October 27, 2010

Sustainable Expertise

I’ve made it a point to introduce the idea of “complacency of expertise” in all my classes. I illustrate this idea with a true story.

Several years ago I saw a news story and video on the internet (lost to me now) about an attempt to film a mass skydiving link-up, in which dozens of skydivers come together in a big mid-air pattern. The guy running the show, and doing the filming, was an expert skydiver and skydiving instructor. He mounted a video camera on his helmet for the event. Everything is going along fine — all the divers linked up then broke apart then opened their parachutes — until we clearly hear the expert say “oh no.” Then the picture scrambles as the skydiving expert goes out of control.

He had jumped out the the airplane without putting on a parachute.

He was an expert.

I believe he’d become complacent in his expertise.

I’ve argued that journalists should not think of themselves as expert in anything. I equate, for example, Judith Miller with that expert skydiver. If anything, journalists should be experts in the fear of failing their jobs of being custodians of facts who operate with a discipline of verification.

Opinion journalists, however, are another matter. While opinion journalists still ought to cling to that fear of failing (and the craft of reporting), some clearly do develop expertise. Think George Will and politics.

The key to success — i.e. fulfilling the primary purpose of journalism (to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing) — is developing a routine (the craft of reporting) based on the fear of failing that leads to what I’m calling sustainable expertise. That’s the kind of expertise that prevents you from jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.

The next two subjects of my on-going examination of opinion journalism will be two men who I think have developed something like sustainable expertise: Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof.

October 22, 2010

Fired? Was He Credibly Employed?

Here’s the paragraph that stuck in my craw from NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard’s column about the firing of Juan Williams:

The issue also is whether someone on NPR’s payroll should be allowed to say something in one venue that NPR would not allow on its air. NPR’s ethics code says they cannot.

There’s a long section about outside work and contributing to other news organizations. The first point is key:

1. The primary professional responsibility of NPR journalists is to NPR. They should never work in direct competition with NPR. An example of competing with NPR would be breaking a story or contributing a feature for another broadcast outlet or Web site before offering the work to NPR.

What was Juan Williams doing working for FOX News in the first place? How was that allowed under NPR’s code of ethics? Why wasn’t he told “no”?

The problem here is entirely the fault of NPR management: Journalists employed by otherwise serious news organizations should not be taking paid positions as pundits with competing news organizations. If their work with NPR is unsatisfying or doesn’t pay the bills, then NPR journalists ought to seek other employment.

I suspect, however, that NPR was happy to have Williams on FOX for the PR value. How does that square with the NPR and SPJ codes of ethics? What Juan Williams was (because NPR allowed it): A media star with a “contract.” What he should have been: A journalist with a job.

Further, serious news organizations should not allow their journalists anywhere near 24-hour cable infotainment such as FOX, MSNBC, or CNN.

One last point: Nothing about this situation is a First Amendment (free speech) issue.

UPDATE: KSFX visits my media ethics class and interviews me about Juan Williams.

October 17, 2010

Of Reporters, Trolls, and Stasis

Springfield News-Leader Executive Editor David Stoeffler announced today that reporters will participate (within certain limits) in online discussions of news articles on the News-Leader web site. I think this is a good move.

I also thought opening the comment system to anonymous users was a good move. I have come to believe that news organizations ought to begin encouraging more civil and thoughtful discussion by offering levels of service that encourage people to participate openly. Don’t eliminate anonymity; marginalize it.

Stoeffler’s announcement prompts me to think about online comments as an interesting rhetorical situation for reporters who are used to dealing with the public in a very particular way. What exigencies will prompt them to respond? What will be their persuasive intentions? What will be there rhetorical strategies?

How will they deal with trolls?

That first list of questions requires some data and analysis to answer (so I’ll be watching closely). But I’ll take a stab at the troll question now because it involves the concept of stasis — the very thing the skilled troll attempts to destroy. And I have plenty of “data” from many years of experience.

(History buffs may wish to check out the story of alt.syntax.tactical — a Usenet group set up to start flame wars. This group is famous for attacking the group alt.rec.cats back in the stone age, aka. the 90s.)

A common tactic of the troll today is to deny stasis, i.e. not allow the point of contention to be agreed upon so that it may be discussed. There are ways to do this both skillful and ham-handed, and we see the entire range on the News-Leader site.

Most commonly it works this way:

  1. Point A is made (either in print or online).
  2. Troll asks a reasonable question regarding point A.
  3. Troll follows up by changing discussion to point B.
  4. Troll follows up by changing discussion to point C.

And so on…

Depending upon the skill of the troll, the conversation can slowly devolve into ranting and nonsense because the troll finds and pushes the emotional buttons of the participants.

So what’s a reporter to do?

Do your job: Your value to the community is your reporting, not your online commenting.

Answer a commenter’s question only once: As the example above demonstrates, a troll wants to sucker you into a longer exchange for their own entertainment. Refuse to play.

Post links to additional information: A good policy in any online discussion.

Limit the scope of your participation: Develop a short disclaimer to append to all your online comments that explains what you will and will not respond to and why.

Identify and share: Did you detect a troll? Share your information with the online community and the newsroom. Post the username. Refuse to acknowledge that username in the future.

Remember: Trolls are NOT civic actors of good will. Their goal is to make your life hell and destroy the quality of discourse in online comments. Don’t let them win.

Also remember: I think most online participants are sincere. Don’t confuse a lack of rhetorical skill with trolling.

UPDATE: In response to an e-mail asking if I’m being a bit traditionalist re: a reporter’s relationship with the community: I am confining my remarks here to dealing with trolls. I think reporters can and should use the comment feature in numerous ways to enhance their reporting. More on this later…

October 6, 2010

Space Cadets

I think one mark of a good journalist is a constant and nagging fear that one might fail to verify something before reporting it. Journalists are supposed to act as custodians of facts with a discipline of verification.

Mistakes are going to happen. I try never to make too much fun of verification mistakes because, frankly, I’m just as open to the same mistake as an academic.

Some verification mistakes, however, should encourage great guffaws of knee-slapping merriment at the utter stupidity of the offending journalist(s).

For example:

Correction: I should have put ironic quote marks around “journalist(s).”

The problem here is plain to see: Put not-so-bright people in front of a live camera with a mandate to fill time, and…