August 25, 2010

Where Is Journalism?

You might be operating under the assumption that news organizations and the journalists who work for them cover the news (whatever that is). You might even be right (depending upon what news is).

Here’s a bit of news that mainstream journalism has so far failed to fact-check or cover: FOX News, a product of News Corp., is apparently owned in part by the very man that the “journalists” in the segment below accuse of being a money man for radical Islam.

How should we know this?

I would hope by some act of journalism, i.e. reporters acting as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification with the primary purpose of giving citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Instead, it was an act of satire. Behold:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
The Parent Company Trap
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

If true, Jon Stewart has exposed a massive failure of journalistic ethics that has the effect of making it more difficult for citizens to be free and self-governing.

Journalistic lapses of ethics — willful ones such as this appears to be — are news  precisely because good journalism is important.

So, is it true? Hello, New York Times? This is your backyard. (Not even the Daily News is touching it.)

Don’t hold your breath. American journalism refuses to hold itself accountable; it refuses to keep an eye on the franchise. It loves questioning the practices of other organizations — governmental and private. But itself? Forget it.

I have no beef whatsoever with the slant(s) of FOX news. I think good journalism can be practiced with a slant(s) because what’s important is that stuff I mentioned about about custodians, disciplines, and purposes. You don’t need a false objectivity to practice these values. I would argue that a false objectivity makes it more difficult to practice these values.

When a news organization fails, thus hurting the public, I’d prefer American journalism be the first to point it out and let Jon Stewart make jokes in the wake.

UPDATE: The New York Times covers the story, but not in print.

August 19, 2010

Something Like Accuracy

The so-called “ground zero mosque” is the subject of a memo by Associated Press Deputy Managing Editor for Standards and Production Tom Kent. The memo is, basically, a study in how a major news organization — one that asserts itself in the basic of definitions of craft and ethics — attempts to create something like an accurate portrayal of a news situation.

For example:

We should continue to avoid the phrase “ground zero mosque” or “mosque at ground zero” on all platforms. (We’ve very rarely used this wording, except in slugs, though we sometimes see other news sources using the term.) The site of the proposed Islamic center and mosque is not at ground zero, but two blocks away in a busy commercial area. We should continue to say it’s “near” ground zero, or two blocks away.

One of hot-button issues is proximity. How far away can a thing be to another thing and still be associated? That question is looking for an opinion about a fact. That is actually the wrong question to ask. The right question is: How close of a connection can a political faction make (and how does it make it) to suit its purposes, and what is our (the press) role in verifying, reporting, and interpreting that connection?

The mistake the AP is making with this memo is assuming that facts are powerful persuaders and that particular representations by the AP constitute accuracy over inaccuracy (hardly a persuasive distinction in politics). The AP makes this mistake because it assumes a very particular communicative role for itself — one that is common to every reasonable expression of the primary purpose of journalism.

What’s left out: The rhetoric beat.

The rhetoric beat suffers from the same communicative assumption I just mentioned. So I’m not claiming that it is some kind of super journalistic hermeneutic. Instead, it allows journalists to examine the rhetorical battleground in a particular way — to be able to point and say “there it is” and “here’s where we stand as players.”

I think it’s a good thing for the AP to stake out its semantic territory in this situation. But I think it needs to be backed up by much more reporting of the rhetorical maneuvers of the contending parties.

August 16, 2010

Multimedia Journalism Project Begins Soon

I’ve spent a lot of time this summer designing a new class called JRN378 Multimedia Journalism. The idea is to give our students a solid grounding in web and social media tools for journalism by having them publish an online news magazine called Ozarks News Journal.

There’s not much to see now — just the basic design. Soon, however, you’ll begin to follow along as these students learn to built a web news organization. My hope is that in addition to producing some fine examples of multimedia journalism, students will also be exploring what it means to be a web-based news organization.

What features of the craft and ethics of traditional print/broadcast journalism ought to be preserved? What new ways of understanding journalism does the web make possible? What will be the craft and ethics traditions of the future? What roles will journalists play in civic discourse, and what will be their relationship to an audience?

It’s their revolution. I hope they discover/create some interesting answers.

Here’s a bonus: The ONJ website will also operate as a converged news product with our ONJ TV program available on Ozarks Public Television and Mediacom 24. You’ll be able to watch the shows on the web, too.

Take a look at the site. And be sure to drop in after school starts (a week from today) to read and comment and … you tell me … what is your role, dear reader?

August 5, 2010

What CNN (and Journalism) Should Do

Robert Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, commented on the changes at CNN in a column by Nancy Franklin in The New Yorker:

He says he would like to see an 8 P.M. show that followed the lead of Jon Stewart and, to some extent, Keith Olbermann and CNN’s own Anderson Cooper: watching the competition and, on a daily basis, examining, in a reportorial mode, “‘O.K., what did Glenn Beck claim about colonial history, and is that really true?’ That’s something that CNN could really sink their teeth into, and it’s in the spirit of the identity they’ve tried to keep in spite of the fact that they think they can’t keep it.”

I’ve been saying this for a long time now: News organizations, as an integral part of fulfilling the primary purpose of journalism, ought to be keeping an eye on the craft and ethics of the competition.

I think Thompson’s reference to Stewart is right on and just a bit off: Right on because Stewart is routinely doing a job journalism ought to be doing and a bit off because, as a medialitical infortainer, Stewart creates a distraction by becoming the topic of discussion. Be that as it may, I heartily agree with Thompson.

The problem here is obvious: News organizations would rather fail at this duty in order to avoid having it pointed out by competing journalists that they are failing a much larger duty.

Jon Stewart’s job is safe.

August 3, 2010

“Corrections” But No Conversation

A long time ago I mentioned an emerging struggle in journalism that I called the rhetoric of lecture versus the rhetoric of conversation following a post by Jay Rosen that was among the first to identify the changing discourse of news. This struggle is not confined to journalism in the internet age. Journalism is just an easy first place to see the effects of electronically-mediated interactivity because it is such an important civic-cultural expression (or, at least, it claims such for itself re: journalism’s theory of democracy; see especially: pp. 55-61).

This is just a fancy way of saying the public can now talk back effectively. It can also produce its own news on its own or in collaboration with mainstream news media.

And, as we have seen, web efforts can also fact-check journalism (and punditry) and its sources.

Here’s an interesting local effort I found: A Springfield Public Schools web page called Corrections and Clarifications dedicated to fact-checking local news media coverage of school issues.

This is not a new idea. That’s not why I’m highlighting it.

I see a problem here.

Where’s the conversation?

Are we merely to assume that the local news media are wrong and the school district is right in its long list of transgressions?

To make this site an advancement for civic information, I think the school district needs to do what journalism has done: open itself to the greater conversation.

August 2, 2010

The Power of Reporting

Reading much of what passes for opinion journalism today at the national level  is a dreary experience in partisan bickering. So much of what passes for opinion journalism today is actually punditry.

Earlier I highlighted the work of Jim Dwyer, a local columnist for The New York Times who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1995, because his work is anything but dreary. He offers us a model for what opinion journalism is supposed to be: opinion based on reporting.

Compare this recent column by Dwyer to this one by Maureen Dowd, also of the Times. What you have here is nothing less than the difference between serious journalism and fluff. Reporting is the reason for that difference. Dowd’s column shows no reporting effort at all. And the result is predicable dreck. Note that her only quoted source comes from Vanity Fair. Dowd offers us an example of lazy reporting — something we should expect not to see in The New York Times.

One might argue that Dowd is commenting on the culture as she sees it. Fine. And I would ask: Why should I care what Maureen Dowd thinks about anything? What expertise does she bring to bear that makes her a cultural (or political) commentator worth listening to?


Dwyer’s column, on the other hand, shows us what happens when a serious opinion journalist bothers to ask real questions of real people — and bothers to tell a story.

Consider Dwyer’s lead:

One afternoon, Duane P. Kerzic was arrested by the Amtrak police while taking pictures of a train pulling into Pennsylvania Station. At first, the police asked him to delete the images from his camera, but he refused. He ended up handcuffed to the wall of a holding cell while an officer wrote a ticket for trespassing.

The column examines Amtrak’s apparent aversion to the photographing of its trains despite the irony of running an annual “Picture Our Trains” photo context (that now appears to be cancelled).

As the story progresses, Dwyer comments on more than the fate of Kerzic and others who have been harassed or arrested taking pictures on government property. He questions government censorship:

But how could Amtrak — the national railroad, whose preferred stock is owned by the American public and whose chief executive and board of directors are appointed by the president and confirmed by Congress — require that a Web site criticizing the railroad be shut down as a condition of settling a lawsuit for wrongful arrest?

What qualifications does Amtrak have to function as a censor?

Followed shortly by this:

Since 9/11, a number of government bodies have sought to limit photography in railroad stations and other public buildings. One rationale is that pictures would help people planning acts of mayhem. It has been a largely futile effort. On a practical level, decent cameras now come in every size and shape, and controlling how people use them would require legions of police officers. Moreover, taking photographs and displaying them is speech protected by the First Amendment, no less than taking notes and writing them up.

Dwyer finishes the column with more examples and then this excoriating conclusion:

Since Mr. Kerzic’s run-in with the police at Penn Station, Amtrak has dropped its Web page on the “Picture Our Trains” contest.

Mr. Colbert wasn’t standing for it.

“This photography contest,” he said, “is Amtrak’s cleverest ruse since their so-called timetable.”

One does not have to agree with Dwyer’s opinion to understand that this is a far better example of opinion journalism than a partisan rant or cultural musing based on little demonstrated reporting.

I’ll grant you than some readers may find partisan rants and cultural musings entertaining. But entertainment is not journalism’s primary concern or purpose — that purpose, stated by Kovach & Rosenstiel: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.