Category Archives: Journalism

Innovation-by-omission, and other thoughts

I’m writing most of my journalism-related posts at Publishing2.0 these days (“most” meaning the few that I get around to writing). So you should check out a couple recent posts: Why not writing a story is innovation, and how “scrapbook news” can help reframe the discussion about citizen journalism and crowdsourcing.

Is Shepard Smith always so fair and balanced? (no, really)

This video of Fox News’s Carl Cameron dishing on McCain insiders’ views of Sarah Palin has gotten a lot of attention today.

It is pretty remarkable that McCain staffers would claim to a reporter that Palin didn’t know Africa is a continent — remarkable if true, for obvious reasons, and remarkable if false because that would show an incredibly intense smear campaign. (It sounded implausible to me at first, but Andrew Sullivan* points out that nobody has denied the claim. Plus if it’s not true, why make it up when there are surely plenty of other true embarrassing tidbits they could have told instead?)

But something else struck me in watching the video. Two-thirds of the way through (starting at 2:05), Cameron switches to reporting the spin from those in the McCain camp who are still defending the Palin pick.** He says (or rather they say) that McCain was leading from the time he picked Palin until Lehman Brothers failed. In other words, the economy, not Palin, lost it for McCain.

Then, before you can say fair and balanced, anchor Shepard Smith smoothly counters:

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Journalism’s trouble with lies

Why oh why can’t journalists call a lie a lie?

The question has come up repeatedly in this campaign season of depressingly typical he-said-she-said news stories — with increasing frequency since John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate.

In an ideal world, as Dylan Matthews points out, “When Sarah Palin claimed she opposed the Bridge to Nowhere, the AP headline would be ‘Palin Repeats Lie about Infamous Bridge’.”

In the real world, even a Washington Post story that’s ostensibly about campaign lies has to resort to wishy-washy phrasing:

Palin and John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee, have been more aggressive in recent days in repeating what their opponents say are outright lies. Almost every day, for instance, McCain says rival Barack Obama would raise everyone’s taxes, even though the Democrat’s tax plan exempts families that earn less than $250,000. (emphasis added)

Notice how the story won’t call McCain a liar — it’s McCain’s “opponents” who say he lies. But in the very next sentence, the Post reporter accurately describes one of McCain’s lies. The facts aren’t in dispute: Obama has a detailed tax plan, and McCain has repeatedly falsely described that plan. He has lied about it. So why can’t the story just come out and say so?

The reticence to call a lie a lie is perhaps the most pernicious example of how modern journalism’s objectivity fetish has been taken to such extremes that it’s become meaningless.

Objectivity is no longer (if it ever was) a means to reporting the truth. It has become an end in itself. If the facts can be interpreted to reflect negatively on a subject (at least if that subject is a Republican or allegedly conservative candidate for office), then they must be avoided. Indeed, this twisted notion of objectivity has turned facts into mere subjective interpretations.

But facts are facts. The interpretation comes after. And journalists should not worry about how the facts will be interpreted.

For example, simply pointing out that someone is lying is descriptive, not normative.

“John McCain lied about Barack Obama and sex education” is a statement of fact. It does not render judgment on McCain — it merely points out that what he said about Obama was intentionally false.

Now, it’s true that in American culture in general and presidential politics specifically, people generally don’t think highly of liars. But that’s reason for John McCain to stop lying — not for the media to stop pointing out when he lies.

If the facts reflect poorly on a subject in the culture’s eyes, that’s the subject’s business — not the media’s. (The whole point of objectivity was that the media shouldn’t be in the reflection business!)

The good news is, there’s been so much outrage in certain quarters about the media’s fear of lie-detection that maybe things will change. And if a new AP story on McCain’s lies doesn’t quite reach Dylan Matthews’ ideal — the still-too-tentative headline: “Analysis: McCain’s claims skirt facts, test voters” — at least it’s a start.

Newspapers should sell the press — and use the mailman

I’ve been mulling over Doug Fisher’s intriguing and, at first glance, entirely sensible suggestion to disentangle newspapers from their printing presses. I wonder if this could be the first part of a radical two-step that might help papers prepare for or transition to the online future in a way they haven’t been able to do yet. Fisher writes:

Many smaller newspapers have had their printing done by contract for years. Headlines have come recently, however, as big-city newspapers (think San Francisco, Boston and now New York) explore outsourcing or consolidating printing, even in the absence of a joint operating agreement. Chains such as McClatchy and Media News are also consolidating printing, even if it means earlier deadlines and longer truck routes.

They should go one step further: Move their printing operations into a separate subsidiary with no ties to the newsroom. Newsrooms would pay to print the paper and be free to take their business to a less expensive or more responsive competitor.

This would get the albatross of “big iron’s” debt and depreciation off newsrooms’ backs. It would position those printing operations better for sale. And it would make the pressroom and the newsroom more efficient in accounting for costs and generating new business.

I would go even a step beyond that.

If, as David Sullivan wrote a couple months ago, “newspapers are essentially a logistics business that happens to employ journalists”; and if, as Fisher writes, “Newsrooms need an honest accounting of the costs and revenues associated with producing, distributing and selling the news,” selling off the press is only half a solution. Here’s a possible other half:

Newspapers should get out of the delivery business and send papers through the mail.

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What the Newseum’s $450 million could buy now

Back in February, Jack Shafer wrote a column for Slate excoriating the new $450 million Newseum building next to the National Mall. He finished his anti-ode to the “monument to journalistic vanity” by gently (compared to the rest of the piece) pointing out that there are plenty of better uses for $450 million, given the troubles facing newspapers:

I want the Freedom Forum to sell off their monument valley installation and use the proceeds to actually support journalism. Like endowing a newspaper, for instance.

Just one newspaper? Those were the days. Nowadays — a mere five months later, that is — $450 million could get you 3 or 4 newspaper chains.

A reasonable defense of Family Circus

Anyone who (like me) has ever made fun of lame comic strips and the newspapers that run them should read this David Sullivan post about audiences’ capacity and desire for cultural change. It’s the most persuasive case I’ve read for why newspapers stick with what I would consider outdated comics, features, and language:

A columnist or feature can occasionally be hip; but a newspaper can’t be hip. It can’t be the counterculture. It is the culture. It has been part of how new ideas are absorbed into the mainstream. …

But it can be hard to find one’s place in the culture, which grows more complicated by the day; the Internet, with its social networking and postings and chat, provides a new counterculture, or multiple ones, ones that make the mainstream look even lamer than “The Family Circus” did to me in the 1970s. The argument about the future of news is partly about whether the mainstream ends with the baby boomers, like the parents left behind in “Childhood’s End” as the children join the ubermind.

The problem is that newspapers have tended to do a poor job of figuring out how to satisfy both the Family Circus and the more modern audiences. Plus the younger mainstream audience is still hipper and savvier than the Baby Boomer Family Circus audience. But Sullivan’s point is well taken.

The limits of Twitter’s 140-character limit

Matthew Ingram and Mark Hamilton have written posts defending Twitter from a backlash stirred up by some outlandish claims made after the China earthquake. Both make good not-outlandish arguments for why Twitter is important for journalism and news consumers, but after reading their posts I’m still stuck on the arbitrariness of Twitter’s 140-character limit.

Ingram points out that Twitter isn’t going to kill old media — it’s just one of many new tools that are potentially very good at one of old media’s main functions (in this case, getting the news to people in a timely fashion). He writes:

No one is suggesting that Twitter replace the emergency broadcast system, or that Twitterers should be thought of in the same breath as “first responders” such as search & rescue personnel. … But why shouldn’t we talk about how Twitter can be used to get information out about disasters?

It’s a good question, but I would follow up with one of my own: If Twitter is going to become a primary tool for getting information out about disasters, why place an artificial limit on the length of each disaster-information post?

Hamilton answers part of this question in his post. He writes:

The common argument against Twitter, IM and all the rest is that while they can provide information, they can’t provide context and depth. But when news breaks, it’s information that I want, not the narrative-nutgraf stories and not the context. The steady flow of information as the story develops is what I’m looking for (and that steady flow carries with it a lot of the context that some newspaper reporters insist only they can provide). (emphasis in original)

But what about information that’s shorter than a narrative nut graf but longer than 140 characters? In other words, why should the steady flow of information that Hamilton wants be restricted to 140-character blasts? As I wrote in this post, if it’s okay to continue a thought (or a news blast) across multiple Twitter posts, why have an arbitrary limit at all?

There’s another aspect of the 140 limit that troubles me. In that same post I wrote, “Ultimately I’m not sure why multiple 140-character Twitter posts are better than a simple live-blog.” After reading Ryan Sholin’s Twitter coverage of this week’s E&P Interactive Media Conference (where his ReportingOn project won a Knight News Challenge grant!), I’m still not sure.

Here’s a page of Sholin live-Twittering Arianna Huffington’s keynote speech. Sholin’s Twitter followers saw a page and a half of Huffington posts instead of having one post they could click on if they wanted to see the minute-by-minute updates. Plus, because of the 140-character limit there wasn’t room for any (or many) of Huffington’s actual quotes. As I said in my original post, quotes are often unnecessary in stories like these. But Twitter’s character limit means people who don’t speak in perfect pithy phrases just won’t be quoted.

Fast-forward a year or two, when many more people and news organizations will be covering news this way. If you’re following a bunch of Twitterers and three or four of them cover live events at the same time, you’d have to scroll through dozens of news posts before getting to the other people you’re following.

Just to be clear, I’m not criticizing Sholin. He did an awesome job covering the conference given Twitter’s constraints. But I think those constraints may limit the effectiveness of this kind of coverage — just as they may limit the effectiveness of disaster-news delivery and general breaking news.