February 22, 2011

POV in Online News: Hypothesis

From a comment of mine in the discussion of Willful Misinterpretation, this hypothesis:

A lack of fact-checking (and/or engaging in willful misinterpretation) becomes more tolerable (and/or more rhetorical) on the part of the offending journalist/online news organization as audience self-selection replaces scrutiny with acceptance.

I assert this hypothesis as a step toward understanding how it is online news organizations with clearly defined points of view are able to get away with (what I consider to be) blatant violations of the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

(There’s much work that needs to be done to ensure that claim is more than just my impression.)

Jay Rosen has argued that FOX News is a political organization. Following the same line of thinking, it appears the same can be said for many online “news” organizations, although many of them display the “courage” that Rosen says FOX lacks, i.e. willing to declare point of view.

Perhaps that “lack of courage” is a key here. TMP certainly has it. Is this part of what allows POV to go spinning out of the bounds of reality (as defined, at least partly, by a reverence for facts and an intolerance for misinterpretation) without follow-up?

To take this in a different direction, would John Stewart (be able to) make as much fun of FOX News if its slogan were something like “News From The Right Side”? (Stewart is hard on CNN, too, but in a different way? Would he be hard on FOX in the same way if its slogan were different?)

I wonder how FOX and TPM compare in audience trust with the rest of the news media?

Hmmmmm…

February 16, 2011

Willful Misinterpretation

[Editor’s Note: The following critique is based on journalistic texts as presented and not a deeper examination of original source material of those texts, i.e. the stories as presented to the audience.]

Willful misinterpretation of a message is not a tool of opinion journalism.

Willful misinterpretation is a tool of punditry and propaganda.

Willful misinterpretation is one bad byproduct of our new view-from-somewhere age. I’m all for viewing events from particular points of view and being open with the audience about those points of view. But willful misinterpretation falls outside the bounds of the ethical practice of journalism informed by one’s point of view.

Willful misinterpretation is the deliberate misreading of a message — in order to distort the message — of a source or other news-maker. Such an act would simply fall into the realm of punditry if it weren’t for the added twist of distorting a message for partisan reasons.

Let’s look at two recent examples from Talking Points Memo. (Several online news sites from across the limited left-right axis have turned this style of “reporting” into a high art.)

Example #1: South Dakota Bill Could Legalize Murder Of Abortion Providers

No, it couldn’t. Anyone with a modicum of interpretive skill can see that the bill does nothing of the kind. It really seems to do nothing at all. Consider:

Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones first reported on Tuesday that HB 1171 would amend the current law to include the following language (bold parts are new):

Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person while resisting any attempt to murder such person, or to harm the unborn child of such person in a manner and to a degree likely to result in the death of the unborn child, or to commit any felony upon him or her, or upon or in any dwelling house in which such person is.Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person in the lawful defense of such person, or of his or her husband, wife, parent, child, master, mistress, or servant, or the unborn child of any such enumerated person, if there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony, or to do some great personal injury, and imminent danger of such design being accomplished.

At first blush it appears to do exactly what the inflammatory headline suggests. But pay more careful attention to the bill’s language: “resisting any attempt to murder” and “commit any felony upon him or her” and “reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony, or to do some great personal injury.”

The only way to read this as a potential legalization of killing abortion providers is to completely ignore that language. It’s a far more cogent critique of this law to say that it attempts to create “personhood” for the unborn, which would be real news if achieved.

I’m not claiming anything about the intention of the bill’s sponsors. I’m claiming that the reporting and textual evidence does not add up to “legalizing murder.”

Example #2: Bachmann Blasts First Lady And ‘Nanny State’ — For Promoting Breastfeeding

No, she didn’t. Here’s what she’s quoted as saying:

“I’ve given birth to five babies, and I’ve breastfed every single one of these babies,” Bachmann said. “To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump for my babies, I mean, you wanna talk about the nanny state — I think you just got the new definition of the nanny state.”

She legitimately questions the use of government funds for a specific purpose: buying people breast pumps. She claims to have breast-fed her own kinds and says nothing about the general promotion of breastfeeding by the First Lady. One can disagree with her, but one (i.e. the journalist writing this story and the editor writing the headline) ought not distort by amplification. There is no logical link between questioning policy regarding breast pumps and a general “blasting” of the First Lady and the “nanny state” for promoting breast feeding.

I’m not claiming anything about Bachmann’s position on breast feeding. I’m claiming that the reporting and textual evidence does not add up to “blasting” the “promotion” of breast feeding.

Journalism — even journalism practiced on the web and practiced from a transparent point of view — must not violate the primary purpose of journalism (to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing) by distorting events based on willful misinterpretation. I call it willful because the writers and editors of TPM (and other liberal and conservative web operations) know better. They know what good journalism is. They are choosing not to practice it.

But worse, they are choosing to misinform the public for partisan reasons. And that takes their work out of the realm of journalism (or opinion journalism) and into the realm of propaganda.

February 15, 2011

Lots of Opinion (Journalism)

The unfortunate thing is this: The way the semester works out at the moment, readers of Ozarks News Journal have to wait about six weeks into a given semester before our main features and the television show begin showing up on the web. That will change by this time next year (because we’ve created a new 100-level class to teach basic web/new media/ social media skills so students are up to speed by the time they get to my multimedia journalism class).

But, even better, the site is open for past students to use. And, still better, the site will soon be open for citizen contributors.

The goal: By this time next year ONJ should be a year-round news organization with a steady stream of local content.

Students have been blogging from the first week, and transparency has been job #1. Their first assignment was to post bios that tell readers “where I’m coming from.” The comment feature is wide open. We also have a corrections & amplifications form linked on the top menu for citizen feedback. We have a Facebook group for citizen feedback (where we post the reporting group assignments). And you may subscribe by e-mail, Twitter, SMS text, and RSS.

The main features will fall within the parameters of “news” and “features” — i.e. content reported and presented using the best practices (we can muster) of multimedia presentation and journalistic craft. The blog posts are (supposed to be) opinion journalism, and, at the editor’s discretion,  well-handled blog posts may be placed in the featured position. Neither I nor the editor edit or otherwise supervise these posts (although we may edit if we find glaring errors of fact/usage. ONJ reporters are supposed to approach their blogging by these criteria:

  1. Does the post pass the grandmother test, i.e. don’t shock your grandmother. The point is to keep content appropriate for younger readers. We don’t do pornography or violence.
  2. Does the post demonstrate good opinion journalism? i.e. based on one or more of: reporting, first-hand experience, and/or demonstrated expertise.

So there’s plenty of opinion on ONJ. And plenty of opinion about the topics the students are reporting because they are supposed to blog about the news and features they are working on. How is that going to work? You’ll find out as we do.

Also of note, the editor of ONJ last semester is doing an independent project in online opinion journalism. Her blog is Blogging and Opinion Journalism. Check it out.