April 27, 2011

Journalism and Poverty

I’m working on a conference essay for the American Political Science Association. I have a question (or a bunch of them). Perhaps Rhetorica readers can help me.

Does one serve an audience by treating it as an object of reporting?

This question brought me to a stop as I was considering my topic — a case study in how a newspaper covers the poor (especially the working poor) in a town with a high percentage of its population working minimum-wage service jobs and living below the poverty line. If the primary purpose of journalism is to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing (Kovach & Rosenstiel 2007), does this suggest that such information is the same for all socio-economic levels?

What kind of journalism do the working poor need? What kind of journalism do the working poor want? What kind of journalism makes any particular group visible to the audience in the way that group understands itself? What type of journalism leads to political/economic visibility and efficacy?

To see where I’m going with this, check out these quotes from Herbert Gans from a Q&A at the Nieman Journalism Lab:

Multiperspectival news reporting is more diverse. It seeks news about other subjects that are newsworthy for the variety of audiences in the total news audience; it obtains news from many other sources, including ordinary citizens, and it reports a variety of political, ideological, and social viewpoints (or perspectives).

Here’s my favorite example. Poor audiences need business news like everyone else, but not about investing in the stock market or the latest newsworthy acts, legal or illegal, by corporate bigwigs. They need to know about the businesses in which they can afford to shop and the ones that will hire them, as well as the charitable and public agencies that can help them when they are jobless and in need.

I find the idea of journalists as representatives [of citizens] intriguing, in part because the U.S. is an upscale democracy, the politics of which is dominated by corporate campaign funders and the upper-middle-income population that votes and participates more actively than the rest.

As a result, U.S. politics does a poor job of representing the remainder of the citizenry, especially those earning below the median income and various numerical minorities.

Journalists are not elected officials and they cannot be political representatives or advocates but they can represent people in a variety of other ways, for example by turning their experiences and problems into news, and by asking politicians and other authoritative sources questions to which unrepresented and poorly represented citizens need answers.

April 22, 2011

On (Teaching) Web Journalism

The spring semester is winding down, and that means that Ozarks News Journal has reached the end of its first school year in publication. I publish the site for my JRN378 Multimedia Journalism class.

Publishing on the server of the College of Arts & Letters at MSU presented certain difficulties — mostly technical/procedural. As the deadline to get a site running rapidly approached, I made the decision to publish ONJ myself (including paying for it) using the same hosting company I use for Rhetorica and Carbon Trace. No big deal as far as I’m concerned except that my kiester is on the line if anything goes wrong.

I’m very pleased with the work ONJ reporters did this year. They did what I wanted them to do most: Take the site seriously as a news organization. Not long after our coverage schedule began, I could hear them on their cell phones in the ONJ newsroom talking to sources and referring to themselves as reporters for Ozarks News Journal.

Reality is the best teacher. My job is to push them into it.

The ONJ reporters have one more feature package assignment to do before the semester ends (deadline 2 May). And they will continue to write their blogs through 4 May.

So what happens this summer? Well, I’ll be doing some blogging for the site. We have an audience now, so it’s important not to let ONJ simply go dark for three months. Further, I need to stay ahead of the curves — and, yes, there are several. A transparency curve. A web journalism curve. A how-do-I-use-the-latest-new-tool curve. The social media curve.

Furhter, any ONJ reporter is welcome to continue contributing. I hope some of them will do so.

Each student will complete a synthesis paper assignment in which they assess their work and what they think they learned. But just as important, they will tell me where this thing needs to go. I’ll be paying very careful attention to their comments and suggestions. They are the future of journalism. They understand that the web (and multimedia reporting and story-telling) will largely be that future. I see very few students now in our print/internet journalism track who assume they will be going to work for print-only news organizations.

We cover a lot of bases in the Department of Media, Journalism & Film. One of them is web-tech skills. A group of students is doing a project for one of our web classes to develop an ONJ iPhone app and a new WordPress theme designed to meet our needs and look snazzy.

So things are moving forward rapidly.

Once again, I’ve arrived at the point in a post in which I ought to actually discuss what the headline promises. And once again, I’m bailing out. I don’t know what it all means yet. This I do know: If students continue to improve the site (and their reporting), ONJ will soon become an important news organization in Springfield. Our public affairs focus — following from our university mission — will give us a unique and complementary niche here. Then, I think, we’ll be in a position to learn something.

April 3, 2011

It’s All About Transparency Now

During our recent WikiLeaks panel at MSU, I made a comparison between the transparency of WikiLeaks and The New York Times. I said that WikiLeaks does a better job of explaining its reportorial and editorial processes. I believe that to be true largely because the Times makes it difficult to find information about how its journalists report and present the news.

This morning, Arthur S. Brisbane, the Times’ public editor, makes a good argument for transparency and suggests the Times do the hard work of creating a searchable record of its policies — especially now that the Times is creating a converged, interactive, multimedia news product. Brisbane concludes:

The Times has a good set of policies. It should double down on its commitment to high standards by organizing them into a reader-friendly format and then trust its audience — which is now a paying audience both online and in print — to readily access these important principles and rules. Will some abuse the privilege? Inevitably so. But elevating the dialogue with committed readers is worth the price to be paid.

On the local level, the panel discussion prompted News-Leader editor David Stoeffler (he was on the panel) to write about transparency in his column this morning. He used a large number of his column inches to begin explaining the process. I hope this leads to a public discussion and, finally, a list of policies published on the News-Leader site.

As mentioned on Rhetorica on Friday, I gave a talk to college journalists this week about blogging as journalists. And I received some of the usual questions about the dangers of opinion and of appearing biased, i.e. appearing to have a point of view when the audience expects objectivity.

No. The audience does not expect the impossible. What citizens expect is exactly what Stoeffler wrote about this morning:

We often have information — legally — we choose not to publish, or that we publish in ways that protect the innocent. It might be as simple as withholding the name of a crime victim, or perhaps the identity of an undercover law enforcement officer.

The first step, though, involves simply getting the information regardless of sensitivity: Good journalists want to know things; sometimes things that others would rather we not know.

Once we have it, we need to verify its authenticity and accuracy, plus gather other information to put it in the right context.

Sometimes, the source of information has an ax to grind — a reason to want someone else to look bad. It doesn’t mean the information is less authentic, but we need to understand the motivation of the source and keep the appropriate distance so we don’t get caught up in their agenda.

After verifying and putting things in context, we write our stories and then we’re ready to publish. We make sure we know the legal ramifications, but often times it is the ethical considerations that take precedence.

We earn your trust through careful, truthful reporting, and by our honesty and integrity. We know sometimes we fall short of your expectations.

This is a general description of the objective process of reporting (in the context of sensitive information). Objectivity is dead; it was never really alive. Or, rather, it was badly misunderstood as stance instead of process.

Public policies are important. I understand the trepidation of the Times’ editors as explained by Brisbane. But I reject it as old MSM thinking. News organizations ought to want citizens to hold them to account for their stated standards. News organizations ought to want this because it brings citizens into the process. Transparency engages citizens. And transparency fulfills the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Liberation for everyone!

April 2, 2011

My Talks at the MCMA Conference

The Missouri College Media Association is holding a conference in Springfield today sponsored by journalism students at MSU. I’m giving two talks (from the program):

Blogging For Journalists: Bringing an Audience, Bringing a Brand

The presentation will acquaint participants with two important reasons to begin blogging while in school: today’s news organizations want you to come prepared with an audience and a brand. The session will also discuss best practices.

Everyone is Now Multi and Meta

This presentation introduces multimedia skills and theory for web publication. Special attention will be paid to the Ozarks News Journal site — a multimedia journalism project at MSU.

I’ve prepared a short Prezi for the first presentation. You may see it here. For the second, I’ll be using ONJ as a source of examples of what to do and what not to do — we manage both 🙂

What’s kinda cool — given my first talk today — is that Rhetorica turns nine years old later this month (I mistakenly claimed nine years last year … duh). That makes it one of the oldest, continuously-published weblogs in the world. And if you count (which I do) my early proto-blog Timeline (part of the old Presidential Campaign Rhetoric 2000 site — a student project of mine — archived here), then that makes me one of the longest running bloggers in the world. None of that is a claim to expertise. I’ve simply been around long enough to be a curiosity.