April 30, 2010

On Flux

When I first read the column in which black youths were referred to as “colored,” I simply chalked it up as the latest outrage from the Opinion section of the Springfield News-Leader. I never intended to comment on it.

There was a lot of chatter about it in our department. All of my colleagues in journalism were aghast that “colored” had been allowed to stand. Dr. Mark Paxton decided to write a letter about it.

It was the News-Leader’s response to Paxton that led me to begin my current campaign to change the News-Leader — at the very least to gain an apology to the community. As noted earlier, here is what the News-Leader published in response to a professor of journalism (i.e. someone who knows what he’s talking about — he also happens to teach our class on opinion journalism):

Editor’s note: We try to give writers flexibility in terms to express themselves. Terms involving race are always sensitive, but it should be noted that the use of colored, negro, black or African-American are in flux.

The first statement is completely reasonable. The first independent clause of the second sentence states a cultural fact. But the second independent clause is an arrogant dismissal (note the passive voice) that is contrary to the lessons of recent history and contrary to the ethical norms of journalism — shockingly so.

“Colored” was the mark of American apartheid in the South prior to the Civil Rights Movement. Some Americans had to suffer, for example, the indignity of using separate and inferior facilities — marked “colored” — merely because of the color of their skin.

Further, the assertion that this term is in “flux” is incorrect and absurd. If that were the case, the AP Stylebook would surely note it. It doesn’t. It’s advice is clear: “In some societies, including the United States, the word is considered derogatory and should not be used.”

So what’s going at the News-Leader?

That’s difficult to say. I cannot think of any reason why anyone in journalism would think — contrary to AP and SPJ — that the use of “colored,” in the context it was used, is anything other than an editorial lapse that demands correction and apology.

April 29, 2010

Gannett Blog Reacts to “Colored”

Jim Hopkins of Gannett Blog has reacted to the News-Leader’s use of “colored”:

Now, let me say right away that I think papers have gotten too bland in recent years, as publishers worried about losing readers over controversial content. Opinion pages, especially, deserve to be open to many views, and can’t fall victim to the political correctness police.

But I’m not convinced that community member Joe Snider’s “Patriot’s Pen” column in Monday’s print paper got much editing beyond a perfunctory spell-check. And I don’t say that merely because of his casual use of “colored youth” to describe black teenagers in his op-ed about whether white Americans own slave descendants an apology.

Read the full column, and you’ll see some sloppy, slap-dash writing — evidence of an author so amateur, you wonder why he appears on the pages of a serious daily paper.

April 29, 2010

Ham-Handed Headline

There is no indication this morning that any editor at the News-Leader understands the transgression of using the racist and derogatory term “colored” to refer to black youths. As I pointed out yesterday, at the very least it offends the conventions of the AP Stylebook and the SPJ Code of Ethics.

But to refer to the term as “in flux” also offends history. The term “colored” was the very mark of American apartheid in the South prior to the Civil Rights Movement.

Today, let’s examine the ham-handed headline on the column: “Americans don’t owe slave descendants any apologies.”

Journalists like to think of themselves as expert, or at least skilled, in the use of the English language. This attitude draws snickers from people who actually do know something it.

What this headline does is create a dichotomy between “Americans” and “slave descendants” who are at the very least grammatically separated and, thus, separated culturally by implication. In other words, slave descendants are not real Americans.

Now I can just about guarantee you that the headline writer did not intend that meaning.


Given the racist use of “colored” in the column and the paper’s complete lack of understanding of that transgression, this headline is a further slap in the face of the tiny black population in this second whitest city in America.

April 28, 2010

Failure to Edit

Failure to edit can lead to ethical failure. We saw a sad example of this in a recent column by one of the Springfield News-Leaders’ many amateur pundits. This pundit, writing a column called A Patriot’s Pen, used the term “colored” to refer to black youths.

I have been arguing somewhat regularly that the News-Leaders’ failure to edit its amateur pundits and teach them the basics of opinion journalism has created a toxic opinion section that is harmful to our civic discourse. I stand by that criticism. It’s not hard to do.

One of my colleagues called the paper on its failure to edit and received this reply:

Editor’s note: We try to give writers flexibility in terms to express themselves. Terms involving race are always sensitive, but it should be noted that the use of colored, negro, black or African-American are in flux.

What the hell?

Does Dave Iseman, the Opinion section editor, not own an AP Stylebook? On page 53 of my edition it says about “colored”:

In some societies, including the United States, the word is considered derogatory and should not be used.

Further, the SPJ Code of Ethics says:

Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.

In other words, no, the use of colored is most certainly not in “flux.”

It’s sad that Springfield is the second whitest city in the U.S. It’s sadder still that the local newspaper can be this tone deaf to racial terms and stereotypes.

It seems like every week one of these amateur pundits commits a new outrage. It’s not their fault. They don’t know what they are doing. Their contributions are better suited for the Letters to the Editor. But if the News-Leader is going to give them columns with titles and mug shots, then journalistic ethics demands that Dave Iseman, or someone, edit these columns and attempt to teach these pundits how to be opinion journalists (assuming someone at the N-L knows what opinion journalism is).

April 23, 2010

Ancient History

Eight years ago today I posted the first entry to Rhetorica.

With the discipline of rhetoric as its foundation, Rhetorica began as an examination of press-politics and morphed into an examination of media ethics. That change represented my changing interests and my academic emphasis on media ethics.

Rhetorica has enjoyed periods of high readership and influence. And, at other times (such as now), it has limped along with a handful of loyal readers while making hardly a dent in the greater conversation.

Through it all I have enjoyed writing this blog, and I will continue to do so. Thank you for reading. And — especially — thank you for participating.

April 19, 2010

Facts : Journalism :: Air : Life

I’ve been fascinated with Jay Rosen’s simple fix for “messed up” Sunday talk shows. It’s a fix that makes sense and attracted the attention of ABC’s This Week. David Gregory, of NBC’s Meet the Press, isn’t so sure.

Journalism is big craft practiced by many types of people for many reasons. The most ethical among them practice it with the primary purpose of giving citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. The most effective among them are custodians or fact operating with a discipline of verification.

The Sunday talk shows certainly show important guests talking (sometimes snarling and blathering) about important issues. But in the absence of fact-checking, the content of these shows cannot be properly labeled journalism. These shows fail ethically by failing journalism’s primary purpose. And to fail in terms of facts is to turn potentially important civic discourse into (entertaining) partisan blather.

(Note: My assumption here is that insider wrangling and partisan sniping gives citizens very little politically useful information, i.e. information they can use to understand civic problems and then act on their own behalf.)

The hosts and producers of these shows have an important question to ask themselves (to the extent they are capable of asking and answering): Do we intend to serve journalism’s primary purpose or something else?

April 7, 2010

The Bias of Expertise

Experts are supposed to be ones who know. But what is it that they know?

An expert ought to know the vocabulary of one’s area of expertise — so much knowledge being a classification of things as different from other things. But more than this, an expert ought to know two more important things: 1) They ought to know what they don’t know, and 2) they ought to know who knows differently and how/why. While it is not essential to earn a Ph.D. to be an expert, I have found that the Ph.D., when properly approached, can bring one to an understanding of these three characteristics of expertise.

What do journalists know? They ought to know the basics of journalistic craft, including understanding that it is a particular form of discourse with particular conventions for particular purposes. That purpose (primary) ought to be giving citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. Journalism done well — by pros or amateurs — is about discovering (reporting) and disseminating (through various “texts”) information, knowledge, and — at its very best — wisdom.

In a very real sense, the best journalists are those who know they don’t know but know who does know and know how/why the knowers know.

Journalists, however, get in to trouble when they act as if they know — as if they are experts. This is a form of journalistic arrogance that leads them away from the primary purpose of journalism.

Call this the bias of expertise. Lane Wallace examines this bias in veteran journalists. It is related to narrative bias and the creation of master narratives.

April 2, 2010

Bias and Rhetoric: An Inquiry

Here’s a question I asked in my chapter on bias in 21st Century Communications:

The problem with bias is not that it exists, nor is it that bias somehow pollutes an otherwise pure message. The problem with bias is that it may distort a message sold to an audience as “objective.” What happens when the form of the message persuades us that the information is truthful yet the bias of the speaker distorts the truth?

I assumed I was asking a rhetorical question — in two senses: 1) the standard sense of not requiring an answer because it is thought to be obvious, and 2) in the sense that I am making a particular claim about discourses such as journalism and academic essays. That claim is: The form of a message cannot be separated from the biases of the rhetor or — more importantly, in my opinion — the biases of the discourse form itself.  The latter was what I was getting at when I wrote “sold…as ‘objective.'”

I’m working on a book (proposal) now that I hope will deal with this question. It will cover the structural biases. But more, I hope it will situate these biases within some useful understanding of the rhetoric of journalism as it is (rapidly) evolving.