Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I'm not the only one who sees Afghanistan as a perfect example of how journalism can't just be about following surveys of what people say they "want" from their news reports.

In an interview for the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, Newsday Foreign Editor Roy Gutman talks about the news media's neglect of conflicts that appear unconnected to American lives, and how that neglect can rise up to bite us all in the behinds. He cites Afghanistan as a case in point. As that country festered in the '90s, most journalists, most politicians and almost all citizens paid scant attention. A few years later, we invaded after being blindsided by the terrorists harbored there.

The question for today's reporters and editors is: What's the next Afghanistan, and how do we get it on people's radar before it blows up in our faces?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

A key purpose of my book, and the idea behind the title, is to shatter the false but oft-invoked dichotomy in news judgment between what's "important" and what's "interesting."

The latest example of this false dichotomy is displayed in a provocative and generally useful essay by design consultant Alan Jacobson called "How to sell more newspapers."

Jacobson's first premise is that, inherent in any newsperson's plan to redesign or innovate, is the intention to boost circulation, and that recognizing this will allow for more creative and realistic decisions. (The development of this premise leads to how readers much prefer crosswords and comics to news content, so stop being so smug, Joe Editor.) This is all useful rhetoric to the extent that it encourages holistic thinking toward the newspaper and reminds news folks to be humble as they pursue their goals, which include selling newspapers but -- and this is where Jacobson jumps the tracks -- are not SOLELY to sell newspapers.

If the single overriding goal of a newspaper were to sell itself, and public service journalism weren't an effective sales tool, the solution would be to run the jumble and Soduko all over the front page, with extended horoscopes and comics through the rest of the A-section. To do that, though, would be to kill the newspaper. The idea that any content and marketing decision is acceptable if it sells papers neglects the simple fact that a newspaper without news has ceased to be. Call the result whatever you want -- a shopper, a direct advertising tool -- but stop calling it a newspaper.

To preserve newspapers, then, we have to direct our innovations -- and Jacobson is correct that they must be bold, noticeable and sustained -- in the service of providing news and information the community finds valuable enough to pay for.

Here's where the false dichotomy comes in. In his section titled "Update the news paradigm," Jacobson says, "If anything, we're losing readers because we're too focused on what's important to the exclusion of news that matters to them."

This is an oft-repeated and readily accepted argument, but it leads me to wonder how its proponents are defining the word "important." Because, without participating in the literary ritual of reaching for a dictionary, I'd define "important" as "something that matters."

Jacobson goes on to contrast "importance" with "compelling, relevant and interesting" stories, which again implies some mutual exclusivity.

Here's the part that's easy to concede to Jacobson: The overwhelming majority of important newspaper stories are not compelling, relevant and interesting. But here's where I challenge the dichotomy: The overwhelming majority of important newspaper stories CAN and SHOULD be compelling, relevant and interesting.

Part of the problem in this debate is that detractors of "important" news use it as a synonym for traditional government process news emanating from institutions. This is the stuff that's loaded with proper names and large jargony terms and never seems to meet readers on their level. The news is IMPORTANT because what the president, and Congress, and the state legislature and City Hall do -- which includes taking the country to war, monitoring the safety of food and drugs, deciding how old you have to be to drink alcohol, telling you how much of your paycheck you can keep, dictating whether your kids go to nice bright schools or drafty old shacks, determining where you can skateboard, fixing bridges that are about to collapse and a few hundred thousand other things -- MATTERS to people. These decisions are of unquestionable day-to-day relevance, whether you're a policy wonk or a total civic recluse.

Journalists' job is not to pick "interesting" stories over "important" ones -- it's to use journalism to demonstrate why the important news IS interesting and relevant and compelling. As Jacobson points out, this often comes down to news judgment. The traditional process story might not be the most important story on the budget. And figuring out new ways to communicate important but incremental news -- through the update format or formatted graphics or whatever -- while devoting more time and energy to ferreting out the people and impact behind significant news stories, gives newspapers the flexibility to produce compelling content that fulfills their public service role.

So for a shot in the arm on what newspapers need to build audiences and sell newspapers, read Jacobson's piece. But don't buy the argument that selling papers means being less important. Be more important, more interestingly. Be so important that people feel like they can't miss a day.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, which Editor & Publisher reports has 3,500 members who teach and study journalism and related subjects, made an important statement at its convention in San Francisco last week.

The association passed a resolution calling on the Bush administration to cut out its "anti-press policies and practices." Jay Rosen provides the text of the resolution here. Among other points, the resolution decries the administration's stonewalling in the face of information requests, its "massive reclassification of documents" that had been available to the public, and its use of the courts "to pressure journalists to give up their sources and to punish them for obtaining leaked information."

This public declaration, which resolution author David T.Z. Mindich of St. Michael's College says in E&P is "the first statement against general anti-press policies in an administration in at least 30 years," is a risky venture. The press is currently on the losing end of a public relations battle aiming, for political purposes, to discredit its members as liberal partisans who are out to sink this administration at any cost. (See the comments to Rosen's post for a couple of examples.) Journalism educators have a responsibility to produce journalists who are truth-seekers, not partisans or standard-bearers for narrow political ideologies, and therefore they hold a certain responsibility to remain, as a group, neutral in matters of partisan politics.

For discerning readers, this resolution succeeds in maintaining that political neutrality while affirming the values that journalists are obligated to uphold and defend. The preamble acknowledges that "The relationship between the presidency and the press has always been uneasy" and that "When each side conducts its duties with honesty and integrity, both hold the power of the other in check." And the language in the specific condemnations of press-related policy is neutral on questions of broader foreign and domestic decisionmaking, as in this observation: "While we do not take sides on the issue of whether 'enemy combatants' should be detained without charges by the United States government, we are troubled by the administration's failure to provide names and other vital information. When a democratically elected government holds people indefinitely without charges, it is the press's role to shine light on the practice so that citizens and their elected representatives can debate that policy and decide its merits."

In my book, in a section on writing with authority, I argue that news reporters and editors should not take political positions. They should favor no party, no tax policy, no position for or against subsidies or foreign conflicts or oil drilling or the minimum wage. While journalists may hold personal biases on these issues, they must subsume those biases in favor of reporting a full and fair story that gives differing opinions a fair shot.

But I also argue that there are natural, nonpartisan biases which journalists must hold and even promote for the good of our country. They are, most prominently, a bias toward honesty in public conduct, a bias toward openness in government affairs, and a bias toward the public's participation in democratic processes. In these realms, I believe, the journalist is not only entitled but is obligated to be an advocate.

That means exposing falsehoods promoted by Democrats, Republicans and independents alike. It means clamoring for access to government activities and documents. It means promoting robust debate among adherents of competing ideas and ensuring that the best possible truths are on the table for citizens to decide what's right.

By calling attention to, and condeming, administration policies that mislead the public, obscure the truth and erect barriers between citizens and their government, the AEJMC's resolution serves these ends.

It's not up to news journalists or journalism educators to lay out which paths our communities should follow or who should lead us on these paths. But it is up to us to help citizens understand the paths we ARE following and explore alternative paths we COULD follow, and it is our right and duty to challenge anyone who interferes with this responsibility.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Have we all lost our minds?

A guy who was named the best sports broadcaster in North Carolina a few years ago lost his job after a technical snafu resulted in the airing of an outtake during which he uttered the dreaded s-word. Eleven years as the station's sports director, and that's it for him, getting caught saying a word probably 99 percent of people over age 10 have used at least once in their lives.

This comes amid news that PBS stations have taken to pixellating the mouths of certain documentary subjects who use words that might offend the ears of FCC regulators who are threatening fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single slip -- fines that could bankrupt small PBS stations.

With all the obscene things going on in the world right now -- and do I really have to go into detail about Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Guantanamo, domestic and global poverty, etc., to make the point? -- and with the widespread availablility of any kind of offensive words and images you might crave, this witch-hunt against every instance of a banal scatalogical reference hitting the airwaves strikes me as insane. It's endemic of our utter failure as a people to prioritize our moral outrages.

Meanwhile, bloody images of murder, rape, incest -- all the worst things you can imagine -- pour out over the major networks during prime time police shows each night, without so much as an apparent second look from the government, as long as nobody says the word "shit." This imagery is rampant and apparently widely accepted as less harmful than a glimpse of a woman's breast, as long as it's fictional and not, say, bloody images from the actual killings and maimings that are taking place in our real, live wars.

Somebody needs to push the reset button on our national sense of right and wrong, so we can get a grip on reality and focus our energies on the most significant, most dangerous challenges we face instead of destroying careers over a single slip of a syllable.