December 25, 2009


December 18, 2009

Rhetorica Update

Today begins the slow season for Rhetorica — that period between the fall and spring semesters. You should expect my blogging to be slow until mid January.

In related news, I’ll be spending a large portion of the winter break doing a major overhaul on all my classes to increase the role of social media and internet publishing in my instruction. I’ll offer more details when I publish my new syllabi on 11 January.

This spring I’m teaching JRN270 Introduction to Journalism, JRN378 Photojournalism, and MED581 Issues in Media Ethics.

December 16, 2009

The Toxic Newspaper

This morning is the first morning of my adult life that I am not a subscriber to a local daily newspaper.

I am distressed by this.

But my distress is nothing compared to the disgust I feel about the harm the Springfield News-Leader is doing to our civic discourse. It is a toxic presence. And I can no longer spend my money on it and, thus, be a party to the damage.

I had not planned to write about my decision on Rhetorica (although I did Tweet it and post it on Facebook). But a conversation my wife and I had this morning convinced me to do so. Wife Rhetorica, by the way, is a professional journalist with more than 25 years experience and a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She knows a little something about it.

We were standing in the kitchen wondering what to do with ourselves when she said:

“I didn’t change. The paper changed. You hear all this talk about how people don’t care about politics or their communities so they don’t read papers. Well, it’s not true.”

Yes. That’s exactly what I saw on Twitter and Facebook yesterday. In response to my postings there, I received many positive replies and e-mails from people I know who are vitally interested in this community and vitally interested in news.

The gist of their replies: What took you so long?

Why is the News-Leader toxic? I’ll mention three things (in my opinion):

  • Gannett’s mismanagement of its assets has made it difficult to do good journalism. Coverage of local news is thin at best. Good veterans have been laid off, fired, or otherwise allowed to escape.
  • A shocking amount of “news” in the paper is regurgitated press releases. Two pictured columnists are former reporters now working PR for local organizations. (I don’t blame them. They are simply doing a good job for their clients.)
  • For reasons I do not understand (perhaps economic), the News-Leader has turned its Voices section (the editorial section) into a forum for amateur pundits (I’m being polite) who are apparently not fact-checked or edited or otherwise supervised or taught. This is the most toxic section of the paper as it has been given over to mindless partisan bickering.

The News-Leader is not the only game in town. And, trust me, there will be attempts to fill the gaps. I’ll have more to say about this in the weeks ahead.

And it’s not like I can’t — if feeling the need for self-inflicted pain — just go to the web and see what the News-Leader is offering as news today and in the future.

It’s not the news or journalism I’m giving up on. I’m simply refusing to pay money for a product that I believe is doing more harm than good. In short, the News-Leader utterly fails the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

It would be unethical of me to pay money to harm our civic discourse.

Past coverage of the News-Leader on Rhetorica:

December 14, 2009

Journalistic Questions and Answers

Jay Rosen thinks a news site called ought to exist (I agree). Here’s the idea:

Users go to the site and find a prompt similar to Twitter’s what’s happening? or Facebook’s what’s on your mind? But instead of updating their status they type in a question they have for a team of journalists who are… “standing by.”

But not just any question will do (nor just any answer). The idea is to report on questions that cannot be answered by “a simple, or even a sophisticated search.”

My quick reaction: Give it a go. Let’s see what happens.

A commenter, however, asks two serious questions:

1. What are “journalistic” questions?

2. What are “journalistic” answers?

I like these questions. I’m a rhetoric scholar. I’m programmed to appreciate questions that do the work these questions do. What we have here is nothing less than an interrogation of the entire foundation of journalism. The commenter says that “defining what makes this a journalism site will contribute a lot to the debate over journalistic ‘value added.'” Yes. But it’s even more than that. These questions strike to the heart of “value added” for the entire enterprise no matter upon what media it is delivered.

I’ve spouted off before that journalism is an under-theorized practice because journalists often do what they do without reflecting upon the meaning of the premises and assumptions that support their practice. I stand by this claim.

Do agreed-upon definitions of these journalistic questions and answers exist? That’s another way of asking: Do journalists know what these things are, can they articulate them, and do many/some/all journalists agree?

Let’s start this investigation with a statement that conflates craft and ethics: The primary purpose of journalism is to give people the information they need to be free and self-governing. (I will assume here that “information” includes the concepts of knowledge and wisdom re: Postman)

Let’s set aside the definitional minefield we could get into with that statement and simply note that the various codes of ethics in journalism support this general notion.

First stab:

A “journalistic question” is one that seeks knowledge (organized information embedded in a context) that will eventually lead to wisdom (the capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems).

A “journalistic answer” is knowledge delivered in a politically, socially, and/or economically useful form.

Here’s the example “journalistic question” published by Rosen (and credited to Jim Marko): Why are we still subsidizing corn?

Journalism is not currently organized around answering that kind of question. Where does that question come from, i.e. what (whose) exigence does it address? That’s not the kind of question journalists usually ask because they spend much of their time reacting to “news” (agendas) that is the concern of powerful civic actors (status quo bias). In other words, journalists do not ask “why are we still subsidizing corn” because no one of any importance (to journalism) is asking that question. Journalists will ask the question when some politician calls a press conference.

Here’s the thing: The corn question is a “journalistic question” in the sense that it seeks the kind of information that meets the primary purpose of journalism.

Perhaps journalists should start asking journalistic questions. To do so, however, would require them to seriously question a powerful bias.

December 11, 2009

Shield Law to Include Citizens?

Will citizens get a shield law?

We’re a step closer today after the Senate judiciary committee cleared its version of shield law to allow reporters to protect confidential sources. According to a report published on the Huffington Post:

The bill uses a broad definition of journalists by including bloggers, citizen journalists and freelancers.

Citizens should only support a shield law bill to the extent that it protects certain acts of journalism and not simply journalists who work for news organizations and earn a paycheck. The reason: Journalists have First Amendment rights because they are citizens, not because they are journalists.

A shield law that protects only professionals (i.e. they get a paycheck) would create a special constituency for the First Amendment — something never intended by the word “press,” which refers, metaphorically, to printed matter that we all have the right to produce and distribute.

December 9, 2009

The C-J Word

What is “citizen journalism”? I like Jay Rosen’s definition:

Here’s the problem: This concept freaks out some professional journalists (professional in this case meaning they get a paycheck to do it).

There’s this idea floating around that many people — these citizen journalists — think they can replace professional journalists, i.e. “throw the professionals overboard.” That’s news to me. I think one might be able to say this: There are many people trying to pick up the ball(s) professional (corporate controlled) journalism has dropped.

I sympathize with the notion that “journalism” requires an editorial process. Does that process have to be the same as those who practice the craft with the financial support of a news organization? When we modify the noun “journalist” with “citizen” what are we changing?

I think Rosen’s definition of the c-j word makes that quite clear.

Further, the process is different for everyone now, citizen and professional alike. The internet has made the movement from the rhetoric of lecture to the rhetoric of conversation possible. Journalism used to assert that it was the conversation that a culture has with itself. That was pure bull-roar. You can’t conduct a conversation with the rhetoric of lecture — information always flowing from people who (think they) know to people who (presumably) do not know. The internet — and a new generation of content producers known as the millennials — has changed that.

What we’re seeing here is the last gasp of the rhetoric of lecture.

December 4, 2009

The New N-word?

Do I need to explain why white people should not use the word “nigger“?

Does anyone really not understand why some segments of African-American culture use it?

Some conservatives understand. And that’s entirely expected because they have built a truly powerful and efficient message machine over the past 40 years. Here’s Jay Nordlinger (as quoted in TPM):

When I was growing up, in Ann Arbor, Mich., there was a little debate: Should school officials try to prevent black students from using the N-word? I don’t believe the issue was ever settled. And this brings up the question of whether “teabagger” could be kind of a conservative N-word: to be used in the family, but radioactive outside the family.

Language is never innocent. You gain power by taking control of words, i.e. “We define what this word means, what it refers to, how it refers to it, and who can use it.”

The silly part in all of this is that there is just no historical or socio-political comparison between the intended use of “nigger” by politically and economically powerful whites and the intended use of “teabagger” by one faction against another under the understood provisions of the democratic bargain.

Is “teabagger” a term used by liberals to deride the tea-party patriots.

Well, duh. Of course it is.

Is it the new n-word.

Of course not.

No more so than “traitor,” which many conservatives used against liberals in recent years.

But I do think that embracing it is exactly the right move if they want to take the sting out of it.

December 3, 2009

How Do You Know?

I could write this same post everyday.

Here’s the set up:

Don’t hate yourself because, having tuned into the Tiger Woods drama and the Salahis comedy you’ve found that you can’t tune them out. And don’t blame CNN or TMZ or even the New York Times for making the yarns as irresistible as an open bag of Doritos. There’s a reason these two stories appeal to us and why—even though we’ve been lectured that we really shouldn’t be paying any attention to the unfolding spectacles—we keep coming back for more.

Sez who?

Exactly what evidence exists that Americans want American journalism to cover celebrities? What evidence exists that Americans “can’t get enough”?

What I suspect we have here is something far different: This is the stuff journalists can’t get enough of. (It’s easier than, say, covering important issues comprehensively — that requires hard work, hard thinking, and resources such as time and money.)

They feed it to us in great amounts. I think a better argument can be made that any interest on the part of the public is to a very great extent created by news media focus on celebrities.

And, really, if we were that interested, don’t you suppose all the coverage would lead to something other than ever-declining readership?

I stick by my original advice: Try being serious.

December 3, 2009

Fight Journalist Exceptionalism

This news should trouble every American.

Repeat this until it sinks in: American journalists have 1st Amendment rights because they are Americans, NOT because they are journalists.

That word “press” in the 1st Amendment does not refer to the profession of journalism as we understand it today. The word wasn’t even used that way in 1791. It is a metaphor for printed matter that all Americans have the right to produce and distribute.

We can certainly debate the Constitutionality of shield laws. I’m not taking a stand on that here. If such a law is to be passed, however, it should not give journalists more rights than other citizens.