August 24, 2009

Stenography, Again

Reporters must make a choice: Be a reporter or be a stenographer. And they must make this choice despite the very real economic pressures that constrain their work. They must make the right (ethical) choice in order to try to fulfill the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Mark Adams complains, on American Street, that his two dollar newspaper sucks. By that he means:

Enter journalism Professor Jay Rosen of NYU, Twitter Guru and one of the few old guys who gets new media.  He rails against press “curmudgeons” clinging to the old models every day.  Barbara at Mahablog noted his take on the inanity of typical “he said-she said” reporting, the kind of infotainment that led Jon Stewart to virtually destroy CNN’s “Crossfire” program — covering the controversy, the shouting match, instead of digging through the noise and exposing/explaining/truth-telling.  This was the subject of Neal Gabler’s fine piece at the Los Angeles Times which sparked both Barbara and Jay to chime in.

Stenography causes these problems (short list) for citizens trying to find the kind of information that will help them be free and self-governing:

1. Sounds bites get substituted for facts and rational argument.

2. Mere partisan contention becomes news pushing out context (series: part 1, part 2, part 2 supplemental) and proportion (bad kairos).

3. Intentional falsehoods achieve a cultural force equal to facts and (something like) the truth.

A practical example is all the hooey about “death panels.” Journalism, properly and ethically practiced, would have slam-dunked that nonsense instantly.

The upshot here is not that some politicians and pundits are bad people for trying to win politically (an entirely reasonable goal). The upshot is, as Adams says:

That’s his two parts of the print media’s deadly perfect storm, online flight coupled with recession, but there is a third systemic problem — and it’s the stuff right in his lap. He described the elements of this perfect storm in a way that conveniently removed any responsibility on the reporting and editorial staff — and thus any ability for improvement by the talent, the product the producers of news provide.  Excellence in journalism is not rewarded in his analysis, nor mediocrity discouraged.

As in: A big part of what’s going wrong in the MSM is the fault of journalists. Yes, the business model has failed. Yes, there’s new competition for the attention of citizens. Yes, economic times are tough. Yes, editors and reporters are tempest-tossed by these and other economic realities. But also yes, stenography —  apparently the preferred “reporting” method today — is:

1. Boring.

2. Difficult to understand.

3. Elevates hooey to the level of facts and truth.

4. Manipulates citizens.

Returning to the “death panels,” this falsehood was not a myth as Doug Thompson claims. Calling it a myth seems to suggest that the “death panel” idea simply existed out there in the culture and was picked up and shouted to the world by pundits and bloggers.

No. Mainstream journalism — primarily on television — helped promote these wild accusations by focusing on the fact that people were making them rather than digging up the facts of the matter and playing the facts with far more prominence than the falsehood. Mainstream journalism took entirely too long to call bullshit.

There’s an easier way to say all of this. A failure to report the facts and seek the truth thus fails the primary purpose of journalism. And that is unethical.

August 20, 2009

Fleshing Out Meta-Reporting

One of my big frustrations with the concept of meta-reporting (aka. show-your-work journalism) is that I cannot simply teach it to my students as good journalistic practice. The reason is simple: It is not now much of a journalistic practice at all. It is troublesome because it exists outside the recognized discourse of news.

So I teach it as a transgressive practice that students should adopt because they are the ones who will create the brave new world of journalism following the inevitable failure of the corporate business model.

Matt Thompson, of Newsless.org, published an interesting essay about the three parts of a news story you usually don’t get. You usually don’t get them because they are not part of the recognized discourse. They are elements of meta-reporting. The three parts are:

1. Longstanding facts: “There is a universe of facts that stay essentially fixed from day to day.” These facts form the context (series: part 1, part 2, part 2 supplemental) of complex stories such as political campaigns and the struggle to hammer out complex legislation (e.g. health care).

2. How journalists know what they know: This is the most basic element of meta-reporting or show-your-work journalism.

3. Things we don’t know: Part of showing your work ought to be showing what work you have left to do.

Thompson’s conclusion:

As long as the news is structured solely around what just happened, journalists are going to be fighting a rough battle. With a latest-news-only approach, we stoke demand for journalism by trying to snag people’s attention with each new development.

There’s another way, one that leads to a more informed and more loyal public, and allows us to do better work. It involves:

  • Enlarging the market for journalism by making it easier for more people to understand the longstanding facts behind each story.
  • Increasing the appeal of journalism by letting folks in on the details of our quest to uncover the truth.
  • Expanding the appetite for journalism by explaining what we don’t know, and what we’re working to find out.

As news consumers, we should be demanding these things as well. After all, right now we’re only getting the lamest part of the story.

Exactly. Let me add something else to this list: The kind of journalism produced by a standard practice of meta-reporting, I believe, has a high potential to produce the kind of information citizens need to be free and self-governing (the primary purpose). Meta-reporting creates a sound foundation for propositional content and thus aligns with Postman’s concepts of information, knowledge, and wisdom. That means meta-reporting may be not only a more effective method of informing the public, it would also then be a more ethical method.

August 18, 2009

Of Pundits and Idiots

The term “idiot” has been a bit over-used of late — especially in book titles, even song titles — although I’m cool with Green Day’s use of it.

But it is a great word with a crisp sound and three flexible syllables that allow you to inflect it multiple ways to achieve the right tone for making someone feel like, well, an idiot. I think it also has a curious, aural enthemematic quality, too, such that when you see it in print you make it sound a particular way in your head.

I try not to use the word on Rhetorica, although I’m sure I have a few times.

I’m reading a book right now — about halfway through it — entitled Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free by Charles P. Pierce. I’m not intending to write a review of it. It’s just something I happen to be reading. And last night when I reached page 104 I happened into a long section quoting me. Surprise! (I do not recall giving Pierce an interview.) He’d quoted a large portion of my oft-quoted blog post entitled How to Be a Pundit (also mentioned in the Wall Street Journal).

This is a bit of serendipity because on Sunday the Springfield News-Leader ran my letter to the editor decrying the idiocy of mindless partisan contention. I think the News-Leader promotes this kind of idiocy — thus harming our local civic discourse — by encouraging amateur, local columnists to be pundits instead of opinion journalists (which anyone can be). They do this by labeling their columns “From the Right” and “From the Left,” which creates a clear expectation of unthinking partisan contention in the form of demonizing.

Further, it does not appear that the News-Leaders attempts in any way to mitigate the demonizing — thus encouraging it. They don’t even check facts — thus encouraging it. So the only thing missing from these silly pissing matches is the wet stain on the paper.

Television is hopeless, so there’s no point complaining about the role that medium plays in civic idiocy. Civic idiocy is good television. But a newspaper, as a medium of propositional content, should be better. It should provide better and encourage better in its readers and contributors.

But those days are over. Welcome to idiot America.

August 15, 2009

Rhetoric of Press Thuggery

If there were any journalists left at MSNBC, I suppose they would be appalled by Lawrence O’Donnell’s thuggish behavior and his lack of cogent interviewing skills.

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

The rhetorical tactics we see displayed here are thought to be the oldest in use among humans: volume and repetition. Add interruptions and a nasty tone of voice and you guarantee that nothing of substance will be learned in this “interview.” But it sure is entertaining. And that means it’s good television. And that’s not a good thing for our civic discourse.

O’Donnell could have conducted an interview that would have elicited from Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) answers with a high degree of political utility, i.e. get him to say stuff that we might actually be able to use to our civic benefit. But, of course, that kind of interview requires rhetorical talent, interviewing skill, and a high regard for the primary purpose of journalism (also its guiding ethic): To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

The only people who will get anything out of this performance are the easily-amused and the blindly partisan.

August 15, 2009

Rhetorica Update: Server Problem

A hardware malfunction with my server provider recently caused the last entry (Minute 4:40) and a few comments to be lost. Everything is working fine now. So onward and upward!

August 12, 2009

Good Television

Where are the custodians of fact?

On the one hand, journalism should report citizens’ experiences with governance as a normal part of political reporting. On the other hand, journalists have a moral obligation to choose their sources wisely, be transparent about their criteria (i.e. show your work), and defend the facts

Why this guy? What does he add? Why is he news? What do I understand about the health care issue now that I didn’t understand before I heard his mistaken claims?

Well, duh! Because he makes good television.

August 11, 2009

Rhetorica Update

School starts in about two weeks. I’m busy now working on my syllabi and other class preparations. August blogging will be a bit slow around here.

I’ll be continuing the series on journalism’s codes of ethics. My plan is to finish that work by the time my two ethics classes begin discussion of codes about the third week of September.

August 1, 2009

Personal Ethics Statements

I think the idea of journalists publishing personal statements about their ethical standards is a good step toward transparency. Individuals should take responsibility for “oughts” and “ought nots” of their work. For an excellent example of this, check out Walt Mossberg’s personal ethics statement at the Wall Street Journal.

Mossberg’s statement is typical of what we should expect from a technology columnist. There’s nothing surprising here. Much of his statement is grounded in the SPJ Code of Ethics.

I was alerted to Andrew Alexander’s blog post by a Tweet from Jay Rosen who makes this claim (with which I agree): Transparency is the new objectivity. “Where I’m coming from” works better than the View from Nowhere.

But there’s something missing (and I do not mean to pick on Mossberg; he’s merely an example): The concept of transparency, I think, must include the concept of show-your-work journalism, which is a proper understanding of what objectivity was supposed to be.

Further, Mossberg’s statement, in its typicality, fails to account for biases that I have claimed are far more important to understanding journalists and journalism than the sorts of things we see in codes of ethics. Show-your-work journalism is all about making plain more than one’s adherence to a code or a defense / explanation of one’s politics. If we can see your work we can make better decisions about the quality of your news.

Again, posting personal ethics statements is a good idea. I posted one on Rhetorica the first year. But now I’m thinking it’s time to re-think and re-write. I’m not at all confident it fits the needs of transparency as I imagine them.