Friday, July 04, 2014

Context is good in journalism, and so is repetition

Here's another insight from the de Botton book I mentioned in my last post, drawing on a dubious Hegelian argument that mass information was replacing religion in societal influence:
Hegel's argument that the news now occupies the same prestigious position in society as religion once did misses out an important difference between the two fields of knowledge: religions have traditionally been particularly sensitive to how bad we are at focusing on anything. Exactly like the news, religions want to tell us important things every day. But unlike the news, they know that if they tell us too much, in one go, and only once, then we will remember -- and do -- nothing
They therefore take care to serve up only a little of their fare each day, taking us patiently through a few issues and then returning to them again and again. Repetition and rehearsal are key to the pedagogical methods of the major faiths. (p. 31)
The ideas of repetition and rehearsal, of course, are anathema to journalistic tradition, which assumes that once a fact has been reported it is universally known, and that audiences everywhere will use today's facts as a contextual foundation for the facts that come tomorrow.

That's why, even in a book highly sympathetic to my views called "Informing the News," Thomas E. Patterson accepts that the following "depiction of what a news story might look like if written through the long-range lens of political science" would take journalism in the wrong direction:
A powerful thunderstorm forced President Obama to cancel his Memorial Day speech near Chicago on Monday -- an arbitrary event that had no effect on the trajectory of American politics. Obama now faces some of the most difficult challenges of his young presidency: the ongoing oil spill, the Gaza flotilla disaster, and revelations about possibly inappropriate conversations between the White House and candidates for public office. But while these narratives may affect fleeting public perceptions, Americans will ultimately judge Obama on the fundamentals of jobs numbers and the GDP. (p. 82-83)
Patterson writes that "News reports of this ilk" -- written tongue-in-cheek by journalist Christopher Beam -- "would soon send people scurrying to find better ways to spend their time." He goes on, but I'd like to stop him there for a second, because:
  • First, news reports written about the president and politics already send people scurrying for better ways to spend their time. That's the point of Patterson's book, my book, and dozens of other lamentations about the lack of attention to public affairs news in America.
  • Second, I think fewer people would scurry away from news reporting that really told it like it is -- not too far from what Beam does as a joke above -- than reporting that embraces and amplifies the artifice of politics and treats everyone outside politics like a bunch of dummies.
  • And third, if journalists reported and wrote from this perspective, they'd write fewer stupid inconsequential kinds of stories that led to these kinds of observations and could begin to focus on the difficult challenges our leaders face and their performance on the issues by which Americans will ultimately judge them.
That would be a significant improvement over what we have now.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

The News as Pedagogy

Just started reading a new book I came across at the library, "The News: A User's Manual," by Alain de Botton. He makes a point that I think is central to the way we should view journalism: "Once our formal education has finished, the news is the teacher."

Thinking of journalism this way, as the predominant tool of social pedagogy for adults, throws nearly all of our traditional news values into disarray. If we think of journalism as teaching, a lot of the stuff that factors into news judgment -- prominence, urgency, conflict, unusualness -- becomes subordinate to a couple of key values: significance and impact. The realization has crept upon me that news' obsession with what is out of the ordinary or unique does a disservice to individuals and societies by steering attention away from what is endemic and persistent, which are the things we really need to pay attention to.

There's a lot of stuff I should link to later about things like cultivation theory, which suggests that regular reporting on violent crime leads people to think there's more violent crime than there really is, or exemplification theory, which suggests that zeroing in on vivid but unrepresentative examples skew the way we understand underlying statistical information. In essence, by focusing on superlatives and anomalies, journalism creates a wholly unrealistic picture of what the world is really like.

If news is how post-school individuals learn about the world, teaching in this way is irresponsible and destructive. As counter-intuitive as this sounds, what journalism really needs to be doing is describing the normal, the everyday and the average in compelling ways -- and I do mean compelling. It strikes me that one of the most important things journalism should do is inspire curiosity in the general public about how things work, why things are, and how things change. This, in part, is what Ezra Klein seems to be doing with Vox Media. I think that's the right direction.

Also, not quite on topic, is this passage from de Botton about the episodic nature of news (which he illustrates by quoting a snippet from the middle of "Anna Karenina" as though it were the top of a news story) that echoes many points in my own book:

... [T]he habit of randomly dipping readers into a brief moment in a lengthy narrative, then rapidly pulling them out again, while failing to provide any explanation of the wider context in which events have been unfolding, is precisely what occurs in the telling of many of the most important stories that run through our societies, whether an election, a budget negotiation, a foreign policy initiative or a change to the state benefit system. No wonder we get bored.
 If we think of journalism as pedagogy, we're much less likely to forget the context.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Humanity is dooming itself to extinction in this century

The Huffington Post might be the news organization that comes closest to maintaining a steady drumbeat on the climate change issue. The lead headline right now is "Clear and Present Danger," about a U.S. government report declaring that the nation is already feeling the effects of climate change in drier droughts and wetter downpours, among other things.

Huffington Post also captured this damning quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson's show "Cosmos":
We just can't seem to stop burning up all those buried trees from way back in the carboniferous age, in the form of coal, and the remains of ancient plankton, in the form of oil and gas. If we could, we'd be home free climate wise. Instead, we're dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate the Earth hasn't seen since the great climate catastrophes of the past, the ones that led to mass extinctions. We just can't seem to break our addiction to the kinds of fuel that will bring back a climate last seen by the dinosaurs, a climate that will drown our coastal cities and wreak havoc on the environment and our ability to feed ourselves. All the while, the glorious sun pours immaculate free energy down upon us, more than we will ever need. Why can't we summon the ingenuity and courage of the generations that came before us? The dinosaurs never saw that asteroid coming. What's our excuse?
It's past the point of pretending this isn't happening or that it will all go away on its own. Huffington Post reports the U.S. climate change report is chock full not just of problems, but of solutions. We need to start building the political will to enact them.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

It's time for the news media to get obsessive about climate change

On April 22, Editor-in-Chief Ezra Klein tweeted out a post by Brad Plumer headlined, “Two degrees: How the world failed on climate change.” Among other observations in the story were:
  • Chances are dwindling that the world will meet the 2-degree Celsius warming ceiling that scientists have warned is the maximum a sustainable environment is likely to stand. In fact, we’re on track for an increase of 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) or more by the end of the century.
  •  “The World Bank determined that ‘there’s no certainty’ humans could adapt” to 4 degrees Celsius of warming.
  • Policymakers and citizens are not taking this situation seriously enough to do anything about it.
The essence of the story was: Modern humanity is willfully dooming itself to extinction in this century.

On April 23, according to his Twitter profile, Klein issued about a dozen tweets on a number of topics – from income inequality to food policy to affirmative action to science denial. He even took time to let everyone know they probably had herpes.

In other words, the day after reporting that humanity is willfully dooming itself to extinction was just another newsday for Klein, one of the nation’s most high-profile and public-interest-oriented journalists.

Which strikes me as a key reason why we’re doomed.

The New York Times, while offering some of the nation’s most laudable and aggressive climate change coverage, nonetheless is guilty of the same phenomenon. On April 14, the lead headline in the Times' morning email newsletter was “Climate Efforts Falling Short, U.N. Panel Says,” supplemented by the readout, “The countries of the world have dragged their feet so long on global warming that only an intensive push in the next 15 years can stave off potential disaster.”

The next day, the Times’ newsletter lead was, “Ukraine Falters in Drive to Curb Unrest in East.” The following day, “New York Drops Unit That Spied on Muslims.”

I’m not suggesting that either of these subjects, or really any story the Times tends to lead with, is a trivial matter. I am trying to figure out, given the dire nature of the climate situation and its ability to render Ukraine and New York obsolete in the coming decades, why everyone isn’t running around with their hair on fire about this story all the time.

Witnessing the current news judgment around climate change, even as the science gets clearer and the consequences of inaction more grave, is tantamount to watching a television news anchor announce, “The planet is about to be struck by a life-ending asteroid. Now, here’s Jane with the weather.”

It’s no secret that we as a species have limited attention spans, that we’re not good at making concrete decisions about abstract concepts, and that any message repeated often enough gets a little tiresome. As a journalist and journalism educator, I concede that leading every edition with “Humanity is dooming itself to extinction in this century” might have short-term consequences for circulation and page views.

And it’s true that, on a day-to-day basis, we still have to get our kids off to school and earn a living and save for retirement, even as we march toward our existential cliff. If we dropped everything and directed all our attention toward arresting the carbon emissions that will lead to widespread extinctions, droughts, floods, wars, and possibly the collapse of every ecosystem that can sustain human life, it would be tremendously inconvenient, costly and disruptive.

On the other hand, it’s hard to conceive of anything more inconvenient, costly and disruptive than warming ourselves right off the planet. That’s going to drive a lot of companies out of business and put a major dent in news organizations’ engagement metrics.

So, yeah, until collective global will is assembled to meaningfully address climate change, I would endorse leading every paper, every website and every newscast every day with the reminder that humanity is willfully dooming itself to extinction in this century. Given the magnitude of the impending calamity, such treatment conforms to what “Elements of Journalism” authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel call making the news “comprehensive and proportional.”

The alternative, really, is just to stop reporting on climate change altogether and do a better job pretending there will still be a Ukraine to fight over or a 401(k) plan to withdraw from 50-plus years from now. There’s hardly a point in talking about how we’re dooming ourselves to extinction if we’re not going to do anything about it.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Journalists can cover haters without helping them

Via Romenesko, more on how the media can do hate-mongers' jobs for them, this time over the weekend's planned Koran burning. The key insight from this Orlando Sentinel column:

We created the Rev. Terry Jones from dust. And in two weeks, to dust he shall return. Then we'll move on to the guys who plan to run over the Quran at their monster-truck pull. Whatever it takes to keep your attention.

And some good advice from Poynter on how not to be used.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Journalists culpable in mosque madness

Things are not well in our anarchic, allegedly gatekeeper-less new media environment when the most radical, bizarre and hateful voices routinely infect and then somehow come to dominate mainstream thought.

I keep hearing things in the news that sound outlandish and so outside what is reasonable, rational or Constitutional that I shrug them off as little asides in our grand diverse discourse, only to find days or weeks or months later that these off-the-wall agendas have become Big Stories.

So, for instance, little dribs and drabs of complaint are sounded about an Islamic center being built in New York City near the site of the terrorist-destroyed World Trade Center, and I think: Well, naturally, some people will let fear and ignorance and xenophobia trump the uniquely powerful and enduring American ideal that all people have a natural and (domestically) a Constitutional right to assemble and worship as they please, but cooler heads will surely prevail and the addition of another religious fixture in the nation's most diverse and vibrant city will not become a national story engulfing Congressional politics and cause the president to waver in his firm declaration of support for this unique and enduring American right and lead to overwhelming popular opposition to the construction of such a center.

I was wrong, as usual. Because that's what happened, because politicians and politico-entertainers would much rather divert people with issues like this than discuss, say, the economy, or our continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or, heaven forbid, the remaking of the earth's surface through global climate change. has a piece charting how the story might have gained traction, which seems to follow a similar pattern for much of our diseased national dialogue.

Lots of people let us down when these things happen, but my primary concern on this blog is the journalists, who allow something like a noncontroversial building permit to grow into A Threat To The Nation through inertia, pack journalism and fear of appearing biased against xenophobia.

Let me just come out and say here, as a supporter of traditional journalistic values, that those values do not require the fanning of xenophobic flames. That traditional journalistic values call for judging the relative significance of one story against another, and that journalistic time and resources should not be steered toward the basest and most superficial kinds of stories in service of politicians and pundits who want to say "Hey, look over there!" so we don't have to talk about real problems in real ways. Journalistic values call for us to say: Well, I see that over there, but how is that going to affect the country's jobless rate or stop the bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan or produce better responses for the increasing natural disasters affecting millions of people around the world? Why don't we talk about that for a minute?

Because journalism is an independent process. It has no obligation to hop on the diversionary political agenda of the moment. Its goal is to make people smarter about the world, better prepared for its challenges and more understanding of why things are the way they are.

Its job is also, I would argue, to defend the First Amendment, against all challengers. Because it looks like nobody else is going to do it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010