Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category


Some thoughts on just how we’ll manage

October 13, 2009

As I alluded to in my last post, the NYT article on E. Coli in ground beef got me thinking about investigative journalism.  I find it tempting to join in the panicked chorus asking who will do the kind of investigative journalism we need to be well-informed and make socially-responsible decisions when print newspapers die.

Luckily, there are a handful of folks out there rolling their eyes at the panic (and scheming about innovative ways to turn the death of print newspapers into opportunity).

Last week, Kate and Amanda over at Wronging Rights started a ruckus by questioning whether “The New York Times, the Associated Press, and Reuters have all published quotes misleadingly attributed to a Darfuri “refugee representative,” who is in fact (a) fictional, and (b) part of the PR operation of the rebel leader Abdel Wahid Al Nur?”

The back and forth has been illuminating and raises some important questions about the authenticity of the quotations that fill out the narrative of so many international news stories.  More importantly, it has gotten a whole lot of people stirred up.  And there isn’t a single print media institution on the light-shining side of this investigative journalism series.

It reminds of this Huffington Post piece and its good-sense ending:

When papers say, “if we’re gone, who will keep government honest?”, the answer is, every other media outlet that covers city, state and the federal government. There is nothing inherently inky about investigative journalism.

Sounds about right to me.  Consistently good investigative journalism seems to require a good number of elements: relationships with folks inside systems and institutions who are willing to pass along information and tips, the ability to ask hard and insightful questions, persistence.  Then there are the skills that help one sort through lots of information, find the relevant pieces and put them together into a big picture story.  Some kind of God-given instinct, I’d imagine.  And access to email and a phone.  I’m sure a travel budget would make things easier.  But the point is, as far as I can see, none of those elements are outside the reach of emerging media forms.

I’ll end this post by saying: I don’t know anything about this subject, but several of you readers do.  And I’m very open to being completely wrong.  Comment away.



Two things to read

September 3, 2009

One short, one long.

Short: Ezra Klein on how the media covered only the health-care town hall meetings that turned into shouting matches. This goes hand-in-hand with the things we’ve posted here critiquing journalism strategies in general. Here’s one of the money quotes:

Ohio Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy said, “I think the media coverage has done a disservice by falling for a trick that you’d think experienced media hands wouldn’t fall for: allowing loud voices to distort the debate.”

On the contrary, Rep. Kilroy… doesn’t the media do that all the time?

Long: A Chicago Magazine article in which the author, a white victim of a violent crime committed by black juveniles, discusses with heartfelt nuance how race colored his thoughts and actions after the assault. Really think we live in a “post-racial” society? Read this.

I’ve wondered what argument I’d be making if the situation were reversed, if a group of white kids had done the same to a black man without uttering a word. I doubt I’d be stepping into the public melee to say, “Wait a minute—maybe these kids were race neutral and they just happened to choose a black guy today.” And that’s clearly racism on my part, an unwillingness to see everyone as equal.

And what if I’d been attacked by whites? I think I’d have been more outraged, more quick to judge, less likely to look for some meaning in the act. I’d have desired stiffer punishment than Larry got, assuming, perhaps wrongly, that my assailants had had more advantages to start with and so had traveled a greater distance across the moral scale. Is that fair? No.

Flying Whale


How to argue

August 25, 2009

debateSince the launch of this blog, I’ve been thinking more than usual about opinions and beliefs—how we develop them, how we articulate them and how we persuade others of them.  Having suffered through some abysmal PowerPoint presentations lately, I’ve also been thinking about the way in which I expect information, especially inthe form of persuasive arguments, to be communicated to me.

As uncreative as it may be, I strongly prefer that “the point” be stated very early on.  The earlier the better.  It gives me a structure within which to store everything else and I’ve discovered that I’m virtually incapable of retaining any evidence if I don’t know what it’s supposedly supporting.

But a soon to be published article in Psychological Science begs to differ.  Research shows that “the brain takes a mere quarter of a second to react to statements that contradict or challenge our ethical belief system. That nearly instantaneous neural response colors the way…the rest of the thought is interpreted.”  From this finding, folks over at Miller-McCune go on to argue that when presenting a persuasive argument to a disagreeing audience, one should present the evidence first and the conclusion last, so as to delay the “instantaneous neural response” as long as possible.

I have to say that I find this ridiculous.  It extends from an understanding of persuasive argumentation in which the evidence is neutral and only the conclusion is opinionated.  But most of the time, that separation is only an illusion; the selection of evidence and the way in which it is communicated are just as opinion-based as the conclusion itself.  Furthermore, a media-literate audience knows this.  And roundabout persuasion feels disingenuous.

I’m not arguing with the findings in the article, but reading the summary did remind me that I dearly wish we’d drop the notion of objective evidence presentations.



Semantics that matter

August 21, 2009

The BBC posted an article a couple of days ago about the Hilltop Youth, a group of teenagers who “flout both Israeli and international law and build shacks they hope will eventually become established settlements in the West Bank.”

There is a lot to be unpacked here.  It’s a strange article with bizarrely portrayed characters that legitimizes voices I’d rather not have legitimized.  But for now, I’ll zero in on this:

While the article mentions that these makeshift structures are illegal, the author also calls the activities of the Hilltop Youth activism, not crimes.

Rather than arguing that a Palestinian teenager acting similarly would be characterized as a criminal, I’ll just assert it.  (Stick disagreements in the comments and I’ll respond.)  But the Palestinian comparison aside, I’m left wondering why some illegal, non-violent acts are portrayed as activism and others as crimes.

From most of Greenpeace’s actions to spontaneous protests to political graffiti to makeshift structures, I’m struggling to articulate criteria that could clearly separate crime and activism (again,  I’m only talking about non-violent actions here) other than the decider’s ideology.  Thoughts?




August 18, 2009

I am constantly fascinated by which people and perspectives are given air time and which aren’t.  There are a lot of variables in the equation—the density of the news cycle, the sensationalism of the story, the size of the constituency, the bias of the news outlet, etc.  But every now and then, I’m reminded of how broken our criteria is for determining whose voice should or shouldn’t be amplified.

The first example to catch my eye this week was this post about a Dana Gould report on the health care protests and Remote Area Medical, a non-profit working to meet the medical needs of the uninsured.

The people at the tea parties are screaming and angry and furious about bad things that aren’t happening to other people in some future universe. The people lined up at 4 a.m. outside the free care clinic are resigned and polite and measured about horrible things that actually are happening. To them. Right now.

But more important than their relative politeness is this: the media extensively covered one, and not the other.

And then I was alerted to Chris Matthews inviting the man who brought a gun to a presidential town hall on to Hardball to talk about it.  (I’m not willing to link to it; go search for it yourself if you must)

Doesn’t giving these people and perspectives air time—at some point—start to legitimize them?  And if so, are there situations in which the media has the responsibility NOT to report?



Americans wise up, start not paying for free stuff

August 13, 2009

I’m talking about water, of course.

…sales of bottled water have fallen for the first time in at least five years, assailed by wrathful environmentalists and budget-conscious consumers, who have discovered that tap water is practically free.

Great news, but this article weirdly misses a huge point. The reporter, Ylan Mui, focuses on opposition to the bottled water industry from environmentalists, citing the amount of oil needed to make all those plastic bottles, and all the landfill space those bottles take up. Mui quotes the NGO Food and Water Watch multiple times as a leading group in the debate. But Food & Water Watch isn’t really an environmental group; their bottled water campaign starts from a broader critique regarding the privatization of natural resources (and also brings in public health and other angles), not just the environmental effects of making lots of bottles. Perhaps that kind of systemic analysis is too much for the Post?

Flying Whale


List of Enemies?

August 13, 2009

Vodpod videos no longer available.

This clip drives me more than slightly crazy (watch it all the way through; the punch is at the end). But rather than waste time on an analysis it doesn’t deserve, I’ll just ask this: why didn’t SOMEBODY suggest that folks delete email addresses from the body of the email BEFORE they forward it on the White House?

The White House can’t legally delete emails; people with their facts wrong don’t want to be identified. Seems like there is a relatively elegant solution to this conundrum…



The Economist stays on the cutting edge

August 13, 2009

Michael Hirschorn, in The Atlantic, had a great article recently about how news magazines are dying a slow and painful death, with one very prominent exception: The Economist.

Unlike its rivals, The Economist has been unaffected by the explosion of digital media; if anything, the digital revolution has cemented its relevance. The Economist has become an arbiter of right-thinking opinion (free-market right-center, if you want to be technical about it; with a dose of left-center social progressivism) at a time when arbiters in general are in ill favor. It is a general-interest magazine for an ever-increasing audience, the self-styled global elite, at a time when general-interest anything is having a hard time interesting anybody. And it sells more than 75,000 copies a week on U.S. newsstands for $6.99 (!) at a time when we’re told information wants to be free and newsstands are disappearing.

Hirschorn seems to think that the reasons for The Economist‘s continued success are a combination of quality of reporting and, oddly, the publication’s total lack of online savvy. Because the magazine’s website was so behind the curve, it “remains primarily a print product, and it is valued accordingly.” Meanwhile, other news magazines provide tons of free content, which draws viewers but not revenue.

The idea that The Economist is so far behind is a bit suspect, though. They’ve been making podcasts for a while now, downloadable for free for subscribers or a considerable fee for non-subscribers, in which you can listen to stories read aloud in their entirety. This feature is built out pretty well and, at least anecdotally, seems to be pretty popular.

Now, there’s Economist Direct, in which UK residents can order a copy of the current issue of the magazine (online or by text message) and have it delivered to their door the next day, for the newsstand cover price. I’m curious to see if this becomes a parallel to the experience of Amazon Prime (free two-day shipping on everything) radically changing participants’ consumption patterns.

Flying Whale


Incompetent economists are incompetent

August 8, 2009

One of the hilarious (if occasionally frustrating) things about Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog is the way he constantly appropriates conservative and free-market slogans, or at least uses them in such a way as to demonstrate their absurdity. Today he takes issue with a New York Times article saying “history books may conclude that the financial crisis of 2008 turned out to be far less bad than it could have been and that Washington deserved much of the credit.”

Baker says: don’t be ridiculous. “Any custodian, dishwasher or shoe salesperson who showed the same degree of incompetence on their job would be fired instantly. There is no reason that the country should engage in this soft bigotry of low expectations when it comes to economic policy.” (emphasis added)

Made me laugh.

Flying Whale