Maximizing truth and minimizing harm

January 30, 2009

I commend our discussion leaders this morning. I didn’t give Lindsay and Minyoung enough time. I’ll figure out how to make quizzes shorter. And not everyone liked being called on, but I measure a discussion’s success in part by how many voices were heard. By that measure, we had a good morning.

Finally, you see that I am physiologically incapable of shutting up. I try really, really hard. I’ll try harder. A big “thank you” to Lindsay and to Minyoung for being our pioneers, our trailblazers. The first discussion is the hardest one to lead.

So, to extend and expand our discussion here in the limitless online environment, I’d like to pose a few more brain ticklers to which time did not permit attention (our fearless leaders had three pages of questions).

First, I’d like to return us to Minyoung’s chart of how inter-related, interconnected Korea’s media and political networks are. We in the United States face a similar challenge, that of media consolidation. To Minyoung’s chart I’d like to add this one from Columbia Journalism Review (select a media company, like News Corp., and see the mind-numbing list of properties; it explains much in the area of product placement and cross-promotions).

just_the_factsMy question: What in your opinion are the greatest threats to American journalism’s obligation to the truth and to fierce independence? What, in other words, are the corrosive influences upsetting or polluting our collective pursuit of truth, of meaning, of sense?

Another follow-up I’d like your thoughts on concerns how journalism sometimes fails in its attempt to report or provide the truth. This was an interesting question from this morning. What, in other words, are the more common ways a fuller account of the truth (or a truth, or some truths) is prevented? Some options here include bias in the news, a failure to provide a complete account (insufficiency), and allowing one voice or one side or perspective to color or even dominate the account (the first callback often shapes the rest of the story; it’s human nature). What do you think?

And the natural follow-up to the follow-up: What can we do as digital storytellers to avoid these sand traps and stay in the fairway?

Finally, our “list,” the centerpiece of our discussion. Kovach and Rosenstiel encourage us to:

  1. Never add anything that was not there.
  2. Never deceive the audience (or the people formerly known as the audience; as one blogger famously put it, speaking to journos: “We [bloggers] will fact-check your ass!).
  3. Be as transparent as possible about your methods and motives.
  4. Rely on your own original reporting.
  5. Exercise humility (this will protect us against assumption)

We added:

  • Maximize truth and minimize harm.
  • Act (fiercely) independently. (Briona)
  • Do your own work. (Michael Oreskes, The New York Times)

What is missing from this very fine list?

DEADLINE: 6 p.m. Sunday (SuperBowl 43 kickoff!)

What is visual culture?

January 13, 2009

For my students in Visual Rhetoric, I want us to crowdsource a definition of “visual culture.” To do this, we first must come up with some notions about culture. What is culture?

anime2Here are the groundrules: I want at least one comment from each person in the class, and this comment cannot merely agree with those that preceded it. Of course all are invited to comment more than once, reacting to other students’ definitions.

Secondly, no Googling or outside sourcing of any kind. For this to work, these definitions, like culture itself, should come only from us, out of our heads.

The deadline: Friday morning, 10 a.m., so that I have time before class to read them and draw some conclusions.

The future of print journalism

January 13, 2009

The Christmas break provided me with a rare and special reading-fest. I plowed through 15 books, including Daniel Stashower’s The Beautiful Cigar Girl, a non-fictional account of a murder in New York City in 1841 that was popularized by Edgar Allan Poe. The murder of a beautiful cigar girl gave the city’s penny presses a carnival of twists and turns, suspects, clues and police mistakes.

Called the father of the penny press, James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald, claimed his newspaper would “outstrip everything in the conception of man. . . What is to prevent a daily newspaper from being made the greatest organ of social life? Books have had their day. The theaters have had their day. The temple of religion has had its day. A newspaper can be made to take the lead of all of these in the great movement of human thought.”

So what’s next in leading “the great movement of human thought?”
Books, theater, religion and newspapers all have at least one thing in common: A lack of interaction/feedback, at least on a grand scale, by and from from their readers/viewers/adherents, who are largely passive. They read, watch, listen, and believe.

The Internet, citizen journalism, and blogging each have the potential to fill these participatory voids, allowing for more active participation. These new “interactors” can (and do!) provide content, rather than just take what they’re given. This means very new and evolving roles for newspapers.

Print-based news media will survive, but will they occupy more than a niche? I don’t think so, though it will be a large niche, and eventually a profitable one. Like magazines, it will be a mostly Long Tail economy in which publishers tailor increasingly specific content for their increasingly specific audiences (narrowcasting). The giant newspaper presses and man-killing rolls of newsprint are fast becoming as quaint as steam engines and whale oil.

A student in my Writing for Digital Media course offered this analogy: The power grid. “I see news gathering becoming less centralized, as in so many facets of our society. Electric utilities now talk about a ‘distributed’ generation, which means solar PV modules on individual rooftops, all feeding the grid. The gazillion bloggers already out there and the growing use of personal electronics that turn everybody into a reporter, which we witnessed again in Mumbai, shows a parallel trend in journalism.” I think Bruce is right on.

Professionals likely will continue to serve as this journalistic grid’s caretakers and overseers, the conduit through which news flows from a universe of sources. Many readers will demand  reasonably good prose, thorough reporting and vetting that trained and experienced writers and editors provide. Of course, many will not.

The power grid analogy recognizes that technology has enabled anyone to commit random acts of journalism. But filters will still be needed. Someone will have to organize and oversee the grid. Without them, the information ecosystem would — to mix my metaphors — quickly resemble the Caddyshack pool on “Caddies Day.” (An early example of product placement, by the way.)

“Doodie! Doodie!”