December 1, 2007

How to Not Be Dumb

There are several issues I’ll be tackling over the next few days, and I woke up this morning realizing I needed to say something more about political bias in the news media before I begin.

I agree with Jay Rosen that the debate over media bias is largely dumb. Part of the dumbness springs from the partisan nature of much of the debate, i.e. it’s about winning politically; it’s not about coming to a better understanding of what journalism is or ought to be.

But there is an important sense in which the debate is not dumb: The epistemology of journalism leads journalists to believe false ideas about language. And these false ideas lead directly to the kind of coverage that draws charges of bias. These false ideas are:

(From George Lakoff’s Moral Politics)

  1. Concepts are literal and nonpartisan.
  2. Language use is neutral.
  3. News can be reported in neutral terms
  4. Mere use of language cannot put anyone at a disadvantage.
  5. All readers and viewers share the same conceptual system.

You see, for any given news article: 1) There is no neutral headline, 2) There is no neutral lead, 3) There are no neutral terms, 4) There is no neutral frame or narrative.

Don’t have the wrong ah-ha! moment here. If one cares to really look hard at the textual evidence–and I have a stack of studies sitting on my desk right now more than 12 inches deep–one would see that there is plenty of evidence in the news media to support charges of bias from any political wing. To charge bias of one kind only for the entire news media is, then, one of three things: dumb, partisan, or both.

Any given case of political bias in journalism (from a news organization to a reporter)–and there are plenty!–should always be fought vigorously. What one should not do, however, is over-generalize or jump to conclusions.

You’ll often hear journalists say that if they piss off “both sides” then they must be doing their jobs right. And I just want to bitch-slap them when they say it. This silly notion springs directly from those false ideas about language.

What if…

What if journalists came to have a better understanding of language? What might happen if they embraced this idea: No objective point of view exists (none is possible; it’s not even a “worthy” ideal), so there are no neutral terms, structures, narratives, or frames with which to describe reality.

With that understanding in mind, writing headlines becomes a very different job. Structuring a news story becomes a very different job. Interviewing becomes a very different job. Writing it up becomes a very different job.

Here’s one big way it could be different: Journalistic practice would be understood to be a part of the news situation and require meta-reporting, i.e. reporting on reporting or a transparent (as possible) conversation about the role of reporting in civic affairs. In other words, the observer is no longer just an observer; the observer is a player; deal with it openly.

I’ll deal with specifics about how this might work in another post.

June 21, 2007

Talking Points from the Institute, Part 3

From the McCormick Tribune Specialized Reporting Institute Talking Points

The Poynter Institute faculty at the McCormick Tribune Specialized Reporting Institute generated a list of talking points to help reporters create coverage plans for the presidential nominating process. There are 12 points, and I’ll cover two per entry.

5. How transparent am I? Do I tell my audience how I know what I know? Do I tell my readers, listeners and viewers as much as I can about my sources–even the unnamed ones? Do I include in stories my unanswered questions?

If I just bust out and say “Let’s add meta-reporting to the long list of stuff reporters need to do!” you might get the impression I have no idea what it means to be a reporter these days, i.e. the workload. Adding to the workload is not the issue here. Instead, meta-reporting is actually a complete re-thinking of journalistic discourse (see #6 below, too re: lecture versus conversation) and what it is the journalistic knower does.

In lecture mode, the journalistic knower is observer of the scene and privileged partner with the source–the official knower. Citizens are understood not to know by virtue of being separated from sources. A common and ironic circumstance of this arrangement is that journalists all too often require official sources to confirm the firsthand experiences of citizens. Another problem that follows from lecture discourse is the tendency on the part of some journalists to think they know much more than they actually do. Read the political coverage by The New York Times and the Washington Post any day of the week for excellent (sad) examples. You’d think these reporters had advanced degrees in psychology and anthropology from the things they write about candidates.

The discourse conventions of journalism in the late 20th century–the journalism we still teach and the journalism the profession is desperately clinging to now that the noetic field is shifting–convey “how we know” in particular ways (e.g. how references are handled and what attributive verbs are used). The rhetoric of journalism positions the journalist as “objective observer” and the source as expert. The effect is a lecture from those who know to those who do not know.

The most stunning moment at the seminar for me happened when Butch Ward, of the Poynter faculty, made this comment: “Have the courage to tell how you know what you know.”

Journalism already does this! The features of journalistic discourse are designed to do exactly this–by the dictates of the old noetic field. But the field is shifting, and one interesting bit of evidence is that Ward means “courage” in the sense of: Revolt against discourse! Out with the old. In with the new. Dialogue; don’t lecture. The official source may be a spinner and a propagandist–an interested communicator, not a expert. Cut through that agenda. Report that agenda. Be able to write the sentence that explains how you know what you know. And if you can’t write that sentence, don’t report it.

Courage indeed.

6. Is this a lecture or a dialogue? How can I use interactive technology to involve my audience in my journalism? Do I solicit ideas, content, and feedback from readers? How do I determine what my audience needs to know or better understand?

Important: It ain’t about the technology; it’s about the discourse. It’s about what the technology makes possible. The technology is teaching citizens they have the right, duty, and ability to talk back to the media. In other words: You don’t get to lecture anymore because the technology is the bit of grit around which the crystal of a new noetic field is forming.

Using the technology in interactive ways is a perfectly fine thing to do. But the journalistic establishment won’t understand technology, or use it to its full potential, until it understands the lesson of all technological advancements in human communication: the discourse changes.

June 5, 2007

Transparency and the Ethics of Political Coverage

From the McCormick Tribune Specialized Reporting Institute

The session before lunch covered what values should guide coverage of presidential primary campaigns.

I found the discussion on transparency interesting. Tom Rosenstiel called transparency a “mindset” and a “spirit” that brings the reader into the process. Transparency gives the public a sense of journalism’s methods and motives, according to Bob Steele, Senior Faculty, Ethics at The Poynter Institute. In the opening session this morning, Keith Woods, Dean of Faculty at The Poynter Institute, said citizens generally don’t know what journalists do and how they do it.

(Not to add too much to the journalist’s burden (limited time, limited resources), but it seems to me that reporters could offer more meta-reporting as a normal part of writing an article. An example: explaining the “why” of using an anonymous source so that citizens understand the source’s motive.)

What should be the role of journalism in the public’s understanding of the product (especially in regard to politics)?

What does the public understand about journalism? Do we know?

March 26, 2007

Meta the Back Channel

Max Frankel’s essay in The New York Times Magazine offers an accurate and comprehensive description and justification for what he calls the Washington “back channel” — the peculiar relationship between government officials and the press that necessitates (rationalizes) anonymous sourcing. Frankel concludes his essay this way:

As Justice Potter Stewart wrote after studying the unending contest between the government and the press during the cold war:

“So far as the Constitution goes … the press is free to do battle against secrecy and deception in government. But the press cannot expect from the Constitution any guarantee that it will succeed. … The Constitution itself is neither a Freedom of Information Act nor an Official Secrets Act. The Constitution, in other words, establishes the contest, not its resolution. … For the rest, we must rely, as so often in our system we must, on the tug and pull of the political forces in American society.”

In loose translation: Prosecutors of the realm, let this back-alley market flourish. Attorneys general and others armed with subpoena power, please leave well enough alone. Back off. Butt out.

I’m just not satisfied with this. Frankel has missed an opportunity to examine what the press could do differently in regard to providing the information citizens need to be free and self-governing. He could have added to the end of that last paragraph this: ‘Journalists should do a better job of explaining this system in the context of their stories. Go meta.’

Let’s refer to the NYT’s own guidelines for anonymous sources:

The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy. When we use such sources, we accept an obligation not only to convince a reader of their reliability but also to convey what we can learn of their motivation — as much as we can supply to let a reader know whether the sources have a clear point of view on the issue under discussion.

This policy is imperfectly followed to be sure, but what interests me most about it is this paragraph–especially the part about conveying “motivation” and “point of view.” To do such a thing requires meta-reporting, or reporting about reporting. This is a practice nearly unknown in American journalism (with, perhaps, the exception of television showing us the circumstances of its reporters in the field).

Journalism is a very big thing, i.e. it is an important cultural practice that has effects (and we still don’t know what all of these are) on our civic and private lives and on our public and private institutions. Critics examine journalism (bloggers and The Daily Show have raised the bar, IMO), but too few journalists examine themselves and their practices as a normal part of reporting the news. If journalism is a big thing, then understanding journalistic practice — as it affects individual news events — is important information to have regarding freedom and self-governance.

To be sure, journalism does do a lot of navel gazing — too much by some accounts. But I think journalists all too often gaze at the wrong navel. They should spend some more time examining how they do what they do effects what everyone else does.

One way to do that is meta-reporting. Frankel’s essay and the NYT policy show us a good place to start. Tell us a whole lot more about these sources, their motives, and their ideologies as a regular part of the reporting; tell us how you know; tell us what procedures you used to be sure. In detail. As a regular part of the news article.

You may notice that this type of information does not fit neatly into the inverted pyramid structure common to news writing. That means my suggestion creates a big problem. Other big problems: space, time, economics. So never mind.

June 16, 2006

NYT: re-write document…

Dan Bobkoff says the network news programs should stop monitoring each other’s broadcasts and stop subscribing to The New York Times. Here’s why:

With nothing to copy off the TV or from the papers, the newscasts then could think about broadening what they cover. They’ve all fallen into a habit of covering only certain places and issues. I think each show should strive to feature at least one truly original story a night. These stories could come from anywhere in the world, and should serve to provide context to current and future news stories. Why not send one reporter out with the mandate to find truly interesting and important stories that no one else is talking about?

Why not blah blah blah? Well, there’s this little thing called the expediency bias. Oh, and the status quo bias plays a role here, too. The last thing ABC, CBS, or NBC want is to be significantly different from the others.

Fear of difference isn’t just a problem for the networks. Political coverage by all news media demonstrates that reporters and their editors rarely cover anything outside the box (i.e. the master narrative or the prevailing “pressthink“). I’ve said they should tell a different story. Few are listening. I’m just some crank professor working in a small program in Springfield, Missouri. What the hell do I know?

Bobkoff agrees that a different story ought to be told or at least the same ol’ thing told in a different way. I like the sound of this:

And while they’re playing with length, why not try new storytelling techniques too? Reporters should be encouraged to show some of the reporting process in their stories. Viewers can learn a lot about what it’s like to be somewhere when we see a reporter en route to meet a source, for instance. That kind of verité reporting could help combat news apathy. Too often, stories feel distant because we don’t get a true sense of what it’s like to be somewhere.

The “be somewhere” is certainly important. But I also like the possibilities of expanding that “be” with meta-reporting to including being in the reporter’s shoes cognitively. The process of news gathering should no longer be a hidden part of the manufacturing of the final product. There is no longer a final product because, unlike lectures, conversations evolve and unfold without necessary end points.

January 5, 2006

Tell me, and I’ll report it…

Howard Kurtz gets it right:

Sure, the bum information came from West Virginia’s governor, and the coal company shamefully refused to correct the record for hours. But the fault lies with the journalists for not instinctively understanding that early, fragmentary information in times of crisis is often wrong. You don’t broadcast or publish until it’s absolutely nailed down, or at least you hedge the report six ways to Sunday. This was, quite simply, a media debacle, born of news organizations’ feverish need to breathlessly report each development 30 seconds ahead of their competitors.

But do journalists blame themselves? Many, you will not be shocked to hear, don’t. Here’s Associated Press Managing Editor Mike Silverman: “”AP was reporting accurately the information that we were provided by credible sources — family members and the governor. Clearly, as time passed and there was no firsthand evidence the miners were alive, the best information would have come from mine company officials, but they chose not to talk.”

Reporting what “credible sources” say is just fine as long as the meta-reporting accompanies it, i.e. “you hedge the report six ways to Sunday.” And you do so openly as a normal part of the report (or article). For example (assuming a TV reporter here): “Joe Blow says such and such. But we’ve been unable to confirm this. Right now, reporter Jane Doe is attempting to contact Harvey Wallbanger, chief poobah, who may be in a position to confirm. And reporter Warren Peace is attempting to get to the scene now to independently confirm this and that.”

On the print side, such meta-reporting should suggest to the copy editor that a strong headline is probably not such a good idea.

What we’ve been learning rather regularly over the past few months is that “credible sources” can get it fantastically wrong. Remember Mayor Ray Nagin and the carnage in the Superdome?

TV journalists will always be suckered into such mistakes because of the structure of their medium–its relentless need for immediacy, pictures, and emotion. Plus, it’s difficult to take back what a live camera broadcasts.

Again I say: Print needs to stop trying to compete with television. Just because TV had it (first) doesn’t mean print had to go with it. I’d rather the headlines had been wrong the other way (“Fate of Miners Still Unknown”) because of good skeptical reporting than wrong the way they were because competition lead to an easy credulousness.

The survival of “print” (by which I mean newspaper journalism no matter what medium delivers it) demands that print journalists stop trying to compete with television and do the job that only they (and their citizen counterparts) can do: In depth and accurate second-day reporting about local events.

Tim Porter has more on what good local reporting should be.

December 31, 2005

Fishy story…

Sometimes the failures of journalism just make we want to scream.


Don’t give me the obvious mumbo-jumbo. I want details–specific, step-by-step, document-by-document, details.

I just tried to “buy” a ticket to Baghdad on Expedia and Tavelocity. Guess what? You can’t do it. So how did this 16-year-old kid do it? Okay, so he made intermediate steps. How did he know to do that? How did he get proper documents? Who gave them to him? Why? Don’t simply tell me he got them. How? Exactly how?

Some stories demand meta-reporting (a practice I’d like to see become routine), i.e. tell me that you’re trying to answer the obvious questions; tell me why you don’t have answers yet; tell me how you’re trying to get the answers.

Man, this story is fishy–waaaaaay fishy.

UPDATE (12:15 p.m.): I’m sitting here daydreaming a bit about this fascinating story. The following is a bit of fancy: I imagine what I would say to Farris Hassan had I been the AP reporter who talked to him in Baghdad. I have no idea what actually happened. I’m not criticizing the AP. And, for all I know, my little flight of fancy is exactly the wrong way to handle it. What it is: A bit about committing journalism.

Me: Hello, Farris. I’d like to ask you a few questions.
Farris: Hello. Yes, sir.
Me: I understand you’re interested in journalism.
Farris: Yes, that’s right, sir. That’s why I came here.
Me: Well, you show spunk, kid. You’ve obviously got the shoe-leather instincts to be a good reporter. I predict you’ll go far in this business.
Farris: Thanks! I appreciate that. And I’m sorry for causing a problem.
Me: No problem, kid. You’re going to be good copy. Now, let’s you and I commit a little journalism.
Farris: Okay…
Me: I want to start by your telling me the entire story. From the moment you decided to come to Iraq until the moment you sat down with me. And I want every detail of every step. I want names, dates, times, documents. I want facts. And I’m going to check out every factual statement you make. Do you mind if I record this?
Farris …uh, no. But, am I in trouble?
Me: Not with me! Like I said, you’re going to be good copy. But journalism is a serious business, and you’ve come to a serious place. And my readers want to know how you got here and why.

The master narrative of this story has become: “Woooooo…you’re in soooo much trouble when you get home!” Let me suggest it might be a bit more important than that.

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