Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for October, 2009

Zen and the Art of Journalism

Zen and the Art of Journalism

If a tree falls in an empty forest, the inquiry goes, will it make a sound? Budding philosophers and scientists have struggled over this question for years—empirical evidence suggests no reason why a falling tree would not produce a crash, but we can never be positive if we cannot measure the reverberations. While some adults might dismiss this scenario as something suitable for idle chatter or meditation, we can recast the same question in terms of political or social movements:  if a group takes a stand but is not witnessed, do they make a sound? Do they have a voice? Do they even matter?

Questions such as these signal the importance of journalism in our political process. As a democracy, we purport that all citizens have the ability and the right to engage in the government’s decision-making process, but the reality is that news outlets play a large role in mediating our ability to be heard. Recognizing that information transmission and journalism have a rather unique (and profound) power to affect the public, authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel argue for operational guidelines in their book, The Elements of Journalism.

Soliciting extensive feedback through interviews, meetings, and surveys, Kovach and Rosenstiel began to identify foundational principles that professional journalists deemed central to their craft. The Elements of Journalism represents the summation of the authors’ work and clearly articulates Americans’ long-held, and deep-seeded, beliefs regarding the function of journalism in society. Recent news stories pepper the pages of The Elements of Journalism, vividly demonstrating deficiencies in our current system and urging readers to demand better. However, lest one think that this book represents a publication by journalists for journalists, Kovach and Rosenstiel also include relevant points regarding the role and participation of everyday citizens in the journalistic process.

Free to Be You and Me

The Elements of Journalism opens with the assertion that, in recent years, journalism has lost its way; the latter half of the 20th century has seen a decline in critical analysis regarding the role of journalism in society along with a loss of faith in the profession (CCJ Forum, 1997; CCJ Forum, 1998). Kovach and Rosenstiel argue that although journalists and laypeople continue to recognize the existence of journalism, not many have stopped to question why it exists in the first place.

Building upon an earlier work by Rosenstiel, which suggests that equitable distribution of information forms the foundation of democracy (Rosenstiel, 1990), the authors state, “the primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing” (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2007, p. 12). In practice, this information could range from information that allows individuals to hold elected officials accountable to which roads are closed for repair; in larger and lesser ways, journalism provides the information that people use to formulate their decisions and thusly govern their lives.

Notably, the authors do not argue that journalism represents the only means for obtaining information but limit their position to argue that journalism, as a conduit for information, has a particular responsibility to its constituents in a democratic society. This information, provided by journalists, has the ability to shape citizens’ identities by producing, and defining, a collective conscious/unconscious; to a large degree, journalists are responsible for developing our knowledge of the world outside of our individual experiences. Moreover, in this new era, journalists are not necessarily limited to individuals possessing press credentials—contemporary society has created a number of ways that individuals can participate in the news making process. The once clearly defined boundaries between media and audience have begun to disappear, making the process of standardization even more difficult.

I’ll Be Watching You

Despite the apparent murkiness present in society, Kovach and Rosenstiel suggest a definite desire for journalism to act as an “independent monitor of power,” perpetuating the idea of checks and balances present in our government (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2007, p. 140). Specifically examining this idea in the realm of politics, the role of media as a watchdog further allows the public to hold their elected officials accountable for their actions; without the press, ordinary citizens would be in jeopardy of becoming even more marginalized in the political process.

In 2004, America faced yet another highly contested race for President; four years earlier, the 2000 election and its infamous “hanging chads” left a sour taste in the mouth of many. Despite the passage of the Help Americans Vote Act of 2002, states around the union continued to experience problems with voting, particularly with electronic voting machines. The months leading up to the 2004 election unearthed numerous accounts from districts that showcased problems with voter records, an inability to audit ballots cast, and missing votes (Anonymous, 2004).

Given this milieu, one would have expected mainstream media to be primed to respond to the aftermath of the 2004 elections, but the days after the event saw no meaningful immediate response from major news outlets. Once again, localities reported issues with voter fraud, voter intimidation, and electronic voting machines but mainstream media refused to entertain the notion that the election was “stolen.” In fact, despite the appearance of a sworn affidavit and testimony by Clint Curtis, a computer programmer and former employee of Yang Enterprises, that indicated his development of software that potentially allowed Congressman Tom Feeny to flip votes, virtually no relevant mention of “Clint Curtis” (or “Clinton Curtis”) appears in the archives of the New York Times or the Washington Post. Compounding the issue, an article by Paul McLeary published in the Columbia Journalism Review states that “no major national publications…have seriously investigated how these very electronic machines were used to help steal the presidential election in Ohio 2004” (2006). Cynics might argue that the press had moved on to more important issues at the time or had no interest in upsetting the status quo, but the questions continued to linger and individual citizens began to step up to address the lack of information.

In what he calls an “exclusive,” Brad Friedman reported the story of Curtis on his website, complete with an animated picture of a siren to serve as a visual alarm (2004). As the story gained momentum, local papers and Wired began to report on the implications of the software mentioned in Clint Curtis’ affidavit but even these publications did not elicit a response from mainstream media. Although there seemed to be a flurry of discussion in smaller circles, the ramifications of the Curtis story did not seem to transition to the larger stage of national politics.

For some, this incident represents the breakdown of the press’ watchdog function in society—what good is mainstream media if it does not bring situations like Curtis’ to light and frame them in an appropriate context? On the other hand, this case demonstrates individuals’ commitment to upholding the ideal of independent monitoring set forth by Kovach and Rosenstiel.

Power to the People

Indeed, independence seems to be an increasingly difficult quality for mainstream media to maintain as conglomerations begin to absorb media outlets. Giants like AOL-Time Warner and GE/NBC raise some questions about the impartiality of news outlets that reside under the umbrella of corporations with vested interests in various sectors of business. Kovach and Rosenstiel address this conflict of interest by asserting that journalism’s “practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover” (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2007, p. 118). Addressing this need are bloggers; while not completely (or necessarily) free of outside influence themselves, bloggers enjoy a degree of independence due to their grassroots nature; individuals do not owe others in the same way that companies do.

Originally stemming from blogging movements in the late 1990s, Citizen Journalism provided a way for the average person to interact with, and analyze, information coming from major outlets. Currently, one can see that a number of traditional news outlets have developed ways to tap into input from a mass market using methods ranging from editors to weighted importance to determine which items are actually newsworthy:  iReport, uReport, FirstPerson, and i-Caught all represent outgrowths of “brand name” news sources. Additionally, increased access to information (largely due to the Internet) has resulted in the ability of individual people to check articles’ accuracy and provide informed commentary on a wide variety of subjects, which in turn has helped to engage the public in news. Blogging, and Citizen Journalism, then, reflect an additional guideline created by Kovach and Rosenstiel:  “The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification” (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2007, p. 79).

Due Process

In some ways, the rigor implied by verification seems lost on some media outlets (both mainstream and independent) today. Advances in technology and expectations by consumers have developed a culture that demands news instantaneously with accuracy being somewhat of a secondary concern. No longer are mainstream outlets competing against each other to avoid being “scooped”—now, the amateur journalist has entered the picture and made competition even fiercer and more frantic.

The rush to publish material has come in conflict with the principle of authentication:  verification, after all, takes time. Mark Bowden relates a recent story regarding the news coverage of Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s election to the Supreme Court:  in the minutes after her nomination, multiple news channels displayed identical clips of Sotomayor that portrayed her in a less than flattering light (2009). Subsequent opinion polls continued to show the resonating effects of these clips, with individuals specifically citing comments about being a Latina judge or making policy as reasons for disapproval (Pew Research Center, 2009). Had the sound bites come from press conferences or major public speaking engagements, one might have been able to write off the simultaneous broadcast as mere coincidence—the snippets, however, were from rather obscure talks at Duke and Berkeley. Further investigation by Bowden revealed that a single person, Morgen Richmond, was responsible for the packages seen on their air. In and of themselves, there seems to be little wrong with the clips; the segments are not altered and accurately depict a section of a talk given by Judge Sotomayor. Instead, the problem resides in the willingness of major media outlets to air the videos without first fully understanding what they were unleashing onto society.

Building upon ideas outlined by Walter Lippman, Kovach and Rosenstiel articulate some guidelines for the science of reporting that provide a systematic way for journalists to consider their material thoroughly while developing a story (Lippman, 1995; Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2007). Looking at Kovach and Rosenstiel’s list, one finds remarkable similarity to the procedure for a high school laboratory report:  journalists are told to list resources, divulge methods such that their efforts can be replicated, do their own work, draw conclusions from their research, and expand upon the importance of their findings. Recalling the purpose of journalism a conduit for providing foundational information, one can easily see that scientific research represents a type of journalism; although daily news certainly experiences additional time constraints, why shouldn’t it employ the same rigorous approach as science?

The authors also note that this practice of verification differs from the similar, and somewhat more sinister, practice of assertion in that verification stresses the idea of transparency. Interestingly, the practice of asserting facts to bolster one’s case seems to have a curious place in society as competitive debate in high schools and colleges often employs the same tactic; the presence of technique caused Kovach and Rosenstiel to write, “barely do people in journalism, even on the opinion end of the craft, market themselves as better arguers, but instead as more accurate” (2007, p. 84). However, as the Sotomayor case has shown, accuracy alone is not always sufficient to tell a story.

Truth Be Told

Fist in the air, a Navy lawyer engages with a witness:  “I want the truth!” he shouts. This line, uttered in the 1992 movie, “A Few Good Men,” has managed to etch itself into the minds of a certain generation of people but also seems to voice the desires of many citizens in a democratic society. For Kovach and Rosenstiel, the concept of truth encompasses much more than factual information:  “it is a sorting-out process that takes place between the initial story and the interaction among the public, newsmakers, and journalists…This is what journalism is after—a practical or functional form of truth” (2007, pp. 41-42). Indeed, looking once again at the Sotomayor case, we can see that understanding the truth of her words required an appreciation of context and nuance.

Furthering the discussion, Harry Frankfurt argues in his publication, On Truth, that the concept of truth has intrinsic value. According to Frankfurt, “Individuals require truths in order to navigate their way effectively through the thicket of hazards and opportunities that all people invariably confront in going about their lives”—a statement similar in spirit to Kovach and Rosenstiel’s assertion regarding the primary purpose of journalism (Frankfurt, 2006, pp. 34-35). Truth, then, forms the basis for our decision-making process and journalism’s duty is to convey these truths to the public so that they can accomplish this task; in other words, as stated by Kovach and Rosenstiel, “journalism’s first obligation is to the truth” (2007, p. 36).

On occasion, individuals like Jayson Blair or Maureen Dowd will appear, challenging the profession’s responsibility to its citizens and the truth. We might be tempted to dismiss people like Jayson as anomalies—surely we can trust our press to discourage this sort of behavior? What happens, however, when a relative disregard for the truth is institutionalized?

Media Matters for America, a non-profit watch site, released a compilation of records indicating that the “news” provided on Fox News’ broadcasts echoed the opinionated or editorialized rhetoric that has become the channel’s hallmark (Levin, 2009). While this revelation might cause a sense of unease to develop, the real danger resides in a consistent and sanctioned ideology that diminishes the importance of truth in our society. Newspapers have also been found to engage in dishonest acts, which can only serve to call their integrity into question (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2005). As Kovach and Rosenstiel note, “Oppressive societies tend to belittle literal definitions of truthfulness and accuracy” (2007, p. 37). To make matters worse, a wealth of information and the culture of affirmation have also allowed polarizing argumentation to occur, in effect creating silos of knowledge that attract fragmented communities. Now, instead of weighing all sides to an issue, citizens aim to aggregate as much support as they can, thinking that this somehow makes them more “right.”

This bleak picture seems to underscore the need for individuals and companies to reaffirm their comment toward the ideals of truth. However, while we demand much of our journalists, we should also note that the process of being truthful is not always easy. Sometimes journalists find themselves pitted against entire corporations or industries, as with Mike Wallace and a case involving former Brown & Williamson executive Jeffrey Wigand and tobacco in 1995.

Although Wigand’s name might not seem familiar, many will recognize the incident as the first time that a representative of Big Tobacco admitted knowledge about nicotine’s addictive properties. While Wigand’s actions were seemingly in the public interest—didn’t America deserve to know that tobacco companies were willfully causing their consumers to become addicted to a product that has proven links to detrimental health effects?—Wigand was not unilaterally lauded. Despite some measure of protection afforded to whistleblowers (e.g., the Whistleblower Protection Act), rocking the boat continues to have negative repercussions, possibly resulting in a hostile work environment or harassment (Colby, 2006).

60 Minutes, a televised news program, began to promote a story that it had produced surrounding Wigand but then backed off as fears regarding the release of confidential information started to mount (McLeary, 2005). An article released by CBS reports that management was not afraid that they would get caught in a lie—it seemed as though nobody disputed the truth in Wigand’s statements—but instead was worried that they would be seen as responsible for the breach of a confidentiality contract (Leung, 2005). The truth, Brown & Williamson said, could be told, but for a very steep price. Thus, in addition to highlighting complications inherent in reporting the “truth,” the Wigand story demonstrates a further constraint that limits media’s ability to operate independently:  a struggle to reconcile proprietary information with the latitude granted by the First Amendment.

It’s a Start

It seems difficult to argue with the points laid out in Kovach and Rosenstiel’s book—none of their guidelines contained any inherent flaws. However, the book seemed to represent a primer of sorts; Kovach and Rosenstiel managed to give a report on the current shortcomings in journalism for individuals unaware of media’s present state but not much more. The ten elements labeled by the authors represented the thorough investigation of journalism and a deep understanding of the craft. If journalists adhered to the standards set by Kovach and Rosnstiel, and consumers kept them in mind, a new standard for journalism could be set. In particular, the information seemed to be of value for individuals who had not previously spent a significant amount of time thinking about the role and mission of journalism in society (democratic or otherwise). Ultimately, however, it did not seem as though Kovach and Rosenstiel brought any new information to light, but instead served to organize and articulate knowledge held within the journalistic (and, to some extent, general) community. The problem with this lies in the lack of solutions to the problems depicted in the work—to be fair, the book does not purport to offer any—Kovach and Rosenstiel present a Bill of Rights to citizens that might help order their thinking and expectations but do not offer a plan of action to affect meaningful change in journalism or the news media. In particular, the authors indicate the dangers of letting Business interfere with journalistic standards, but do not teach citizens how to stave off this infection or to lessen its impact.

Kovach and Rosenstiel also address the developing cultures of affirmation and infotainment throughout the course of their book, deftly noting their flaws along the way, but do not do anything to cause practitioners to see the value in a more rigorous form of journalism.  Although the authors note the deleterious effects of reporting (including the fragmentation of society!), their words do not seem sufficiently persuade others to reform their ways. Entertainment television and gossip magazines fill our collective conscious, and The Elements of Journalism does not address the root causes of our fascination with these, instead focusing solely on their aftereffects. Furthermore, the book does not seem geared toward the consumer in general:  it seems as though it would only attract the attention of journalists or those already disgruntled with the current state of journalism. Again, while the book does not purport to be all things to all people, it appears as though the authors missed an opportunity to spread their message further.