after the French composer’s death March 28 — flew straight on to dozens of U.S. blogs and newspaper websites in Britain, Australia and India.

They used the fabricated material, Fitzgerald said, even though administrators at the free online encyclopedia twice caught the quote’s lack of attribution and removed it.

The Guardian was one of the newspapers fooled by Fitzgerald’s fake quote. The conclusion of Siobhain Butterworth’s explanation is interesting:

It’s worrying that the misinformation only came to light because the perpetrator of the deception emailed publishers to let them know what he’d done and it’s regrettable that he took nearly a month to do so. Why did he wait so long? “I apologise for that,” he said. “I was originally going to do a report for my class and then it didn’t work out. I know I should have told you sooner.”

Is Fitzgerald a “perpetrator”? Hmmmmm… I find it fascinating and very troubling that neither AP nor The Guardian apparently bothered to check out this guy’s story (a little meta-reporting, please!). What class was involved? Why didn’t he turn something in? Did anyone call this guy’s professor to find out if this “experiment” could have been a legitimate part of the class work? This is more failure of craft of exactly the kind that got The Guardian into trouble in the first place.

The Chronicle of Higher Education avoided the implication that Fitzgerald conducted his experiment for a class. But it would have been nice if this newspaper covering higher education had rundown the truth — experiment or hoax? The truth, it seems to me, rides on what this student’s professor has to say.

Somebody call this person and ask!

Ooops, well, too late. The news beast has moved on to other matters.

May 13, 2009

The Predictable Dance

Spot on, Jon. As usual.

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Stewart calls it the “predictable dance” — the enevitable escalation of nothing into news caused in part by a nexus of journalism’s structural biases and the need to fill the 24-hour TV beast with emotional and political (and, in this case, visual — she is, after all, a beautiful blond) controversy.

May 11, 2009

Who Cares?

So they held the White House Correspondents Dinner over the weekend.

Any news organization that allows its reporters, anchors, and editors attend this thing ought to face some serious questions about ethics. Such fraternization with important and powerful politicians should be completely off limits to members of the press for rather obvious reasons. You can read about them in any introductory journalism textbook.

I’ll spell out one just in case: “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

Sometimes, however, wonderful things can happen (because it seems some politicians and journalists are satirically illiterate enough not to understand what you get when you hire Stephen Colbert), such as the moments that occur about 7 minutes into the following video from the 2006 dinner:

May 4, 2009

What is News Analysis?

Jack Shafer criticizes NPR Senior News Analyst Cokie Roberts for offering four minutes of nothing on her Morning Edition segment:

I can think of no comparably sized media space that’s as void of original insight and information as Roberts’. Her segments, though billed as “analysis” by NPR, do little but speed-graze the headlines and add a few grace notes. If you’re vaguely conversant with current events, you’re already cruising at Roberts’ velocity. Roberts doesn’t just voice the conventional wisdom; she is the conventional wisdom.

Question: What is news analysis (the thing we assume a news analyst produces)?

Shafer believes, and I agree, on what it certainly is not: stating the obvious.

Beyond that what is it?

Shafer never says what it is he wants Roberts to do. That’s merely an observation and not an evaluation. I don’t think one must offer “solutions” as a buy-in to criticism.

I do something like news analysis on Rhetorica, but I don’t think what I do here is anything like what Shafer wants to see from Roberts. That’s just an assumption.

Is Roberts a journalist? What exactly is her role?

If she’s a journalist (an opinion journalist) then I assume that any analysis she’s supposed to perform should be based on reporting, i.e. “here’s what I found out when I went asking, and here’s what I think it means.” Otherwise she’d be a pretty poor opinion journalist (a huge club with massive convention every year in Las Vegas). It seems to me that this is part of the failing Shafter is highlighting. Roberts apparently isn’t doing the footwork. She’s apparently just commenting on headlines and hearsay based on her… what? Her position as an insider of some sort? If a political insider, then maybe not a journalist. If not a journalist, then perhaps no incentive to discuss how things really work.