Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Against Journalistic "Balance": Grits reaches one million visitor, 3,000 post milestones

I want to take a minute to thank everybody who reads this blog, which celebrates two landmarks with this post. Sometime today, barring an unforeseen traffic interruption, Grits for Breakfast will receive its one millionth visitor, according to SiteMeter. (Before you ask, I don't actually understand how their definition of "visitor" relates to the number of human beings reading the blog, but for those who care they explain it here.) Lately Grits has been receiving 50-60,000 visitors per month. Thanks, everyone, for coming!

Meanwhile, last week this item marked Grits' 3,000th post since I launched the blog in October 2004. That represents a lot of writing on my part, and a lot of reading on yours, not to mention many thousands of contributions by and conversations with readers in the comments section. I've gotten a lot of important tips from you, learned much from our conversations, and in many cases changed my own views or identified significant caveats or alternative explanations because of reader responses. In short, I'm certain I learn more from writing on Grits and debating these topics with commenters (and other bloggers) than my readers are ever likely to learn from me.

So in honor of these two bloggerly milestones, I hope readers will indulge some perhaps too-lengthy ruminations about what I'm hoping to accomplish on Grits as a writer (as opposed to a public policy advocate, where my goals are pretty plain).

I view Grits as a writer's experiment on several levels. When I launched the blog, I hoped to test the medium's effectiveness as a way to engage a state-level political issue at a time when (as is still the case) greater attention in the blogosphere was paid to elections than to what pols do once they're in office. Not only were blogs a new medium (though it dates myself to say so, when I began in print journalism we still sliced up columns of text with exacto knives and placed them by hand along with images on gridded paper using hot wax), for me, anyway Grits has been a chance to practice an alternative brand of public journalism, one that embraces rather than disdains authorial perspective.

There have always been editorial writers in journalism, but in the last century a conscious effort was made to divorce "opinion" from "fact." Most MSM journalism is still based on a value set created around the turn of the 20th Century that I believe has led the profession far off course. With the exception of occasional investigative articles or self-styled "analyses," modern journalism too often reverts to a formula where "fairness" and "balance" - to use the famous buzz words - prevail over "honesty" or "truth."

The idea of journalistic "balance" deserves particular scorn, since it inculcates several flawed assumptions that harm public debate and diminish the usefulness of its practitioners' product. The idea assumes there are two sides to be balanced in the first place. Or three. Or however many the reporter and the editor decide to include in the story. However, seldom do we hear acknowledgment that those represent CHOICES by journalists about whose opinions to include, even when they're portrayed by the author as "just the facts."

Indeed, any honest writer will admit they make so many choices in a given piece of prose, right down to quote placement, word and punctuation choice, rhythmic emphasis, and dozens of other things, that some sort of "bias" creeps in to every article, resulting in a situation where "all criticism is autobiographical," at least to some degree. Every writer's arguments have both strong suits and blind spots based on their personal knowledge, experience, values, sources, etc.. I believe readers are better served when writers acknowledge those biases up front and present them as part of the package, rather than conceal them behind false objectivity and feigned even-handedness.

An even bigger problem arises because the formula of journalistic "balance" inherently biases journalism toward institutional players, from whom the reporters inevitably feel obligated to "get a quote" and print it whether or not they believe it's true. In the criminal justice arena, in particular, this phenomenon contributes significantly to slanted coverage. But the same thing happens in everything the MSM covers.

I'm NOT saying that reporters who practice that style of journalism are personally unethical. If that's what you're taught and you're practicing the craft in good faith, that doesn't make you a bad person. At its best moments, some fine journalism has been performed under the "fair and balanced" formula. But as an everyday matter, the format forces upon reporters near-constant choices about whether their responsibility lies with their sources or their readers, and nearly guarantees that much of the time, they'll choose their sources' over their readers' interests.

My favorite TV show of all time is The Wire, which just concluded its final show a couple of weeks ago. Every week began with a quote from someone in that episode's storyline, highlighted in white print on a black screen as the brilliant theme song behind the opening credits drew to its conclusion. In the next to last episode, which focused on the news media, the pre-show epigraph IMO summed up the biggest failure regarding how reporters operate today: "A lie ain't a 'side of the story,' it's just a lie."

Public relations professionals (and today, every good politician is a public relations professional) know that to respond to media criticisms, you create a message and stick to it, repeating the element you want to appear in the story and refusing to answer more probative questions. Why? Reporters inevitably feel obligated to print "the other side," even when they know they're being misled. (A New York Times reporter famously said he was glad to quit covering Congress because he was tired of sitting around all day on marble slabs waiting for politicians to lie to him.)

That's what passes for journalistic ethics, sadly, in the 21st Century. Reporters justify this systematic promotion of spun or false information by telling themselves that, at least if someone lies, they got them "on the record" - sort of a journalistic version of a legal perjury trap. But for the most part, nobody goes back to hold sources accountable for past misleading statements. Lying to reporters is not illegal, after all, plus reporters avoid criticizing regular sources, particularly official ones, in order to curry favor - otherwise you can't get the next quote. To its credit, Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" has captured a huge audience with "news" stories that basically place today's quote side be side with last year's quote and expose the hypocrisy that runs through much of what the media reports.

To me, it's unethical for a reporter to promote arguments or fact propositions to their readers if they don't personally believe they're true, even if they quote "the other side," for "balance." A lie ain't a side of the story, it's just a lie.

When reporters print a quote and don't tell readers they think it's misleading or obfuscatory, which happens ALL the time, IMO they do their readers a serious disservice. And journalists, don't tell me you "let the facts speak for themselves" - you're the writer, so you're speaking. Period. It's not just "the facts" but the facts you choose to present. Plus you're the one who researched the story - your readers presumably don't know as much as you do.

All that to say, in Grits' first 3,000 posts, I've attempted to chart a different course, to provide a brand of reportage that helps fill in the meaning gaps in MSM coverage on Texas criminal justice issues.

Newspapers frequently attribute their circulation decline to the rise of new technology, but IMO their greatest failing hasn't been a reliance on dead trees, but their insistence on clinging to an outdated and counterproductive approach to newsgathering and storytelling. People read blogs not to get information, for the most part, but to help decipher what news stories mean, a niche that's only available because of the shortcomings of hundred-year old journalistic canons and customs.

So do not expect what you read here to be "fair" or "balanced" (though I try to be "honest" and "truthful," and admit mistakes when I make them). A primary goal of this blog is to rethink approaches to journalism and nonfiction writing, charting a path, I hope, that fits better both with modern technologies and sensibilities.

Thanks for coming by, everybody. This blog definitely wouldn't be what it is without every one of you reading and participating.


Anonymous said...

Makes perfect sense to me. As you say, sometimes there is only one side of a story. Congrats.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

One side of the story, or more commonly, very many sides where readers must rely on reporters to sort through the verity and relative importance of conflicting claims. That's when readers need reporters honest assessment most, and also IMO when the "balance" formula most interferes with truthtelling in the media.

Anonymous said...

Congratulation, Scott.

Anonymous said...

"The bigger the lie, the more they believe it"

W W Woodward said...

Thanks for being here. Your blogs as well as the comments you inspire have made me take a second and sometimes third look at some things I've just taken for granted.

Anonymous said...

Grits - thanks for taking the time to honestly portray what is out there, and also for the research! Grits for Breakfast has gotten me interested in politics once again!

Anonymous said...

I love me some "Grits" any time of the day.

Thank you Mr. Henson.

Your passion for rationality and justice, and your skill at expressing yourself and reporting, are so admirable and so good for us all.

Thank you again.