Saturday, March 21, 2009

OT: News & Blogging

This is a brief off-topic rant...

I am somewhat of a news junkie. My job requires me to stay abreast of current events and I enjoy being informed. So, I tend to read newspapers and visit websites associated with major news outlets. I follow a few narrowly focused blogs as well, but I do not consider them a substitute for journalism.

I recently saw something that bothered me a lot on the website for a major cable news organization. I noticed that almost all the articles were very short, perhaps less than 500 words. Single events were broken up into multiple short posts. For example, a major political figure gave a statement that generated a half dozen separate mini-articles, each one taking one "sound byte" out of context.

This must drive more visits to the site. The articles probably show up more frequently on search engines and you can link from mini-page to mini-page. However, it is an absolute abdication of journalism. This "choose your own adventure" style of "reporting" is a travesty. Sure, it allows the reader to narrowly focus on just what they want to see, but there is no context.

Journalism is to current events as history is to past events. The job of a journalist is not only to report the facts but also to put them into proper context and to perhaps even at its highest form to tell a story or advocate a cause. To claim that journalism is unbiased is a joke; like history or any other form of human communication, there is usually a purpose beyond strictly informing. That's why papers have editorial boards and why different papers have different (known) biases. When Ceaser wrote his commentaries on the war in Gaul, he was basically conveying news of current events. They were dispatches from the front. But, they also served an advocative purpose -- he had axes to grind! To think that "just the facts, ma'am" is the order of the day for news reporting is to be short sighted and unrealistic.

With the current "sound byte-ization" of the written word, even limited context and advocacy is lost. The reader just pulls the few bits and pieces of the picture they choose to link to without any broader understanding of the issues. The material lacks any sort of argument that actively engages the reader's critical thinking skills. While some might think that journalists that write with an advocacy purpose are "spinning" the news, I actually think they do less harm than those who selectively report events. At least with the former case, the writer is making some sort of argument and the reader is critically evaluating the thought. With the latter, the reader just accepts facts that likely already conform to their given world view and never need deal with a troublesome thought, opinion, or event. After all, if I google search for something, I likely am already aware of it and agree with it, and with the mini-articles I am likely to find in the MSM these days, I won't get any contextual information that I might disagree with, broaden my perspective, or enhance my true knowledge of the subject.

Related to this abdication of journalistic responsibility is the rise of "I-Reporting" (as CNN calls it) or what is basically amateur hour. The internet allows a great democratization of information. Anyone can post anything. This is good, especially for opposessed minorities or voices that have been stifled or for minor stories that maybe would have never gotten coverage in the past. However, by legitimizing these amateur stories with the label of a major news organization, editorial boards give up their chance and responsibility to review their material for content, accuracy, and journalistic integrity. Who knows how the I-Reporter clowns got their footage -- was it staged a la Borat or actually true? Is it opinion or fact? What is the bias of the reporter? Who knows! At least when I pick up a New York Times or Wall Street Journal I know what the bias will be and can read critically to evaluate the information and the argument.

We would not accept a layperson performing surgery on a loved one or an average "Joe the Plumber" teaching algebra to our children. Why do we as a society encourage our peers -- who are not journalists -- to share information that should inform our worldviews? And why have we destroyed our free press -- look at the rapid death of traditional newspapers and even the corruption of online and TV media outlets -- and failed to hold journalists accountable for a responsible and contextual understanding of current events? The free press -- a press free to express reasoned ideas backed by fact -- is a cornerstone of a free society and we do ourselves a great disservice by allowing it to languish on the vine.

1 comment:

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