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What's the point of journalism?

I read an online piece of journalism today, talking about what the Apple keynote might announce. There are always rumours about the keynotes, from analysts and fans and bloggers; Apple dislikes them and lawsuits demanding sources both lend credence and damage free-wheeling creative opinions. That may be one reason the piece I read was strong on fluff and short on facts. Another might be that online-only sites are geared to speedy response rather than the luxury of an print editing process that makes sure (on a good title) that writing has quality: a structure, a direction, a beginning, middle and end - something to say. Blogging is like email; one writes because something impels one to share a viewpoint, but without the discipline of fitting a particular printed slot, or fitting in with an editorial style, or getting an editor to approve. News and journalism should be different, I think; it needs the multiplicity of contributions combined and combed through. Not so much an editorial stance, but an editor that guarantees a minimum level of accuracy and quality. (And ethics).

The fallout from Rathergate, with Mary Mapes fired and other journalists and producers asked to resign, concerns me: the report says that they didn't take sufficient care but it doesn't say the documents that claim George Bush took advantage of favour in his military service are fakes (although the Internet thinks they are fake while the secretary who would have typed them calls them 'fake but accurate'). Mary Mapes was the first producer to break the Abu Ghraib pictures, which strikes me as a good track record. Is the report more about politics than ethics?

We need more news sources; but we need them to be better, not just more democratic. I'm a journalist, so of course I think that training is important, that journalism is a profession and not a hobby. And despite the poor management that can so easily become endemic under the pressure of deadlines, I still think traditional media outlets like magazines and newspapers and TV channels are good places to pass on the skills and standards that make for good journalism.

So I find this Flash presentation by Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson (found on Time Porter's First Draft) - about the future of journalism in a world where the papers have gone back to print - thought provoking. And the idea of seeing news filtered by what your friends are looking at and talking about? That's one of the things RealContacts' Eurekster is moving towards. Using my social network as a source of expertise and focus seems much more useful than documenting it for the pleasure of making a list. But I still don't see that as replacing professional reporting - however little of that it might feel like we see today.

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( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
stillcarl
12th Jan, 2005 09:51 (UTC)
I think it's generally agreed the memos were fake, (I'm sure CBS has now said as much, haven't they?), and while I don't think that's the end of the story, (meaning there might still be a smoking gun out there), I'm happy enough to see the producer sacked. It was sloppy journalism that smacked of those involved wanting the memos to be genuine, which I suspect, if true, clouded their judgment.

One thing about the written word is it's second-hand news - what's happened has been filtered by someone else before it gets to you. So, from the reader's point of view it's an opinion, not facts. This is why photos and film have a much greater effect on people than an article does - it's as though they're eye-witnesses too.

Which I think is the real problem journalism faces, not competition from amateur writers. The amount of information people have to deal with these days is immense and what's quick will win out, and images are much quicker to process than words, whether written or spoken. You mentioned the Abu Ghraib photos. If there hadn't been any photos, but just journalist's reporting on what they'd been told, do you think it would've been such a big story?

Still, that was a fun Flash movie. Now go and do a Google image search for "Abu Ghraib" and report back with opinions of what you found...
marypcb
12th Jan, 2005 14:06 (UTC)
and here you have one of my favourite problems; who can reliable tell what photos have been doctored? We need to teach a grammar of image, including the tools to spot good Photoshoppery. There are some very striking images that are just as fake as the Hitler Diaries; the one of Kerry and Jane Fonda, for example, and probably plenty of ones that influence people that haven't been spotted as 'edited'.

If it's agreed the memos are fake why didn't the report come out and say so? It called for the sacking of Mapes on the grounds of how soon the report was shown - not something she actually had control of. I donst know about smoking guns, but I don't think it's as clear-cut as clouded judgement in the newsroom.
stillcarl
16th Jan, 2005 00:13 (UTC)
(Started this before the great LJ crash...)

By "smoking guns" I was refering to evidence that Bush had gone AWOL or whatever, just in case you mistook what I meant there.

I couldn't be bothered to read the report, (see what I mean about the printed word?;), but I know CBS hadn't done their homework with regards to the memos. They were working on photo-copies for instance, and according to the experts you cannot claim a document is genuine based on the examination of a photo-copy of the document. Because of that, they shouldn't have based their story around the memos.

It was a major story, given it might've had some effect on a cruicial US election. And it probably did have, as it discredited one of the TV networks that were willing to be critical of the Bush administration. You should be sacked for a bungle of that magnitude. (Okay, and ditto for invading countries on misinterpreted information - but anyway...)

The mainstream media hasn't looked too good recently. Apart from the CBS memos, there was the Daily Mirror's fake abuse photos, all the news-outlets that rushed to print that fake Iraqi execution story without questioning it, (meaning that video of one made by a guy in the US), and whatever it was that happened in the BBC over the "sexed-up" information about WMDs. (To name the ones I remember off the top of my head.) Which is bad enough, never mind the likes Fox News being dropped in on daily by many folk.

The cumulitive effect of all this is for people to stop trusting what they read and hear. Which isn't a bad thing, except for where it leaves them. They mostly haven't the time to do much research themselves, hence they're left with their human default-mechanisn for deciding what to do - which is trusting what the see. So the President's body-language is much more important (and easier to decipher) than what he says.

I've been trying to find a quote of Karl Rove's, but can't. It was something along the lines of "People are too busy to catch much of the news, so keep your messages very short and worry about the image portrayed, not the words."

Here's a longer version of that, taken from here: http://www.citypages.com/databank/25/1216/article12006.asp

It's said one quality that sets Rove apart is his ability to see the whole playing field in politics. So let's talk about the playing field that Rove seems to see.

Start with the people. They are tired, overworked, and scared--about their own livelihoods and threats from without. More important, they are woefully ignorant and easily worn down concerning the details of any political subject. They are acclimated to political races in which the main differences revolve around personality, and they're comfortable making almost entirely emotional decisions about candidates. This is an overgeneralization, but to date a viable one. Presidential elections are mass-culture phenomena, and the majority of voters in any election know very little of substance about the candidates or issues involved.

The media: On a mass basis, the medium that matters most by far is television. According to a 2003 Pew Research Center study, over 80 percent of Americans claim to get most of their news from TV. And if you take the further step of looking at TV news viewership numbers, you will find them pretty underwhelming. The only sensible conclusion is that a great many Americans consume political news in sporadic, sidelong fashion if at all. Many others try to follow events, but lack the time for anything beyond a few minutes of cable news and glance at their newspaper's front page.


(Which I'll possibly have to trim, as it may have pushed this post beyond LJ's reply limit...:)

((Hee -instead I get this...

Our data center (Internap) lost all its power, including redundant backup power. We're currently dealing with bringing our 100+ servers back online. Not fun. We're not happy about this. Sorry... :-/ More details later.

:)) And I'll have to make it two posts too...
marypcb
16th Jan, 2005 04:14 (UTC)
a lot of the US media does take the government spin lying down. Some of the UK media does too, but I did say good journalism, not the lowest level of journalism we have at the moment ;-) Absolutely it needs to be crisper and more independant and it's hard to deal with Rove's techniques of spinning and absolute lying in such a simple way that it sounds plausible.

As to the BBC, actually their story on sexing up the dossier was proven almost completely accurate by later information from the intelligence services, but the report into them didn't get the benefit of the later details. That's why Alaister Campbell is, at least temporarily, not in Downing Street.
stillcarl
17th Jan, 2005 00:18 (UTC)
The problem is, I don't think a higher level of journalism will attract more readers. And I think the root of the problem is words, (spoken or written), are not as important to the masses as they used to be. They've lost trust in them, whether it's about what's safe to eat, what the news media of the day are saying about politics or anything else you care to name.

This is a good example of what I mean...

http://www.livejournal.com/users/iamkatia/407913.html

It took the right sort of images for a lot of those commenting there to grasp just what the tsunami had done, and it was two weeks after the event before they saw those images.

People feel so manipulated by the media these days that they're just turning off to all of it. Images can still get through, but words, well, they're just opinion.

(I'm not saying this is good - it's just what I think's happening.)
stillcarl
16th Jan, 2005 00:14 (UTC)
And the rest...


But anyway, that is what I think the mainstream media really has to worry about, not bloggers. Bloggers I think are going to do them a favour by making them pull their socks up. Blogs such as realclimate.org's are a good example of that.

Oh, and as to faking photos. I didn't point you to Google Image-search for that reason, but because a search there for "Abu Ghraib" will not turn up any of the photos you would expect. Not a single one of them! Other image searches do, just not Google.
marypcb
16th Jan, 2005 04:08 (UTC)
well, only if the bloggers are applying what I would call high journalistic standards. The postings attacking Soros for not donating to the tsunami appeal when they have no idea whether he did or not, merely the absense of proof that he did, didn't make me feel the standard was uniformly high. There are some excellent blogs and some mendacious or at best self-deceived ones. How is the average newspaper reader to tell the difference?
stillcarl
17th Jan, 2005 00:48 (UTC)
How is the average newspaper reader to tell the difference?

In the same way the average reader tells the good newspapers from the bad. Meaning some will use their heads and others will just be attracted to the ones that conform to their own view of things.

I agree it'd help a lot if more news-focused bloggers had taken journalism courses, (this may happen over time - I can see journalists who've grown up with the Net getting together to create new, online forms of newspapers), but in most cases their biases are so obvious even the dumbest readers should be able to spot it.

Plus there's the comments from other readers if the blogger allows commenting, and links will be posted offering evidence to the contrary if there's any out there. It's a free-for-all, but in a lot of cases some consensus may emerge, and even if it doesn't, both sides of the story will usually get an airing.

The real problem with news-blogs is money. Real journalists need to be paid to do decent research and I doubt many bloggers are bringing in enough to give up their day-job. Which means for the time-being they'll probably be reacted to news which isn't of their own making.

And now to go off-topic and into tech. blogging, I found this post by Carl Sassenrath on blogging interesting...

http://www.rebol.net/blogs/0100.html

Seems the act of blogging itself can change your POV.
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