A Profession In Search Of Itself (Cont.)

I’ve been thinking about the journalism world since writing my earlier piece on what the move away from “objectivity” means for the world of the newsroom.  I think there are some other forces at play that are making the world of daily newspapers very difficult right now — some unavoidable, some self-inflicted.

A Man Reads A NewspaperObviously, the main unavoidable problem is . . . speed.  People expect to get things faster and faster, and we’ve gotten so spoiled by instantaneous speed that we now groan at even a few seconds’ delay as our browser calls up a website.  The daily newspaper simply can’t compete with that — there are too many steps in the process.  By the time the newspaper lands on your doorstep, it will therefore likely be viewed as “old news” already.  It’s been all over the internet for hours — so who wants to sit down and read it again?  And how many people want to sit down and actually read something, as opposed to flipping through content on their cell phones as they head out for a jog or wait for an elevator?

Another unavoidable problem is cost. Newspapers of the past had large payrolls — from the reporters and columnists to the editors to the photographers to ad salesmen to the people who laid out the pages and the guys in the print shop running the presses.  How many labor-centric businesses are thriving these days?  And, as cost-cutting has occurred, newspapers cut into the muscle of daily journalism — the people who made newspapers different from and more reliable than bloggers, like experienced editors who would send stories back for additional fact-checking, or investigative reporters who might take weeks to produce a big, carefully constructed and rigorously tied down story.

But there are self-inflicted errors, too.  I think many newspapers have botched the inevitable move to digital delivery.  If you look at many news websites, they are a riotous mess from a presentation standpoint.  There’s no front page or above-the-fold organization that tells you what the lead story is.  Print newspapers may be old-fashioned, but there was a clear organization at work that was comforting, dependable, and helpful.  If you wanted to feel reasonably informed about what was going on in the world and your town, you read through the front page and the national, state, and local news sections, and then you could turn to the business section, or sports.  You knew that some intelligent person had made some thoughtful decisions about the relative importance of the stories.  Does anyone feel that way about most news websites on-line?  Hard news is mixed up with celebrity news and “sponsored content” that doesn’t look materially different from the “news.”  What do you need to read to truly feel informed?

And that brings me to a final point:  the trivialization of what is supposed to be news.  How many of the stories on a basic news website — say, msn.com — are what we think of as actual news reporting, and how much of what we see featured is content about celebrities being out with their boyfriends or clickbait articles about why a particular sports figure should be seen as a bad guy?  We’ve reached the point where somebody’s context-free cell phone video of a delivery driver who didn’t help an old guy who fell to the ground is featured as prominently — and perhaps more prominently — than an article about a foreign conflict.  And there are opinions, on stories large and small, everywhere you look.

In their quest to keep up with the times and be hip and edgy, newspapers have lost the sober, thoughtful perspective and reputation they once had, and have elevated the inconsequential.  It may appeal to some people, but it doesn’t appeal to people who remember newspapers as they once were.

A Profession In Search Of Itself

It’s tough times for journalists these days.  The profession is being rocked by outside forces — declining subscriptions and ad revenues and publications that are shrinking or shutting down entirely — and also by disputes from within.

d277b4879e30a2275fe28a4be1dc0bfa-disco-costume-dapper-gentlemanThe trade publications and some high-profile departures from publications have depicted newsrooms as kinds of battlegrounds, where political and social issues have come to the forefront and reporters on the newsroom side and writers on the opinion pages are at each others’ throats about just how much opinion, and also what kind of opinion, should be published on the op-ed pages.  This happened recently at The Wall Street Journal, where I once worked as a summer intern.  And through it all, the standards defining what it means to be a journalist are changing.

The Brown Bear sent me this piece from The Economist (which I think requires a subscription) addressing shifting views about the role of “objectivity” in journalism, with many in the profession now seriously questioning whether striving for objectivity is necessary, desirable, or even achievable.  Instead, some are calling for newspapers to give voice to “moral clarity” and to “tell the truth” as best they can.  Of course, “the truth” is not always readily apparent, and if “the truth” is presumed, some of the basics of journalism as I learned it back at the Ohio State University School of Journalism in the ’70s, in the post-Watergate era — like appropriate sourcing, and careful fact-checking, and a healthy sense of reporter skepticism in dealing with sources and tips — can end up getting short shrift.  That’s when embarrassing errors can occur that further erode the battered credibility of the so-called Fourth Estate.

The Brown Bear asked for my reaction to the piece in The Economist, and here it is:  I think jettisoning notions of objectivity in news reporting is a terrible mistake.  I think most of the standards that were applied in the effort to present the facts objectively led to better, more accurate reporting.  If you consulted with multiple sources addressing different sides of a story, if you treated everything you were told by everyone with a flinty-eyed dollop of doubt, and if you did what you could to check the “facts” that you were given by people who might be pursuing an agenda, you were much more likely to produce a credible effort at getting at “the truth.”  That’s a lot different than simply accepting something as “the truth” because it fits with your preconception of what “the truth” should be.  Striving for objectivity was a method of disciplining your reporting.

I think one other thing, too.  Working to be objective is difficult and challenging, and following that approach means you aren’t going to be everyone’s friend.  Objective journalists have to have a certain distance from their sources if they want to achieve that skeptical, check-everything role.  It’s not easy to do that.  Writing opinions, in contrast, is a lot easier.  You don’t need to check your facts, and you can adopt a viewpoint that is shared by others — like your friends.  I sometimes wonder if that reality is part of the impetus for throwing objectivity overboard.

Reporting With A P.O.V.

When I attended the School of Journalism at the Ohio State University in the late ’70s, journalistic objectivity was the standard.  We were drilled in the Dragnet approach to reporting — i.e., “Just the facts, ma’am.”  Sure, the facts could be presented in a vigorous, colorful way — that’s what made for good reporting — but the personal opinions or views of reporters were strictly reserved for “opinion” pieces that would go on the op-ed page, and probably would be labeled “opinion,” to boot.

The approach of the professional journalism community to objectivity has changed a lot since then.  I thought about the changes when I read the lead paragraphs of this news article by AP reporter Foster Klug about the meeting between the North Korean and South Korean leaders today:

180425155911-north-korea-south-korea-meeting-2-exlarge-169“In a historic summit more striking for its extraordinary images than its substance, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in set aside a year that saw them seemingly on the verge of war, grasped hands and strode together Friday across the cracked concrete marking the Koreas’ border.

“The sight, inconceivable just months ago, may not erase their failure to provide any new measures on a nuclear standoff that has captivated and terrified millions, but it allowed the leaders to step forward toward the possibility of a cooperative future even as they acknowledged a fraught past and the widespread skepticism that, after decades of failed diplomacy, things will be any different this time.

“On the nuclear issue, the leaders merely repeated a previous vow to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons, kicking one of the world’s most pressing issues down the road to a much-anticipated summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in coming weeks.”

We’ll never know how the story of this historic meeting would have been written in the old, studiously objective days, before point of view journalism was accepted as the new normal.  It’s safe to say, though, it would not have suggested that the meeting lacked “substance,” stated that the meeting involved a “failure to provide any new measures on a nuclear standoff” and was viewed with “widespread skepticism,” and reported that the leaders “merely repeated a previous vow” and “kick[ed] one of the worl’s most pressing issues down the road.”  Imagine that kind of reporting at the U.S.-Soviet summit meetings of the ’60s, or Nixon’s visit to China!  It just didn’t happen.

Is the new journalism better than the old?  Proponents of point of view reporting say it simply recognizes reality, and that forcing reports to be mindlessly objective dehumanizes the reporter and fails to acknowledge that reporters bring a perspective to the story when they report it.  Perhaps, but I’m old school — in this case, literally.  I’d be much more comfortable if Foster Klug, whoever he is, left his perceptions, fears, and other baggage behind and simply gave us the facts — leaving it to us to draw our own conclusions.

Dredging Up The News

Richard had another really good article published in the Florida Times-Union this week.  This one is about the history of Army Corps of Engineers’ chronic underestimates of costs — and the resulting substantial cost overruns — in prior efforts to deepen the Jacksonville harbor.  It’s a significant issue for the people of Jacksonville, because a new river-dredging project is being touted, and local government would be picking up part of the tab.

This kind of story is important, whether you live in Jacksonville or not, because it deals with a very common scenario.  Business leaders and politicians pitch a big project, promising that it will create jobs and is needed to keep the community competitive.  Politicians like big projects because they create a sense of progress and, not incidentally, the pols get to award contracts for the construction work.   Project boosters produce feasibility studies and cost estimates that make the project seem like a bargain and it gets approved — but then when the bills roll in, the costs are far above the estimates and, often, the promised economic benefits either don’t materialize at all or are far below what was forecast.

In this instance, Richard used public records requests to obtain documents that show what prior Jacksonville harbor-deepening projects actually cost, which is typically many multiples of the rosy cost estimates provided before the projects got underway.  It’s another good example of Richard’s smart use of access laws to report facts that help to educate the reader and provide some meaningful context to the political promises.

It’s interesting that one of the people Richard interviewed for the story, a professor who studies ports, noted that every large infrastructure project involves cost overruns and delays.  We would all do well to keep that reality in mind the next time our local leaders want taxpayers to endorse a new jobs-and-progress project.

When A Reporter’s Story Makes A Difference

Earlier this week The Associated Press reported that the federal healthcare.gov website — the portal that many Americans have used to search for health care plans under the Affordable Care Act — was sharing private information about users with a number of third-party entities that specialize in advertising and analyzing internet data for marketing purposes.  The AP reported that the personal information made available to those entities could include age, income, ZIP code, and whether a person smokes or is pregnant, as well as the internet address of the computer that accessed the healthcare.gov website.

The federal government responded that the point of the data collection and sharing was simply to improve the consumer experience on the healthcare.gov website and added that the entities were “prohibited from using information from these tools on HealthCare.gov for their companies’ purposes.”  The latter point seems awfully naive — once data gets put into detailed databases on powerful computer systems, who is to say it is not used to help a third-party company better target pop-up ads for their other clients? — and in any case ignores the ever-present risk of a hacking incident that exposes the personal information to criminals.  Privacy advocates and Members of Congress also argued that the extent of data collected went beyond what was necessary to enhance customer service.

On Friday the AP reported that the Obama Administration had changed its position and reduced the release of healthcare.gov users’ personal data.  Privacy advocates remain concerned about the website’s data collection and storage policies and the available data connections with third parties — connections which conceivably could be used to access personal information — but the Administration’s response at least shows some sensitivity to privacy issues and is a first step toward better protecting personal information.

It may not amount to a huge matter in the Grand Scheme of Things, but it’s gratifying when an enterprising reporter’s story can expose a troubling practice and cause a change in a way that benefits the Average Joe and Jane.  It’s how our system is supposed to work, and it’s nice to see that it still work when journalists do their jobs and do them well.

Black Eye For Reporting

When I was a student at the Ohio State University School of Journalism back in the ’70s, I bought a book called The Rolling Stone Guide To Journalism — or something similar.  It was a great collection of pieces authored by the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and other terrific reporters in the ’60s and ’70s, when Rolling Stone was forging new frontiers in journalism.  I loved it, and I still have it.

How the mighty have fallen!  The apparent failure of the Rolling Stone piece about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia frat party.is a devastating blow for journalism that hurts just about everyone involved — the University, the fraternity, other victims of sexual assault who want to tell their stories, and the credibility of the reporter and Rolling Stone itself.

Anyone who has ever been involved in the process of publishing a significant story — and a claim that frat pledges committed a heinous criminal act certainly qualifies — expects that such stories have been carefully vetted, scrutinized by lawyers, fact-checked to the smallest detail, and read, re-read, and considered top to bottom before going to press.  When the publisher itself says it has doubts about a story, as Rolling Stone did today, it gives journalism a black eye and hurts the cause of everyone who hopes to us the press to focus attention on injustice or wrongdoing.

I think Rolling Stone owes it to reporters and readers alike to explain how this article saw print, what fact-checking processes were followed, and where the systems failed. How in the world did this happen?  There’s a real story there.

Another Really Great Story

Richard continues to hit it out of the park in his internship for the Chicago Tribune this summer.  His most recent story is a really great piece about how the recession hit the South Side of Chicago especially hard and that, years later, the development efforts in South Side neighborhoods still have not recovered.  The piece includes a well-done and easy to use interactive map that allows you to look at the impact of the recession on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

IMG_2349This kind of story is really good reporting for two reasons.  First, it addresses a topic — the status of rich neighborhoods versus poor neighborhoods in America, with the impact of crime and teetering city finances thrown in for good measure — that is not frequently addressed in the media. It’s not a pleasant, or easy, story to report, but it’s essential to cover if we are to get a true sense of economic reality.

Second, it involves real shoe-leather reporting, which often involves digging into public records like construction permits and figuring out boring topics like tax increment financing districts.  It’s easy to call the head of a development agency, get his or her spin in a pre-packaged quote, and stop there; it’s much more challenging and time-consuming to sift through documents obtained from a municipal office and do the kinds of painstaking, but powerful and irrefutable, comparisons that Richard has done in this piece.  People might pitch things to advance their agendas, but the construction permits don’t lie, because without the permits nothing gets built.

Forgive me for a little proud bragging — although what’s a family blog for if not for a little parental boasting? — but I greatly admire Richard’s willingness to roll up his sleeves and tackle some of the tough and challenging issues found in the urban areas of America.  He has become a really fine reporter.

A Reporter Resigns

Sharyl Attkisson, an investigative reporter with CBS News, resigned from her position today. Her resignation is one of those stories where your reaction to it may well depend on your political inclinations.

By any measure, Attkisson was an accomplished television journalist. She was regarded as one of the top investigative reporters on TV, and in her career she had won five Emmys — for reports on the “Fast and Furious” gun-walking program, the Red Cross, Republican fundraising, TARP and the border patrol. She’s going to finish writing a book, tentatively entitled Stonewalled: One Reporter’s Fight for Truth in Obama’s Washington, that apparently will focus on the challenges of reporting critically on the Obama Administration.

Those ever-present anonymous sources, though, say there’s more to it than a desire to complete a book. According to the Politico article linked above, some people say Attkisson was fed up with a perceived liberal bias at CBS and tired of the lack of support for investigative reporting on the network. Other sources contend that network executives thought Attkisson lacked impartiality and that her reports were increasingly motivated by a bias against President Obama.

I don’t know the truth, of course, although I’m a bit skeptical of the unnamed sources. When reporters are reporting on fellow reporters, you wonder whether the sources end up being other reporters gossiping with each other. We’ll probably never know the real back story.

But, we do know this: there are too few investigative reporters on TV to begin with, and Attkisson’s resignation means that the count of capable investigative reporters has just decreased by one. I don’t care what her political views are — any loss of a skilled broadcast investigative reporter is a loss for everyone. We need more of them, not less. I hope she finds her way back to TV soon.

The Politics Of Whining

Yesterday the Sunday news shows were largely focused on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his staff’s decision to shut down lanes of the George Washington Bridge in order to exact some kind of political retribution on a New Jersey mayor.

Some conservatives reacted by counting how many minutes the shows devoted to the New Jersey story or by comparing how much air time and how many column inches have been devoted to “Bridgegate” as opposed to incidents like the Benghazi killings or the IRS targeting conservative organizations. They contend that the news media is biased and that Republican scandals always get more attention than Democratic scandals do.

This kind of reaction is just whining, and it’s neither attractive nor convincing. Both parties do it. When the news media was reporting every day on the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov, Democrats were doing the same thing and arguing that the media was ignoring the positive things accomplished by the Affordable Care Act. It’s a juvenile response to the news media doing its job.

The amount of coverage a story receives is largely a function of factors that have nothing to do with politics. The George Washington bridge incident has all the elements of a great story — a powerful politician, venal and misbehaving staff members, an initial cover-up, and average Americans being inconvenienced by some crass political power play. There is footage of traffic jams to be shown, angry and easy-to-find people to be interviewed, and a contrite governor’s press conference to cover. The same is true with the Obamacare website story: there are good visuals, lots of individual stories to tell, and obvious story lines to follow, like how did this happen and how much did it cost and who screwed up. Ask yourself which story is easier to cover — the New Jersey bridge closure or the shootings in faraway and dangerous Libya — and you’ll get a good sense of which story will in fact get more coverage.

Modern politicians always seem to have an excuse and always look for someone else to blame. Whining about news coverage apparently is part of the playbook, but I can’t believe it works. Whining is pathetic, not persuasive.

The “Lie Of The Year” And Other Journalistic Contrivances

Politifact.com is a website affiliated with the Tampa Bay Times.  The website purports to do “fact-checking” on statements about public officials and public figures.

One of Politifact’s main claims to fame is the designation of a “Lie of the Year.”  This year’s winner of the Politifact Lie of the Year award is President Obama, for his statement “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.”  The award has gotten a lot of attention — which I suppose is the whole point.

I’ve got no problem with skeptical coverage of public statements and careful reporting on whether the declarations of our leaders are at variance with the facts; that’s just good journalism.  Still, there’s something about announcing a “Lie of the Year” that makes me a bit uncomfortable, because it seems to be a tangible bid for news coverage about the award itself.  Journalists become corrupted when they move from reporting on the news to trying to make the news.  In the latter context there is every incentive to become more and more sensational, and sensationalism is rarely consistent with solid, objective reporting.

There used to be a line in the world of journalism.  Reporters reported on the facts and let the readers draw their own conclusions about things like whether politicians were lying.    Thanks to the Lie of the Year and other, similar journalistic contrivances, that line has been hopelessly blurred, if not erased entirely.  It’s not a good development for the profession.

Good Old-Fashioned Shoe Leather Reporting

Richard has been doing a wonderful job with his reporting for the Columbia Missourian.  I particularly liked a recent story about negotiations between the city of Columbia and the airlines about flights into Columbia’s airport.

It’s an excellent example of old-fashioned reporting — what my former advisor on the Ohio State Lantern, the hard-bitten, gravel-voiced Tom Wilson, would call “shoe leather” journalism.  The phrase refers to using every tool at your disposal and not being satisfied until you really get to “the story” — and if that means you go from source to source and wear out the soles of your shoes, you do it.   In Richard’s case, the Missourian used the public records laws to request emails concerning the negotiations.  The Missourian received 160 emails in response to their public records request and then prepared the story on the basis of those source documents.

Pretty cool!  I wish more journalists would use the public records laws, the open-meetings laws that require most governmental meetings to occur in public, and other laws that promote access to prepare their stories, rather than just settling for a few quotes and, often, leaving the real story untouched.

Richard’s New Beat

Starting this week, Richard is reporting for the Columbia Missourian.  The newspaper’s website has the first two pieces he’s written:  an article on a painting selected to serve as Columbia’s annual commemorative poster and a news story on arrests made in the robbery of a Domino’s delivery driver.

We’re proud of Richard and think it’s cool that he’s been published already, but I’m also glad to see the kind of articles he’s written.  A lifestyles feature story and a “police beat” report on an arrest are bread-and-butter pieces for any professional journalist.  Learn to write those stories well — using the “inverted pyramid” in which the most important facts are put up front, remembering the need to answer the “5 Ws and an H”  (who, what, where, why, when, and how) in your article, checking your quotes and sources, proofreading, and editing so that every unnecessary word hits the cutting room floor — and you can write just about anything.  Just thinking about it makes me want to grab a notepad and sprint to the nearest newsroom.

I won’t post about every article Richard writes, but if you’re interested in following his work, the Missourian has a searchable website that can be found here.

David Broder, R.I.P.

I was saddened to read of the death of David Broder, the Washington Post reporter and columnist.  Broder, who was 81, died today after a long and distinguished career that included receiving the Pulitzer Prize.

When I was a student at the Ohio State University School of Journalism, Broder was one of my journalistic heroes, and I am confident that my classmates shared that view.  He seemed like a walking, talking, embodiment of everything that a journalist should be — sober, careful, measured, scrupulous about sourcing, fair, and balanced (before “fair and balanced” became a catch phrase).  Broder had a knack for seeming to be above the fray.  He was not partisan, and he did not take cheap shots.  And his writing was clear and straightforward.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a David Broder column.  His work fell out of favor as journalists moved to a more advocacy-oriented, point-of-view approach, to the point where it seems that print journalists are vying to be featured as TV talking heads who are clearly defined as liberal or conservative.  It’s too bad, because David Broder’s thoughtful pieces definitely had a place in world of journalism, regardless of whether you agreed with his conclusions or not.  Political junkies who are interested in an even-handed evaluation of an issue, and citizens who are interested in more civil discourse, are all poorer for his passing.

Reflections On “JournoList” And Journalism

I’ve been saddened by the recent stories about the JournoList on-line listserv, which allowed a number of prominent reporters and writers to share information and viewpoints.  Although JournoList was intended to be a private listserv, some of the exchanges have been leaked to the press.  One led to the resignation of a Washington Post blogger who was to cover the conservative movement.  More recently, leaked JournoList exchanges deal with helping the Obama campaign deal with the issues raised by the comments of Rev. Jeremiah Wright and other topics.  (I always hate to see messages that are intended to be private made public, but that is the unfortunate reality of the modern world.  No one should put anything in an email that they would not be comfortable seeing disseminated to the world at large.)

The sad thing about the JournoList stories is that they confirm that journalists have lost their way.  When I studied at The Ohio State University School of Journalism in the late 1970s, our professors emphasized objectivity, multiple sourcing, and fact-checking above all else.  Those were the hallmarks of a competent professional journalist, and we all strove to achieve them.  My professors would be appalled at the thought of journalists getting together to help politicians, or anyone else.  Indeed, we were taught to have a healthy skepticism for everything we were told — hence the multiple sourcing rule — and hard-bitten, cynical reporters typically had contempt for all politicians because a skeptical review of their statements often revealed half-truths and omissions.

Journalism has changed a lot since those days.  At some point the decision was made to write stories from a “viewpoint,” rather than trying to set forth objective facts and let the reader draw her own conclusions.  Once objectivity was cast aside and “perspective” was introduced, journalism has seemed to lose its moorings.  Now, you see reporters on TV, trying to be personalities, doing nothing other than regurgitating the conventional wisdom and then offering speculation about what might happen.  Very little actual newsgathering seems to be done any more.

It makes me wonder — what actually is taught in journalism schools these days?