July 30, 2011

Update: Journalism and Poverty

My essay for the American Political Science Association conference and the Journal of Poverty & Public Policy — a case study in reporting about poverty — is coming along nicely. The conference is in early September. I began the writing phase last week.

I found myself wanting to come up with something practical.

I have written/published these academic essays concerning journalism:

  • the ethics of pre-primary presidential campaign coverage
  • the role of identity in the ethics of writing ombudsman columns
  • the politics of community improvement programs
  • the ethics of identity in who is a journalist
  • the structural biases of journalism
  • the shifting definition of “losers” in the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

All of these essays had their beginnings here on Rhetorica, either as blog essays (re: bias and campaign coverage) or as questions I asked of my readers (re: ombudsman and “losers”). All these essays share something with many other essays written by professors in the humanities and social sciences: There is very little here that can be put to immediate use.

That’s OK on one level: Our primary purpose is to try to come to some understanding of how the world works and why it works that way from the points of view of our various disciplines. But it’s not at all satisfying from another role we academics should play — the role of public intellectual.

Take my primary campaign essay for example. It began as a blog essay entitled The Press-Politics of the Presidential Primary Process. My writing on this topic for Rhetorica and for an academic audience created an idea for the improvement of political journalism: Tell a different storytell the story of citizens’ experiences with governance.

Simple, right? Just change your whole point of view.

But that’s what professors so often do. We come up with stuff that has very little practical application because the institutions we hope to influence do not want to be influenced. The collective mind of an institution wants to survive and reproduce itself. Telling a different story of politics would change the entire game — a game that the establishment of journalism is very happy with as it is (despite occasional grousing on the pages of the Columbia Journalism Review).

That’s not to say “tell a different story” isn’t important or shouldn’t be used to improve political journalism. This is a change in point of view that would improve the ability of journalists to fulfill their primary purpose and come close the meeting the demands of their press-politics mythology. I stand by it as necessary, but I suffer no delusions that anything will ever change in regard to it.

With this new essay I set myself to a practical challenge: Say something interesting about how journalism (using the Springfield News-Leader as a case) covers poverty and point the way to better practice without costing the newspaper time, money, space, or personnel. In other words, take away the usual excuses for not making a change. These are, by the way, really good excuses. Much of what we all know would improve journalism costs the very things today’s corporate product has so little of:  time, money, space, or personnel.

Since I am studying one newspaper, I did a little field research and met with the editor, David Stoeffler. We’ve had two conversations about this essay, one formal and one informal. Those conversations have led to a breakthrough. Based on my examination of two months worth of issues of the News-Leader, I think I have discovered something that hits all the hot buttons.

Well, you’ve read this far, and this is where I leave you hanging. The conference is September 1-4. So I must have this thing written by 31 August. That’s when I’ll tell Rhetorica readers all about it.