Tag: journalism

How to bring journalism back to life

April 13, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More
How to bring journalism back to life

Robert McChesney and John Nichols have written an excellent new book: The Death and Life of American Journalism: the Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again (2010). This book precisely articulates a litany of bad news with regard to journalism:

  • Newspapers are dying. Only 16% of young Americans read the paper. The death of newspapers has not been caused by the Internet; they been dying for two decades. They are dying because they are not exposing readers to new challenging ideas. Rather, they excel at presenting us with “weather reports, celebrity gossip, syndicated fare and exercise tips.”
  • Newspapers are dying because corporate chains gobbled them up and milk them by cutting their new status, virtually eliminating investigative journalism.
  • Modern-day journalism relies far too much on officials in power to set the agenda, thus making news cheap and bland; they explore important issues only when those in power bicker amongst themselves about those issues.
  • Because of the loss of journalists, 50% of our news is now based on press releases issued by PR specialists and uncritically repeated on the pages of America’s newspapers.

    [More . . .]

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If you didn’t watch the local TV news Wednesday evening, you missed all of this

December 22, 2010 | By | 4 Replies More
If you didn’t watch the local TV news Wednesday evening, you missed all of this

I have long been disheartened by the offerings that pass for “news” on local TV news shows, but I thought it might be interesting to carefully monitor a newscast, and to log the content, minute by minute. I invited my 10-year old daughter to join me watching a videotape of the local news of Wednesday evening’s news on St. Louis NBC affiliate KSDK, Channel 5. I had recorded the 30-minute show ahead of time so we could carefully track the time and content, stopping and starting the tape as necessary to be accurate with our note-taking.

We got lucky because there was a mild sleet storm in the forecast, which would give us a chance to see how much the station would play up a bit of weather. It turned out that we weren’t disappointed with the winter storm hyperbole. We were sorely disappointed with what passed as “news,” however. Here is the “news,” minute by minute:

0:00 – Intro: Welcome to the News
0:25 Winter Weather Watch (There might be some sleet and ice tonight).
2:10 Breaking News: the police are investigating a crime-a woman was murdered in Illinois
3:28 More weather – (There might be some sleet and ice tonight).
4:22 Stock videotape of the city salt trucks. The “story” is that these trucks are ready to go if necessary.
4:31 A local organization provides meals for the elderly. The accompanying video features an elderly woman who is for the frozen meals.
6:22 More weather: Take care of your pet when it’s cold and icy outside.
7:25 Today, there was a student protest at a radio station run by a University. The police arrested a student who was allegedly unruly. The student blames the police and the police blame the student. No serious injuries.
9:02 Several police officers were laid off in one of the municipalities of in the St. Louis area.
9:22 An ex-police officer who had been arrested for corruption regarding an automobile towing operation goes to prison.
10:19 There was a shooting at a school board meeting in Florida. The story includes security video of the shooter being attacked by a woman who used her purse to smack him. He did not shoot her; he was much bigger than her, and swatted her away. She is interviewed afterward and states she didn’t know why she hit the man with her purse.
11:03 A preview of upcoming news.
11:30 Commercials
13:13 A video of a small airplane making an emergency landing (without landing gear) at the Springfield Missouri airport. No injuries.
13:35 A bandit in Las Vegas steals $1.5 million in casino chips. The story includes a video of the disguised robber walking out of the casino.
14:10 A mother sues McDonald’s for offering Happy Meals to lure children to the restaurant. McDonald’s says is proud of its happy meals.
14:50 A skunk breaks into a warehouse and sprays some toys. Many of these stinky toys can no longer be distributed to children.
15:12 More weather. There might be ice and snow tonight.
15:36 Commercials
18:15 More Weather. There might be ice and snow tonight.
21:30 Promos for the local news. We keep you informed.
22:11 More commercials.
24:30 Merry Christmas message from the station.
24:57 Sports.
28:00 A short story about Twitter.
28:20 More commercials
30:00 End of the “news.”

[Epilogue: Despite all of the attention on the weather, only a few schools closed in St. Louis the following morning and there was only a modest amount of ice on the roads].

Here are a few statistics based upon this news monitoring session:

– Total time of commercials: More than 8 minutes.
– Total amount of weather: About 7 minutes.
– National news: None
– Investigative reporting: None.
– Speaking truth to power: None.

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Warning labels for attempted journalism

August 14, 2010 | By | Reply More
Warning labels for attempted journalism

We desperately need warning labels for writing that purports to be serious journalism, but isn’t. Here is a terrific set of useful stickers by Tom Scott. My favorites:

Warning: Journalists hiding their own opinions by using phrases like “some people claim.”

Warning: Journalists do not understand the subject they are writing about.

[caption id="attachment_13796" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Image by Chris2766 at Dreamstime.com (with permission)"][/caption]

and

Warning: To ensure future interviews with subject, important questions were not asked.

Addendum: Here is my favorite warning label regarding the mass media (from Free Press):

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Iraq journalism applied to Iran

October 28, 2009 | By | Reply More
Iraq journalism applied to Iran

According to Glenn Greenwald, if you want to see what Iraq journalism looked like, read the the hyped up news on Iran. Take, for example a recent Washington Times piece by Toby Warrick, which is:

purely one-sided, unquestioning and entirely anonymous series of dubious, unverified, fear-mongering assertions that can have no purpose other than to create the most sinister picture of the “Iranian threat” possible.

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On the need to pay for content

September 27, 2009 | By | 8 Replies More
On the need to pay for content

There has been a lot of talk lately about coming up withe new models of providing information, such that the consumers will “continue” to pay for content. Not so fast, says Paul Graham:

Publishers of all types, from news to music, are unhappy that consumers won’t pay for content anymore. At least, that’s how they see it. In fact consumers never really were paying for content, and publishers weren’t really selling it either. If the content was what they were selling, why has the price of books or music or movies always depended mostly on the format? Why didn’t better content cost more? . . . Economically, the print media are in the business of marking up paper.

But don’t people pay for information? Only certain kinds of information:

People will pay for information they think they can make money from. That’s why they paid for those stock tip newsletters, and why companies pay now for Bloomberg terminals and Economist Intelligence Unit reports. But will people pay for information otherwise? History offers little encouragement.

[via Daily Dish]

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Snipers posing as journalists.

September 8, 2009 | By | 10 Replies More
Snipers posing as journalists.

This month’s issue of The Atlantic includes a detailed and thoughtful article by Mark Bowden, “The Story Behind the Story.” For 25 years, Bowden worked as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Using the media frenzy over Sonia Sotomayor’s isolated phrase “wise Latina” as his case study, Bowden keenly describes what has happened to journalism before our very eyes. Not that it was obvious while it was happening, which brings to mind George Orwell’s: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” And just look what is now in front of our noses:

With journalists being laid off in droves, ideologues have stepped forward to provide the “reporting” that feeds the 24-hour news cycle. The collapse of journalism means that the quest for information has been superseded by the quest for ammunition . . .

The reporting we saw on TV and on the Internet that day was the work not of journalists, but of political hit men. . . . This process—political activists supplying material for TV news broadcasts—is not new, of course. It has largely replaced the work of on-the-scene reporters during political campaigns, which have become, in a sense, perpetual. The once-quadrennial clashes between parties over the White House are now simply the way our national business is conducted. In our exhausting 24/7 news cycle, demand for timely information and analysis is greater than ever. With journalists being laid off in droves, savvy political operatives have stepped eagerly into the breach. What’s most troubling is not that TV-news producers mistake their work for journalism, which is bad enough, but that young people drawn to journalism increasingly see no distinction between disinterested reporting and hit-jobbery.

All you need to join the modern fray is a laptop and an internet connection. Not that Bowden is dissing the idea of citizen journalists. Far from it, bloggers of all stripes have often kept the mainstream media honest. Nonetheless, we now live in an era where it is easy for an idealogue to pose as a journalist in his or her spare time, Bowden is proposing that journalism has morphed into post-journalism, an enterprise where balanced truth-seeking is not a prerequisite. Rather the enterprise of post-journalism usually like a sport and, quite often, it is war:

The truth is something that emerges from the cauldron of debate. No, not the truth: victory, because winning is way more important than being right. Power is the highest achievement. There is nothing new about this. But we never used to mistake it for journalism. Today it is rapidly replacing journalism, leading us toward a world where all information is spun, and where all “news” is unapologetically propaganda.

The search for conflict certainly makes economic sense. Conflict screams for our attention and, of course, it sells ads. What’s more interesting: A) Jack and Jill take a walk or B) Jack and Jill have an argument? What’s more compelling, batting practice or a real ballgame. What’s more compelling: peaceful protests, or protests involving rock-throwing and teargas? We are, all of us, addicted to conflict pornography. We no longer see much need to listen to people who disagree with us, not when its socially acceptable to villainize them. As Bowden comments, “The other side is no longer the honorable opposition, maybe partly right; but rather always wrong, stupid, criminal, even downright evil.” And again, bringing down one’s opponent, especially while one is filled with Nietzschean ressentiment, feels fun.

What does Bowden propose as a solution? It’s not looking good:

Unless someone quickly finds a way to make disinterested reporting pay, to compensate the modern equivalent of the ink-stained wretch (the carpal-tunnel curmudgeon?), the Web may yet bury [press critic A. J.] Liebling’s cherished profession. Who, after all, is willing to work for free?

While reading Bowden’s article I kept thinking that the same thing that has infected journalism has spread to politics. Yes, politics has always been contentious. But now our political system is so wrought with anger and accusations (and corruption) that it seem absolutely incapable of dealing with any major problem. I suspect that the causal arrow points from journalism to politics on this–that if we could somehow mute the fake journalists, our politicians might be better able to calm down and work better with each other. Total speculation, I know, and I’m not optimistic about seeing the sad state of journalism improve.

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How to not conduct an interview of Dick Cheney

August 30, 2009 | By | 8 Replies More
How to not conduct an interview of Dick Cheney

Andrew Sullivan puts a bright spotlight on Chris Wallace, who pretended to interview Dick Cheney. I agree with Sullivan that this is not journalism at all. It should get Wallace fired immediately. Except, perhaps, if those who employ Wallace like it when Wallace merely pretends to interview controversial public figures.

Visit Sullivan’s post at the Daily Dish and be amazed and appalled.

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Glenn Greenwald pops the bubble of Tim Russert-the-legend

April 5, 2009 | By | 1 Reply More
Glenn Greenwald pops the bubble of Tim Russert-the-legend

Glenn Greenwald tells it straight. Tim Russert was an embarrassment to journalism, not a hero.

I previously discussed Russert’s version of “journalism” here.

I also agree with Amy Goodman’s comments about the corporate media still not doing its job.

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How to weed out junk science when discussing climate change.

March 23, 2009 | By | 13 Replies More
How to weed out junk science when discussing climate change.

George Will’s recent journalistic malpractice has inspired much discussion by many people concerned about climate change. It’s a critically important issue given that 41% of Americans currently think that the threat of global warming is being exaggerated by the media.

The intellectual energy runs even deeper than criticism of George Will, though, leading us to the fundamental issue of how journalists and readers can distinguish legitimate

science from sham (or politicized) science. The Washington Post recently agreed to publish a precisely-worded response to Will by Christopher Mooney. Here’s Mooney’s opener:

A recent controversy over claims about climate science by Post op-ed columnist George F. Will raises a critical question: Can we ever know, on any contentious or politicized topic, how to recognize the real conclusions of science and how to distinguish them from scientific-sounding spin or misinformation?

Mooney methodically takes Will to task on point after point. For instance, weather is not the same thing as the climate. The state of the art in 1970s climate science has been superseded by 2007 climate science. You can’t determine long-term trends in Arctic ice by comparing ice thickness only on two strategically picked days.

The bottom line is not surprising. If you want to do science well you have to do it with precision, measuring repeatedly, crunching the numbers every which way and then drawing your conclusions self-critically. What is not allowed is cherry picking.

Readers and commentators must learn to share some practices with scientists — following up on sources, taking scientific knowledge seriously rather than cherry-picking misleading bits of information, and applying critical thinking to the weighing of evidence. That, in the end, is all that good science really is. It’s also what good journalism and commentary alike must strive to be — now more than ever.

Mooney has given considerable thought to these topics. His byline indicates that he is the author of “The Republican War on Science” and co-author of the forthcoming “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.”

I would supplement Mooney’s well-written points, borrowing from our federal courts. They have long been faced with the struggle to determine what is real science and what is junk science, and they have settled on what is now called the “Daubert” test, (named after the case first applying the test, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993)). The Daubert analysis is applied many times every day in all federal courts (and many state courts) all across America.

The problem facing judges is that the parties to law suits often produce experts who express scientific theories and explanations that are never heard outside of courtrooms. This justifiably makes judges suspicious. Is the witness doing “real” science or his he/she doing sham science to further the interests of the party paying his/her bills? The Daubert test asks the judge to serve as gatekeeper, to make sure that only legitimate science sees the light of day in courtrooms. Here are the relevant factors:

  • Does the method involve empirical testing (is the theory or technique falsifiable, refutable, and testable)?
  • Has the method been subjected to peer review and publication?
  • Do we know the error rate of the method and the existence and maintenance of standards concerning its operation?
  • Is the theory and technique generally accepted by a relevant scientific community?

Positive answers to each of these factors suggests that the witness is doing real science. Astrology would fail this test miserably.

Applied to climate science, the Daubert test would require that we listen carefully to what the scientists talk about with each other, in person and in their peer-reviewed journals. Daubert would require that we know enough about the techniques of climate science to know how it makes its measurements and conclusions. Daubert would certainly require that we know the difference between the weather and the climate.

Applying Daubert is not simply a matter of listening to the scientists. Quite often, the scientists are bought and paid for (e.g., scientists working for tobacco companies and corrupt pharmaceutical companies). Applying Daubert requires taking the time to understand how the science works to solve real-world questions and problems and then taking the time to see that its methodology is being used with rigor in this application. There are no shortcuts, expecially for outsider non-scientists.

No shortcuts. No cherry-picking.

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