November 3, 2010

Why Opinion Journalism Matters

The following is an expansion of a blog entry I wrote when I changed the focus of Rhetorica. This blog began as an examination of press-politics. It morphed into an examination of media ethics. The current focus is opinion journalism — a dying part of the craft of journalism worth saving from its slide into punditry.

Sometimes Wikipedia is no help at all. Search for “opinion journalism,” and here’s what you get:

Opinion journalism is journalism that makes no claim of objectivity. Although distinguished from advocacy journalism in several ways, both forms feature a subjective viewpoint, usually with some social or political purpose. Common examples include newspapercolumnseditorialseditorial cartoons, and punditry.

Unlike advocacy journalism, opinion journalism has a reduced focus on detailed facts or research, and its perspective is often of a more personalized variety. Its product may be only one component of a generally objective news outlet, rather than the dominant feature of an entire publication or broadcast network.

The article is clearly marked as a stub, which means that it doesn’t meet Wikipedia’s standards for, among other things, detail, accuracy, and citation. It’s the start of an article on opinion journalism and not a very good one in my opinion. My opinion on this is based on my expertise (no guarantee of anything other than I didn’t simply pull this opinion out of thin air or rely on an ideological lens).

Besides being a rather poor start (you’ll discover why in the balance of this essay), this stub has the unfortunate distinction of being the first entry in a list of search results for “opinion journalism” on Google. I’ve actually had a couple of people — including a professor at my university — quote this stub to me as proof that I am wrong about opinion journalism. Whether I am right or wrong  is hardly a useful distinction here. I prefer to think of my thoughts on opinion journalism as useful in understanding how opinion journalists might fulfill the primary purpose of journalism. That is another way of saying that one can use my definition of opinion journalism as a critical lens for examining the state of journalism for the purpose of understanding its current practice and then, perhaps, demanding better. My description of opinion journalism does not so much create a contrast with “advocacy journalism” as it does with “punditry.”

Opinion journalism matters. It matters because the columnists (in all media) who produce it can be among the most effective journalists in fulfilling the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. Opinion journalists can make information useful by suggesting how to use it, i.e. how to think about it and how to react to it. Following good opinion journalists should help readers think about the news by encouraging them to critically examine news situations in particular contexts.

Opinion journalists also tell stories — focused on the lives of people — about their communities small and global.

Like reporters, opinion journalists should operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification. Like reporters, opinion journalists should tell stories about citizens. Unlike reporters, however, opinion journalists use what they’ve learned from their reporting to, among other things, promote agendas and suggest solutions to civic problems. Here’s what I said in an oft-quoted posting of mine examining the difference between analysis and opinion journalism:

The key for me is good reporting in both analysis and opinion writing. The difference is one of intention: opinion should be about changing hearts and minds with knowledge and wisdom; analysis should be about knowledge and wisdom (i.e. organized information embedded in a context and the capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems). Analysis, therefore, should not promote specific agendas; it should examine agendas.

In a jumble of words, opinion journalists report and tell us what they think about what they report and why they think the way they do about what they report.

Proper journalistic reporting is the primary form of invention in the rhetoric of opinion journalism.

Pundits need not report. They may certainly think. And they may even be well informed. Their opinions may even be valuable. But without acts of reporting (all that stuff that goes into operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification) that build a foundation of information and knowledge, punditry is 1) not journalism, and 2) of questionable utility in fulfilling the primary purpose of journalism.

Exactly why should we give a rip about any particular person’s opinion — published in the paper or spoken on television — if not based on reporting or recognized expertise? I would ask the same question of my own commentary on Rhetorica? Why should you give a rip? Well, agree or not, I have demonstrated expertise — no guarantee of value, but at least my opinions are based on something. (You’ll notice I stick to a limited set of issues based on my education and experience. I have nothing of value to tell you about, say, abortion or deficit spending because I have not done the necessary reporting.)

On the local level, opinion journalism well done is all about caring about the community. It is all about being connected to the community. It is all about well-worn shoe leather and familiar faces. It’s all about visibility and transparency. The good opinion journalist is the person you meet for coffee to discuss her latest column. The opinion journalist is the one who listens (when reporters and editors too often do not). In other words, opinion journalism well done is all about the very things that are apparently important in the new media environment.

On the state and national levels, opinion journalism is also about caring about the community — just a larger community. State and national opinion journalists should be local opinion journalists writ large.

Yes, I realize I’m painting an ideal portrait. Opinion journalism is subject to the same communicative challengesbiases, and errors as so-called objective journalism. I believe the difference, however, is that good opinion journalism can present not only a informed opinion but an informed personality — one you can come to know and deal with whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em.

It is rather easy to criticize opinion journalism these days. In my opinion the craft is in  a sad state (24-hour cable news has played a role in this). Opinion journalism has largely slipped into the practice of punditry to the detriment of citizens.

I will also make it a goal to look for and promote good opinion journalism — from the rural weeklies to the network and cable giants. Rhetorica readers can help in this regard. If you read, see, or hear something good (i.e. opinion based on reporting), let me know.

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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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August 25, 2010

Where Is Journalism?

You might be operating under the assumption that news organizations and the journalists who work for them cover the news (whatever that is). You might even be right (depending upon what news is).

Here’s a bit of news that mainstream journalism has so far failed to fact-check or cover: FOX News, a product of News Corp., is apparently owned in part by the very man that the “journalists” in the segment below accuse of being a money man for radical Islam.

How should we know this?

I would hope by some act of journalism, i.e. reporters acting as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification with the primary purpose of giving citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Instead, it was an act of satire. Behold:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
The Parent Company Trap
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

If true, Jon Stewart has exposed a massive failure of journalistic ethics that has the effect of making it more difficult for citizens to be free and self-governing.

Journalistic lapses of ethics — willful ones such as this appears to be — are news  precisely because good journalism is important.

So, is it true? Hello, New York Times? This is your backyard. (Not even the Daily News is touching it.)

Don’t hold your breath. American journalism refuses to hold itself accountable; it refuses to keep an eye on the franchise. It loves questioning the practices of other organizations — governmental and private. But itself? Forget it.

I have no beef whatsoever with the slant(s) of FOX news. I think good journalism can be practiced with a slant(s) because what’s important is that stuff I mentioned about about custodians, disciplines, and purposes. You don’t need a false objectivity to practice these values. I would argue that a false objectivity makes it more difficult to practice these values.

When a news organization fails, thus hurting the public, I’d prefer American journalism be the first to point it out and let Jon Stewart make jokes in the wake.

UPDATE: The New York Times covers the story, but not in print.

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June 23, 2010

Independence From Faction

Don’t laugh.

The concept of independence from faction as outlined by Kovach & Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism is not about (falsely) observing from the sidelines and being fair and balanced (aka. the view from nowhere). It’s about operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification for both reporters and opinion journalists.

This means that opinion journalism is actually quite easy to separate from punditry because punditry is not about being independent from faction, nor is it about the journalistic discipline I have been discussing. Punditry is about winning politically (a perfectly legitimate goal).

So what we have in American journalism at the moment, if you accept my characterization of opinion journalism, is a whole lot of punditry and a dearth of opinion journalism — at least at the national level.

Opinion journalists may certainly be identified by political persuasion. The politics of opinion journalists can/do/should inform their columns. Sometimes that means taking a hard look at the opposition. And sometimes that means taking a hard look at one’s own side. And, if you’re dealing with someone truly skilled and intelligent, it means dealing with news situations in something like their proper complexity, i.e. not always so easily split down the simplistic right v. left divide.

This ends my preliminary discussion of opinion journalism. I am now in pursuit of excellent practice. Holler if you see anything.

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June 1, 2010

Why Opinion Journalism (Still) Matters

The following is an expansion of a blog entry I wrote a few weeks ago about opinion journalism. I’ll be focusing on the rhetoric of opinion journalism  for the time being on Rhetorica.

Sometimes Wikipedia is no help at all. Search for “opinion journalism,”and here’s what you get:

Opinion journalism is journalism that makes no claim of objectivity. Although distinguished from advocacy journalism in several ways, both forms feature a subjective viewpoint, usually with some social or political purpose. Common examples include newspaper columns, editorials, editorial cartoons, and punditry.

Unlike advocacy journalism, opinion journalism has a reduced focus on detailed facts or research, and its perspective is often of a more personalized variety. Its product may be only one component of a generally objective news outlet, rather than the dominant feature of an entire publication or broadcast network.

The article is clearly marked as a stub, which means that it doesn’t meet Wikipedia’s standards for, among other things, detail, accuracy, and citation. It’s the start of an article on opinion journalism and not a very good one in my opinion. My opinion on this is based on my expertise (no guarantee of anything other than I didn’t simply pull this opinion out of thin air or rely on an ideological lens).

Besides being a rather poor start (you’ll discover why in the balance of this essay), this stub has the unfortunate distinction of being the first entry in a list of search results for “opinion journalism” on Google. I’ve actually had a couple of people — including a professor at my university — quote this stub to me as proof that I am wrong about opinion journalism. Whether I am right or wrong  is hardly a useful distinction here. I prefer to think of my thoughts on opinion journalism as useful in understanding how opinion journalists might fulfill the primary purpose of journalism. That is another way of saying that one can use my definition of opinion journalism as a critical lens for examining the state of journalism for the purpose of understanding its current practice and then, perhaps, demanding better. My description of opinion journalism does not so much create a contrast with “advocacy journalism” as it does with “punditry.”

Opinion journalism matters. It matters because the columnists (in all media) who produce it can be among the most effective journalists in fulfilling the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. Opinion journalists can make information useful by suggesting how to use it, i.e. how to think about it and how to react to it. Following good opinion journalists should help readers think about the news by encouraging them to critically examine news situations in particular contexts.

Like reporters, opinion journalists should operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification. Like reporters, opinion journalists should tell stories about citizens. Unlike reporters, however, opinion journalists use what they’ve learned from their reporting to, among other things, promote agendas and suggest solutions to civic problems. Here’s what I said in an oft-quoted posting of mine examining the difference between analysis and opinion journalism:

The key for me is good reporting in both analysis and opinion writing. The difference is one of intention: opinion should be about changing hearts and minds with knowledge and wisdom; analysis should be about knowledge and wisdom (i.e. organized information embedded in a context and the capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems). Analysis, therefore, should not promote specific agendas; it should examine agendas.

In a jumble of words, opinion journalists report and tell us what they think about what they report and why they think the way they do about what they report.

Proper journalistic reporting is the primary form of invention in the rhetoric of opinion journalism.

Pundits need not report. They may certainly think. And they may even be well informed. Their opinions may even be valuable. But without acts of reporting (all that stuff that goes into operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification) that build a foundation of information and knowledge, punditry is 1) not journalism, and 2) of questionable utility in fulfilling the primary purpose of journalism.

Exactly why should we give a rip about any particular person’s opinion — published in the paper or spoken on television — if not based on reporting or recognized expertise? I would ask the same question of my own commentary on Rhetorica? Why should you give a rip? Well, agree or not, I have demonstrated expertise — no guarantee of value, but at least my opinions are based on something. (You’ll notice I stick to a limited set of issues based on my education and experience. I have nothing of value to tell you about, say, abortion or deficit spending because I have not done the necessary reporting.)

On the local level, opinion journalism well done is all about caring about the community. It is all about being connected to the community. It is all about well-worn shoe leather and familiar faces. It’s all about visibility and transparency. The good opinion journalist is the person you meet for coffee to discuss her latest column. The opinion journalist is the one who listens (when reporters and editors too often do not). In other words, opinion journalism well done is all about the very things that are apparently important in the new media environment.

On the state and national levels, opinion journalism is also about caring about the community — just a larger community. State and national opinion journalists should be local opinion journalists writ large.

Yes, I realize I’m painting an ideal portrait. Opinion journalism is subject to the same communicative challenges, biases, and errors as so-called objective journalism. I believe the difference, however, is that good opinion journalism can present not only a informed opinion but an informed personality — one you can come to know and deal with whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em.

It is rather easy to criticize opinion journalism these days. In my opinion the craft is in  a sad state (24-hour cable news has played a role in this). Opinion journalism has largely slipped into the practice of punditry to the detriment of citizens.

I will also make it a goal to look for and promote good opinion journalism — from the rural weeklies to the network and cable giants. Rhetorica readers can help in this regard. If you read, see, or hear something good (i.e. opinion based on reporting), let me know.

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April 19, 2010

Facts : Journalism :: Air : Life

I’ve been fascinated with Jay Rosen’s simple fix for “messed up” Sunday talk shows. It’s a fix that makes sense and attracted the attention of ABC’s This Week. David Gregory, of NBC’s Meet the Press, isn’t so sure.

Journalism is big craft practiced by many types of people for many reasons. The most ethical among them practice it with the primary purpose of giving citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. The most effective among them are custodians or fact operating with a discipline of verification.

The Sunday talk shows certainly show important guests talking (sometimes snarling and blathering) about important issues. But in the absence of fact-checking, the content of these shows cannot be properly labeled journalism. These shows fail ethically by failing journalism’s primary purpose. And to fail in terms of facts is to turn potentially important civic discourse into (entertaining) partisan blather.

(Note: My assumption here is that insider wrangling and partisan sniping gives citizens very little politically useful information, i.e. information they can use to understand civic problems and then act on their own behalf.)

The hosts and producers of these shows have an important question to ask themselves (to the extent they are capable of asking and answering): Do we intend to serve journalism’s primary purpose or something else?

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January 15, 2010

Journalism Breakdown

You’ll hear journalists claim that bloggers are unreliable sources of information. And, yes, many of them are. One needs to judge carefully. That’s why I’ve argued that bloggers and journalists ought to post blogging policies to help readers judge.

The thing is: Journalism is supposed to come “pre-judged,” i.e. we should all know and understand how journalism is constructed (and how it ought to be constructed). This does not mean that journalism always gets it “right” because there are just too many judges to satisfy. What it means instead is that journalism is supposed to be a consistent product that all interested parties know how to judge for their own purposes whether they like the journalism or not.

Constructing a “pre-judged” product in journalism requires the editorial process identified often on Rhetorica as journalists operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification.

Here’s what happens when journalism fails to follow the process 🙂

Lance Bennett estimates that 75 percent or more of all news you see, read, and hear originates in a public relations effort.

Until that gets corrected (and the editorial process correctly followed), I’m really not in the mood to listen to “journalists” gripe about bloggers.

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