Tuesday, August 30, 2011


What makes for good journalism?

What makes for good writing, to broaden that question – because I’m no longer a journalist in the strict sense of the word and there are those who might bristle if they were to discover I’m writing on the subject.

Truman Capote, when he wrote “In Cold Blood,” certainly did not go into the project thinking “I’m going to maintain my independence as I go about this.” Instead, he concentrated on the story. On getting to know the people involved, from the criminals to the investigators to the victims.

Theodore White, in writing his excellent series of “The Making of A President” books concentrated more on the story and on telling the truth and did not shy away from making commentary that made both Democrats and Republicans look both good and bad, because that’s what we all are – a little bit good, a little bit bad.

And Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the books “Nickeled and Dimed” and “Bat and Switch,” two of the most honest books I’ve ever read on working in the United States, has this to say: “I can’t imagine getting involved in a problem as a journalist and not wanting to do something about it.”

So it makes sense to me to read what BYU-Idaho journalism instructor Lane Williams writes in the Deseret News about the state of journalism today.

He basically writes that modern journalistic independence too often reveals a bias towards getting a story and covering conflict, rather than a more informative bias towards helping readers understand the complex issues behind the conflict. He writes:
Perhaps journalists, in their desire to be neutral, sometimes avoid detailed and complex policy issues because such issues might require them to make conclusions that might benefit one party or another, undercutting their neutrality.
He also links to an excellent essay by scholar Jay Rosen, who writes along similar lines:
The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus “prove” in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. But this can get in the way of describing things! He said, she said journalism doesn’t tell us who’s distorting the picture more. It is neutral on where the reality is, but reality is not something journalists can afford to be neutral about!
I don’t pretend to be a journalist. I don’t pretend to be a fast learner. I know far more now – I hope – about good writing than I did five and a half years ago when I left journalism ass-first. I don’t miss it, because I’ve found other outlets for my writing that are much more enjoyable. As I look back on my life I see a lot of things that I would do differently if only I’d had the experience and hindsight then that I have now. Perhaps that’s why we get second chances to do so many things in our lives, to reinvent ourselves.

I’m much less neutral, much less innocent now. And, for the most part, it’s for the better. I’m a lot more aware of bias now, and at ferreting out the biases in what I read – something Williams advocates:
At Heritage or [Center for American Progress], on the other hand, I learn about issues with a depth and clarity that I can’t find in traditional journalism — all with no more mouse clicks than I need to read ABC. They are trying to persuade me.

Does it change the value of the information just because these organizations are not independent? No. As a consumer, I am smart enough to understand bias and to sort through it. I certainly don't agree with everything on these blogs.

Heritage Foundation, however, has my trust because of its commitment to accuracy and because I learn something by reading their information.
So maybe that’s good writing: Writing that helps someone learn something. Though that something has to be more than what Krusty the Klown said kids learned from watching “Itchy and Scratchy”:

“Oh please! What don’t they learn? Don’t trust mice . . . cats are made of glass . . . “

So comes the arrogant question: Is the average person intellectually capable enough of sorting out the biases, avoiding the Daily Me/Echo Chamber kind of situation that sets us up to always be at war with Eastasia?

Yes. If they want to put in the effort.

And many are. People aren’t as dumb as the pundits or their peers want to believe. What’s worse in writing than arrogance on assuming neutrality is the arrogance of assuming that the readers are dumber than a box of rocks.

I have to consider the kind of stuff I enjoy reading. That includes good narrative, persuasive writing and – most importantly – the chance to look at the data or the report myself so I can read things in context and continue my education OUTSIDE of the news being reported. This is where the Internet will win hands down over any other kind of media, because it puts the information readers want to help them contextualize the news at their fingertips.

Yes, there are readers that will be lazy and not do the further reading and research. But writers shouldn’t shrug their shoulders and assume the lowest common denominator. But of course, sometimes they do, and sometimes their bias is not to provide information, but to smear the other guy, brazenly, unapologetically.

Here's what Dilbert creator Scott Adams says on the subject (coincidentally). He posits that the "liberal" media has ratcheted up its "gotcha" attacks on conservative candidates for president by distorting what they say to fit them into a "liberal" point of view.
Writers also shouldn’t assume a bias towards any political party. What should be sought after is a bias towards the accuracy that Williams sees and the accuracy reporters like White and Ehrenreich espouse.

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