June 23, 2010

Independence From Faction

Don’t laugh.

The concept of independence from faction as outlined by Kovach & Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism is not about (falsely) observing from the sidelines and being fair and balanced (aka. the view from nowhere). It’s about operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification for both reporters and opinion journalists.

This means that opinion journalism is actually quite easy to separate from punditry because punditry is not about being independent from faction, nor is it about the journalistic discipline I have been discussing. Punditry is about winning politically (a perfectly legitimate goal).

So what we have in American journalism at the moment, if you accept my characterization of opinion journalism, is a whole lot of punditry and a dearth of opinion journalism — at least at the national level.

Opinion journalists may certainly be identified by political persuasion. The politics of opinion journalists can/do/should inform their columns. Sometimes that means taking a hard look at the opposition. And sometimes that means taking a hard look at one’s own side. And, if you’re dealing with someone truly skilled and intelligent, it means dealing with news situations in something like their proper complexity, i.e. not always so easily split down the simplistic right v. left divide.

This ends my preliminary discussion of opinion journalism. I am now in pursuit of excellent practice. Holler if you see anything.

June 11, 2010

The Discipline of Verification

I’ve written many times about the discipline of verification — the subject of chapter 4 in The Elements of Journalism. Among the things this chapter cogently discusses is the near profession-wide misunderstanding of objectivity. The word is supposed to indicate a process of gathering and testing information; it was never meant to indicate a philosophical or political stance.

Kovach & Rosentstiel argue that the process — the methods — have been “intensely personal and idiosyncratic,” i.e. no discipline at all. They spend a lot of time in the latter half of the chapter attempting to describe what a discipline of verification might look like. Indeed, I think what they are really doing is creating one if its first articulations.

I plan to examine their discipline and add a few methods of my own. But for now I want to make something plain regarding opinion journalism: Its practitioners are subject to the same discipline because they are subject to the same craft — namely reporting. To the extent that a person peddling opinion reports and verifies, he or she may be called an opinion journalist. To the extent that a person fails to do these things, he or she may be called a pundit (acknowledging that pundits may also report and verify on occasion).

Both deal with opinion. And both may deal in useful opinion, i.e. opinion with a high degree of civic utility for the citizen.

The difference is that the opinions of the opinion journalist should spring from the craft of journalism first.

June 4, 2010

The Elements of Journalism

I find it helps to read a good book more than once.

A few days ago I began my third close reading of The Elements of Journalism (2nd Ed.) by Kovach and Rosenstiel.

This book has become canonical in journalism — in professional practice and academic study. That doesn’t mean it is a flawless text. I have plenty of nits to pick with it. But, as a whole, it is one of the finest expressions of the craft and ethics of journalism available today. It is one of my must-read books for journalists. And if I had a must-read list for citizens, it would have a safe spot there, too.

I don’t want journalists and citizens to just read this book (or even just read it closely). I want journalists to do what it says, and I want citizens to hold them to it.

You’ll hear all kinds of lip-service paid to Elements. You’ll see all kinds of failure to live up to its demands — especially in opinion journalism.

I’ll be approaching my search for good opinion journalism and my castigation of punditry passed off as same (nothing wrong with punditry that doesn’t claim the mantle of journalism, IMO) with Elements as one of my foundations. It is a convenient whip because so many journalists will nod and tell you it is a proper expression of what journalism is supposed to be.

Thank you for handling me the whip. Now I intend to use it.

June 1, 2010

Why Opinion Journalism (Still) Matters

The following is an expansion of a blog entry I wrote a few weeks ago about opinion journalism. I’ll be focusing on the rhetoric of opinion journalism  for the time being on Rhetorica.

Sometimes Wikipedia is no help at all. Search for “opinion journalism,”and here’s what you get:

Opinion journalism is journalism that makes no claim of objectivity. Although distinguished from advocacy journalism in several ways, both forms feature a subjective viewpoint, usually with some social or political purpose. Common examples include newspaper columns, editorials, editorial cartoons, and punditry.

Unlike advocacy journalism, opinion journalism has a reduced focus on detailed facts or research, and its perspective is often of a more personalized variety. Its product may be only one component of a generally objective news outlet, rather than the dominant feature of an entire publication or broadcast network.

The article is clearly marked as a stub, which means that it doesn’t meet Wikipedia’s standards for, among other things, detail, accuracy, and citation. It’s the start of an article on opinion journalism and not a very good one in my opinion. My opinion on this is based on my expertise (no guarantee of anything other than I didn’t simply pull this opinion out of thin air or rely on an ideological lens).

Besides being a rather poor start (you’ll discover why in the balance of this essay), this stub has the unfortunate distinction of being the first entry in a list of search results for “opinion journalism” on Google. I’ve actually had a couple of people — including a professor at my university — quote this stub to me as proof that I am wrong about opinion journalism. Whether I am right or wrong  is hardly a useful distinction here. I prefer to think of my thoughts on opinion journalism as useful in understanding how opinion journalists might fulfill the primary purpose of journalism. That is another way of saying that one can use my definition of opinion journalism as a critical lens for examining the state of journalism for the purpose of understanding its current practice and then, perhaps, demanding better. My description of opinion journalism does not so much create a contrast with “advocacy journalism” as it does with “punditry.”

Opinion journalism matters. It matters because the columnists (in all media) who produce it can be among the most effective journalists in fulfilling the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. Opinion journalists can make information useful by suggesting how to use it, i.e. how to think about it and how to react to it. Following good opinion journalists should help readers think about the news by encouraging them to critically examine news situations in particular contexts.

Like reporters, opinion journalists should operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification. Like reporters, opinion journalists should tell stories about citizens. Unlike reporters, however, opinion journalists use what they’ve learned from their reporting to, among other things, promote agendas and suggest solutions to civic problems. Here’s what I said in an oft-quoted posting of mine examining the difference between analysis and opinion journalism:

The key for me is good reporting in both analysis and opinion writing. The difference is one of intention: opinion should be about changing hearts and minds with knowledge and wisdom; analysis should be about knowledge and wisdom (i.e. organized information embedded in a context and the capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems). Analysis, therefore, should not promote specific agendas; it should examine agendas.

In a jumble of words, opinion journalists report and tell us what they think about what they report and why they think the way they do about what they report.

Proper journalistic reporting is the primary form of invention in the rhetoric of opinion journalism.

Pundits need not report. They may certainly think. And they may even be well informed. Their opinions may even be valuable. But without acts of reporting (all that stuff that goes into operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification) that build a foundation of information and knowledge, punditry is 1) not journalism, and 2) of questionable utility in fulfilling the primary purpose of journalism.

Exactly why should we give a rip about any particular person’s opinion — published in the paper or spoken on television — if not based on reporting or recognized expertise? I would ask the same question of my own commentary on Rhetorica? Why should you give a rip? Well, agree or not, I have demonstrated expertise — no guarantee of value, but at least my opinions are based on something. (You’ll notice I stick to a limited set of issues based on my education and experience. I have nothing of value to tell you about, say, abortion or deficit spending because I have not done the necessary reporting.)

On the local level, opinion journalism well done is all about caring about the community. It is all about being connected to the community. It is all about well-worn shoe leather and familiar faces. It’s all about visibility and transparency. The good opinion journalist is the person you meet for coffee to discuss her latest column. The opinion journalist is the one who listens (when reporters and editors too often do not). In other words, opinion journalism well done is all about the very things that are apparently important in the new media environment.

On the state and national levels, opinion journalism is also about caring about the community — just a larger community. State and national opinion journalists should be local opinion journalists writ large.

Yes, I realize I’m painting an ideal portrait. Opinion journalism is subject to the same communicative challenges, biases, and errors as so-called objective journalism. I believe the difference, however, is that good opinion journalism can present not only a informed opinion but an informed personality — one you can come to know and deal with whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em.

It is rather easy to criticize opinion journalism these days. In my opinion the craft is in  a sad state (24-hour cable news has played a role in this). Opinion journalism has largely slipped into the practice of punditry to the detriment of citizens.

I will also make it a goal to look for and promote good opinion journalism — from the rural weeklies to the network and cable giants. Rhetorica readers can help in this regard. If you read, see, or hear something good (i.e. opinion based on reporting), let me know.