July 31, 2009

Eyes and Ears

Former WUSA anchor Mike Walter made a documentary film called Breaking News, Breaking Down about “journalists who believe they are the eyes and ears of society, never imagining what that might do to their minds.” The film examines the emotional trauma that can occur after witnessing (i.e. being a part of) catastrophic events. Here’s a clip:

I have not seen the film, just the clip. But I still have a couple of observations.

1. The clip clearly indicates that Tricia Olszewski is correct:

Breaking News, Breaking Down is inherently gripping, which is why its biggest failing is Walter’s tendency to overembellish—the story doesn’t need dramatic music, frozen and colorized shots, or trite comments like “I found Dart Center, and in the process I found myself.” Of all people, a newsman should understand that facts are more powerful than flourishes.

This film appears to be a shining example of glory bias. That’s not to say the topic is not interesting or important. While it might seem like a bit of professional common sense that “a newsman should understand that facts are more powerful than flourishes,” the fact is that the medium and the structural biases dictate content. The underlying idea that Walter is in control of his medium is not entirely correct. It’s more complicated than that. I think this film could offer a teachable, head-slap moment for broadcast journalists.

2. What kind of a human being would you have to be to be emotionally dead to catastrophe? I’m thinking “jaded journalist” is a euphemisim for something much worse, something you ought to seek treatment for, something journalists should never aspire to be. So, really, there is nothing at all surprising here in two senses: 1) Humans will react emotionally to catastrophic events they witness (are a part of), and 2) Television journalists will find a way to make themselves a part of the story precisely because of the imperatives of the medium.

July 29, 2009

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Memo to Howard Dean:

Stop. Just stop.


As you can see, Howard Dean is just completely talentless as a television host. There’s no shame in that.

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

There used to be shame in the idea that a politician would be allowed to host a news program — even one based on opinion journalism. Those days are gone.

I don’t watch much news on television. And when I do I usually watch CNN Headline News. The rest of it has become a wasteland of talking heads and punditry.

July 23, 2009

Codes and Ethics: Audience

Codes of ethics such as the SPJ’s are lists of normative values. Do these things. Don’t do these other things. Seek these outcomes. Avoid these other outcomes. Even though a very low percentage of professional journalists (i.e. they get a paycheck for doing it) belong to SPJ, they are all familiar with the code because the values it espouses are ubiquitous in the craft.

A code of ethics, to be of any use at all, must have a well-defined audience and be focused on a specific set of practices. Now there’s nothing surprising about that assertion. But making it is necessary for the following brief discussion. That assertion opens the door to a little deconstruction.

The audience is, obviously, journalists. The specific practice is journalism, i.e. the creation of texts (of all kinds) that, by employing an editorial process, have the primary purpose to  give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Who is left out?

Who is left out are the people with the power and autonomy to make decisions about what actually ends up offered to the public as journalism. Who is left out are the people with the power to act politically, socially, and economically in the news organization’s name. Who is left out are the people in the news organization who are connected to social, economic, and political power.

In other words, codes of ethics such as SPJ’s are aimed at modifying the behavior of the least powerful people in a typical MSM news business.

That’s not to conclude that such codes are useless or that they have nothing to teach journalists or that they have no relevance to citizens. It is to conclude that the codes are incomplete. The audience for the codes is too small given the (fading) realities of corporate journalism.

So what you get are episodes such as the recent troubles at the Washington Post in which the power structure at that news business acts as if it has been blindsided by unethical behavior that it couldn’t see coming. That, of course, is utter bull-roar. But the code “allows” it because its focus is on the ones in that situation who were victims of  “a certain complacency.”

In this series…

Codes and Ethics: A Series

July 18, 2009

Losers and the Mortgage Crisis

Check out my essay:

Cline, Andrew R. (2009) “‘Losers’ and the Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis.” Poverty & Public Policy: Vol. 1 : Iss. 2, Article 6.

July 16, 2009

Making Shit Up

The following video is (a tiny bit) related to yesterday’s post on partisan news media. Jon Stewart considers coverage of Obama’s ceremonial first pitch at the All-Star game.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Obama’s All-Star Pitch
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Joke of the Day
July 15, 2009

Stop Pretending

Every now and then I find myself thinking that American journalism would be better off with an openly partisan news media similar to what we see in the UK.

Partisan news organizations are not necessarily unreliable. Journalists working for such organizations can operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification if journalism rather than advocacy is the primary value. In other words, there’s no reason why a partisan news organization cannot produce excellent journalism and do so ethically

The current ethical standards as written in the various codes of ethics, however, argue against that idea. I’m not convinced.

I’m wondering if an openly partisan system would mitigate the ethical lapses we see in this article from The State:

National media blitzed Gov. Mark Sanford’s staff, offering big ratings and, possibly, a sympathetic venue in an effort to land the first interview with the governor after his six-day trip to Argentina.

Offering a “sympathetic venue”  would stretch ethical credibility even in a partisan system. Reason: Journalism cannot be produced in a system where information workers (used here as a euphemism for propagandists) do not operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification.

It’s entirely OK for any given business, organization, or individual to publish or broadcast just about anything and pretend it is journalism. But it’s easy enough to know who is delivering the goods.

Perhaps it’s time to stop pretending. Forget “fair and balanced.” Let FOX be conservative and then hold them to specific journalistic standards (“fair and balanced” is not terribly specific). Let MSNBC be liberal and then hold them to specific journalistic standards.

July 13, 2009

Codes and Ethics: A Series

What is a code of ethics for?

Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to examine the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. My goal is to come to a reasonable answer to the question above using “for” in the senses of utility and principle.

I use three central questions in my media ethics class as way to jump start critical examination of issues of media ethics. These questions can also guide an examination of codes:

  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?

I suppose the best way to start is to assert what a code of ethics is. I think it is useful to think of codes of ethics as a list of normative statements about what involved individuals ought and ought not do in regards to a particular undertaking. So in the case of journalism, the SPJ code is a list of normative statements (a moral framework) that attempt to guide how journalists do their jobs.

The preamble of the SPJ code sets the foundation for understanding how journalists are taught to understand their role:

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society’s principles and standards of practice.

You’ll recognize journalism’s theory of democracy in that statement:

1) the journalist’s role is to inform citizens; 2) citizens are assumed to be informed if they regularly attend to the local, national, and international news journalists supply them; 3) the more informed citizens are, the more likely they are to participate politically, especially in the democratic debate that journalists consider central to participation and democracy; 4) the more that informed citizens participate, the more democratic America is likely to be.

This is mythology. But it is very useful mythology. Despite each of those four parts of the theory being unproven (and in some cases dis-proven), it is entirely true that citizens cannot participate intelligently if they don’t know what’s going on. And that provides the foundation for the primary purpose of journalism as stated by Kovach & Rosenstiel: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

There’s nothing politically innocent about that purpose. Hence the need for a code of ethics.

We can begin to answer our initial question this way: A code of ethics teaches journalists what is expected of them and what citizens should expect from them.

July 11, 2009

No Side Businesses for Journalism

A journalist’s first loyalty is to the public. That’s the only way to meet the ethical demands of the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Andrew Alexander, ombudsman for the Washington Post, examines the paper’s recent influence-peddling scandal — an “ethical lapse of monumental proportions.”

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Post’s own code could not be clearer on the topics of independence and influence. So how could this have happened?

There are many answers to that question, the saddest of which was quoted by Alexander. Here’s Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli commenting on why newsroom managers apparently let this mess progress without a peep:

“When the publisher and the editor both appear to have signed off on an idea, I think it is perhaps true that a certain complacency sets in,” he said. For that reason, lower-level managers might be less inclined “to stand up and say: ‘Whoa, this is a bad idea.’ “

But I contend that Brauchli is wrong about the source of the editorial managers’ complacency, or, rather, he is only partly right. And this brings me to what I think is one of the most important questions not asked/answered by Alexander:

Why is the Post in the conferences and events business in the first place?

OK, there’s an easy “answer”: To make money because the newspaper is losing money.

You’ll find that in Alexander’s column also with the general idea, written between the lines, that it’s not a big deal because other news organizations do it, too.

But such side businesses set news organizations up for exactly this kind of ethical lapse of monumental proportions. Blaming individuals is easy. I think we must also blame the system created by corporate power. Put people into untenable situations and they will have ethical lapses of monumental proportions. The corporation cares about profit. Journalism cares about serving the public (or used to anyway). These two things don’t mesh well. Yes, I know. That’s big news.

News organizations ought not run side businesses. The temptation to engage in ethical lapses of monumental proportions is just too great. Therefore, news organizations that run such businesses are being unethical. Journalists who fail to speak up are being unethical. And those news organizations that have yet to engage in ethical lapses of monumental proportions are merely lucky.

July 9, 2009

Who Makes These (Editorial) Decisions?

Paul Krugman asks: Who makes these decisions? The answer is simple: journalists. And the answer isn’t even the least bit surprising. Making editorial decisions — specifically what counts as news and what doesn’t, and who counts as a source and who doesn’t, and what counts as knowledge and what doesn’t (re: my field theory blog essay) — is precisely a part of the cognitive and practical structure (the epistemology) at the foundation of the definition of journalism.

But that’s a problem.

Why? Well, bias.

But it’s also a problem because, IMO, journalists do not get the kind of training in critical theory/thinking necessary to be massively humbled in the face of the job they propose to do, i.e. give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

July 7, 2009

Journalism Suspended Today

Journalism (i.e. providing the information citizens need to be free and self-governing) has been suspended today for the Michael Jackson memorial. Even CNN Headline news is covering it live, which seems to me 1) redundant, and 2) waaaay off purpose. Check back tomorrow — for more coverage and commentary of the memorial. Keep checking back.

I do not mean to suggest that it not be covered or that it isn’t news or a sort. I mean to assert that what we’re seeing is overkill.

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