September 25, 2010

Situation and Kairos: A Quick Lesson

Here’s what happens when you get it wrong:

Thanks to long-time Rhetorica reader Sven for calling my attention to this “performance” in the comments to my previous post. I wasn’t planning to pay any attention to this at all, but Sven knows I have a soft spot for kairotic train wrecks 🙂

Click here for my commentary (3 posts) on Stephen Colbert’s appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006. For the most part, I think his performance there worked, i.e. he achieves his rhetorical intentions as I understand them.

The Colbert schtick didn’t quite work (there’s an understatement) in a formal, Congressional hearing room. But the key to understanding this train wreck is what the audience represents for Colbert– how he uses them.

His powerful performance at the 2006 dinner relied on merciless satire of the very people sitting in front of him. They were not the audience. They were the fodder. Colbert was performing for people watching on television — aka. citizens of a democratic republic.

Yesterday, power was the audience and policy was the issue. Bringing Stephen Colbert the character to the hearing was simply bad kairos.

September 23, 2010

Sez Who?

Politics and the culture wars must scare journalists to death — even those who work for The New York Times. They regularly trade their reporter’s notebooks for stenography pads.

It is in the coverage of politics and the culture wars that we see so much he-said/she-said reporting. Jay Rosen has identified the underlying assumption as the “view from nowhere.”

For example, consider this article by James C. McKinley, Jr. in today’s News York Times (A19 of the national edition): A Claim of Pro-Islam Bias in Textbooks. Some people think that some current textbooks are biased in favor of Muslims to the detriment of Christians. I have no idea if such a claim is grounded in facts or not. And the reason I have no idea: The New York Times didn’t bother to report the facts. McKinley just wrote down what people told him and passed it on to his readers.

That’s stenography, not reporting.

And what about his editors? Why was this incomplete story allowed to run?

To report this story properly (i.e. acting as a custodian of facts with a discipline of verification) would mean actually reading the passages in question and quoting them in full. To report this story properly would mean asking history experts to comment. But it would also mean covering the rhetoric beat — reading the words in the textbooks — the facts of ink on paper — and reporting what you can plainly see.

(One might argue that there’s only so much room in the paper for such a treatment. OK, click the link. There’s no such thing as space limitations on the internet. Where are the links to the books/passages in question?)

But no. Gotta be objective.

September 20, 2010

Tech v. Craft: The False Dichotomy

Didi Tang, of the Springfield News-Leader, has a story on today’s front page about MSU’s high-tech classrooms. I teach multimedia journalism in the collaborative classroom in Siceluff hall — our highest of high-tech rooms.

What am I teaching in there?

The class is surely about technology just as surely as it is about using technology to do good journalism. The class is about a medium — the internet — and how that medium conveys other media and how to use the particular way it conveys other media to do good journalism.

When you teach print journalism, you (must) teach print technology.

When you teach broadcast journalism, you (must) teach TV/radio technology.

When you teach multimedia internet journalism, people get bent out of shape.

The class is producing the Ozarks News Journal. You’ll start to see real news coverage there very soon. Students are blogging on the site now. We still have a few odds and ends to take care of getting the site fully functional. This is the first class to work for ONJ (there is also an associated TV show), so they are playing a big role in creating it from scratch.

Take a look at the syllabus linked above. Notice what I have listed for Weeks 4 through 15: “Produce the ONJ website.” That means: cover the news and publish it. That does not mean, as Dr. Melvin Mencher is quoted (linked above), that we have:

… now reached a point of no return where the technology is taking over the curriculum, with disastrous effects… Students are no longer going to be educated in the basic function of journalism.

His famous textbook of basic news reporting and writing is in its 12th edition. I used one of the very early editions when I was taking journalism classes at the University of Delaware back in the late 1970s.

Let me tell you about our journalism classroom there. It was in the basement of Memorial Hall. There were tables and chairs in the center of the room and typewriter stations around the periphery. This room was totally up-to-date technologically. And all we could do in that room was pretend to be journalists.

My classroom is a working newsroom — made possible by the computer/collaborative technology and students’ cell phones.

Part of the “basic function of journalism” today is figuring out what journalism is going to be. My students are working on that opportunity right now. I’m looking forward to what we discover together.

For more on what I’ve written about journalism education, check out:

September 11, 2010

Emotions and Crisis Reporting

Check out this week’s NPR show On the Media. I am interviewed by Brooke Gladstone for a segment entitled How Katrina Changed Crisis Reporting.

September 8, 2010

My (Spun) Opinion Matters

I received a political polling call last night and amused myself by agreeing to participate. The poll was slanted — the work of a political party.

Slanted polls generally rely on the false dichotomy fallacy (aka. either-or) usually set up this way: Would you rather vote for a candidate who wants (some horrible-sounding outcome) or one who wants (some wonderful-sounding outcome)? Just to be a stinker I chose the horrible-sounding outcome each time 🙂

Independent polling companies and their news media partners generally do a better job of crafting questions; it would be nice if journalists did a better job of covering polls. It should go without saying that journalists should not report on factional polls unless writing an article about the role of factional polls in the political process. The information gathered from these polls is the stuff of political propaganda.

But it is unlikely that the poll I took last night will be released. Instead, the candidate(s) involved will more likely use it to craft talking points that — unless something has changed in the last 24 hours and no one has told me — reporters will dutifully record and pass on to the public with nary a follow-up question.

Here’s what I teach my students about questioning the information sources give them. This method of critical reporting is quite opposed to the common practice of political stenography.

September 6, 2010

Struggling to Keep Myths Despite Change

Arthur S. Brisbane, the new Public Editor for The New York Times, on Sunday examined the issue of opinions in the news section published under such headings as “reporter’s notebook,” “news analysis,” and “news-page column.” His conclusion:

These narrow distinctions reflect the struggle to remain impartial while publishing more and more interpretive material. How to resolve this tension?

One path is to do a much better job of labeling the work — and please don’t bother with the fine distinctions. Call it commentary or call it opinion, but call it something that people can understand.

That, or abandon the sacred cloak of impartiality.

I vote for the former but concede that the latter may offer better traction in the opinion-gorged landscape of the future.

Do readers really not understand? It seems to me they understand perfectly but don’t like it when the opinion expressed challenges their ideologies.

Opinion, or “voice,” is not a problem as long as it is based on proper journalistic work — a topic I’ve examined in my criticism of my local paper. Punditry is a problem. So I’m good with both of Brisbane’s solutions. I do not recognize the dichotomy. I prefer to split the world in two based on opinion journalism v. punditry.

Further, there is no sacred cloak of impartiality. There is a myth about this cloak that helps journalists understand themselves in a particular relationship to an equally mythical general audience. That relationship — characterized by the rhetoric of lecture — has been breaking down in our electronically-mediated, interactive age. The rhetoric of lecture is giving way to the rhetoric of conversation. Journalists are still struggling with what this transition means for practicing ethical journalism.

It doesn’t help that there is a large misunderstanding about what objectivity means — it is supposed to be a process, not a stance. And it has nothing to do with getting “both sides of the story.” There are many “sides,” and sometimes one or more of them don’t have their facts straight. It’s OK to point that out (and point out why, and point out what it means) because journalists (are supposed to) operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification ( i.e. that process I mentioned).

As long as that is happening, this thing called “voice” we assign to reporters doing labeled opinion, if paired with transparency, can still fulfill the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. I would argue the rhetoric of conversation fulfills this purpose better than the rhetoric of lecture.

September 3, 2010

Student Blogging at ONJ

The Ozarks News Journal is taking shape.  Students have begun blogging on the site with brief introductions and biographies.

Their first post was simply an easy exercise to make sure everyone is up to speed on the basics of WordPress. So far so good.

Up next: I’m going have them work on a bit of experiential reporting this weekend so they can post next week incorporating a photo, a video, and a simple podcast.

Here are some resources for following the class:

Class textbooks:

ONJ Twitter feed: ozarksnews

The students also have individual Twitter accounts dedicated to the class. You can find their tweets using the #sgf hashtag. And we have a class Twitter list.

News coverage will begin soon.