Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Grits Manifesto: Ten Maxims for Making Journalism Relevant in the 21st Century

Most political blogging is implicitly media criticism, though at times on Grits such criticism has become explicit. Let's face it: There's a lot to criticize. Some say the internet is killing the newspaper industry but the truth is it was dying long before most readers had a PC and an email account. (Ask the former employees of the Dallas Times Herald and the Houston Post.) Grits instead believes a major underlying reason for journalism's decline is a preponderance of poor quality, formulaic journalism that fails to meet  popular needs for engaging the democratic process. Here are ten maxims, many of which violate canons of political journalism as they're taught in universities and newsrooms today, that IMO would improve the overall usefulness of 21st century reporting:
  1. Never publish things you personally believe are false without saying so, even if you can't immediately "get a quote" from someone else to counter it. If you can't find a countervailing source and don't feel comfortable calling BS yourself, do not publish spin or likely falsehoods even (especially) when you're "only" quoting someone else. That's a cop out. You're the one giving the person a megaphone. If you think what you're hearing is false or misleading, either debunk it or let somebody else "break" that story.

  2. Wherever possible, quote primary sources and link to them. Read the report, read the bill, read the government documents, the budgets. File open records requests. Constantly ask sources for documentation. Scavenge archives and records repositories. Crunch the numbers. Talk to the wonks and bureaucrats. Attend public hearings to discover first-hand what's said and speak to players outside the hearing room. These are actual news sources whereas much of what passes for 21st century "news" is really fluffy commentary - reaction quotes in response to a press release or this week's cultural spectacle. If writing online, link directly to your sources whenever possible. Let readers decide for themselves if your interpretation is valid.

  3. Give your opinion, explain it, admit mistakes. Call BS when you see it and explain in your own words what you think is really going on in your stories, even (especially) if you can't find a source to say it outright. Your opinion is not the point of the story but it must be part of it lest you conceal an important element from your readers. That's because, just as in quantum mechanics, the act of observing an event can alter it. Like it or not, you're part of the story. You were the one who attended the meetings, read the documents, interviewed the subjects, etc.. Your readers are poorly served by a formulaic hodgepodge of official statements and predictable retorts. Refrain whenever possible - unless you haven't enough information to form an opinion - from he-said, she-said formulations without saying which side the reporter thinks is closer to the truth and why. Indeed, if you don't have enough information to form an opinion then you're not ready to publish the story yet because that means your readers won't, either. Of course, there's a corollary: If future events, new information or superior arguments later show you were wrong, freely admit errors: The admission and exploration of countervailing facts will just be fodder for another article and your readers/viewers will appreciate the candor.

  4. Interviews are only one of many information gathering tools and should be used sparingly. They are appropriate when the source has access to information or knowledge the reporter does not. If you don't understand something and find someone who does, by all means, call them and get them to explain it. And certainly give anyone accused of wrongdoing or error an opportunity to respond, if they have not done so elsewhere. But many if not most journalistic interviews are charades where the reporter knows what they want a source to say and merely calls to "get a quote" or to "balance" assertions by others. Even worse, often interviews are performed to avoid the reporter taking time to read a report, documents or other underlying source material. Savvy communications experts in the public and private sectors have long ago figured out how to manipulate the ubiquitous, lazy "quote both sides" methodology, and the MSM's decision to stick with it anyway has degraded modern journalism.

  5. You don't always need to get a quote from "the other side" in the age of Google. Unless you're tilling truly virgin soil - and it's a lucky, lonely reporter who finds they're in that situation - it's often possible to identify countervailing information or themes, giving full credit (and preferably links), without going through the  farce of calling a "source" to get them to tell you something you already know or to repeat something they've told someone else. Build on the work of others and your own work can reach greater heights.

  6. The scoop is dead. With the exception of a handful of long-term investigative stories or innovative data analyses, the concept of a "scoop" has become an anachronism in the internet era. Today, when a journalist gets a "scoop" it usually just means their source doesn't have (or chose not to use) a Twitter account. If you and I attend the same press conference and my story comes out an hour before yours, that's not a "scoop" in any meaningful, important sense. Ditto for most "exclusive" interviews with politicians and celebrities or revelations from government reports. Today, the best journalism takes what's said at a press conference or public event and adds value by providing additional context and analysis. The latest new fact-bite typically isn't what's important. We live in an era of information overload where facts are overabundant. Understanding what they mean is the hard part, and that's also where traditional "quote both sides" journalism falls down.

  7. Identify your sources' sources. Identify information sources relied upon by decision makers on the topics you're covering and monitor them yourself to the extent possible, whether it's government reports, professional journals, court precedents, the writings of particular experts, etc.. If you attend a public hearing, try to get access to the backup material given to folks on the dais. For beat reporters, subscribe to professional newsletters, journals or magazines your sources read or listservs on which they participate. Seek out academic articles on your subject area (and be sure to check the footnotes for additional leads). Instead of just quoting decision makers as a source, put yourself in a position to engage them on the substance of their decisions.

  8. Avoid press gaggles. The fact that one exists means the issue likely will be amply covered. Unless you've got long-term stakes in the story or are covering an angle others won't catch, skip them and go cover a timely story that the press gaggle is missing - likely there will be several. N.b. If you skip a press conference and over the next couple of days no one covers it, you can always call whoever sponsored it and get their pitch, materials, etc.. Since their press strategy failed, they'll be happy to talk to you.

  9. Distrust all in whom the urge to punish is strong. Okay, Nietzsche actually said that, but it applies to journalists who traffic in outrage to sell their media products. Think of all those angry sources who insist, "Something must be done!" Often what must be done is to fact check their quotes before publicizing them.

  10. Follow the money, follow the process. Follow the money is an old reporter's adage, but it's an incomplete strategy if you don't also closely track the process, identifying players, information sources, and critical decision points for governments, companies, and other journalistic targets. Closely tracking the process also lets you know when reporting is timely and can influence decision making as opposed to merely recording decisions after the fact, or worse, engaging in gratuitous scandal-mongering.
Finally, not just journalists but anyone who writes on political subjects for a general audience should read and diligently follow the advice in George Orwell's Politics and the English Language. And if you have never read that brief but powerful essay, as a public service stop writing nonfiction until you do.

MORE (2/17): See a similarly themed (if less prescriptive) essay published today at Monday Note titled "The Need for a Digital 'New Journalism'"


Anonymous said...

The ten maxims is an excellent guideline for good jounalism. To many times the upper management wants to be first out with the so-call news break instead of the truth of the news. I for one don't want to hear opinions of others just tell me the truth and i will make my decision (right or wrong).
i used to hear many years ago in the "Huntley & Brinkley, Cronkit" era they always stated this is opinioned or words of that effect. you always knew the difference of reporting and opinion.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Hell, much "news" these days are just competing opinions "balanced" by a reporter without any attempt to discern the truth.

Anonymous said...

I really miss the days when journalists at least tried to be objective and just report the facts without interjecting their opinion. I don't want anyone to "shape the way" I view the world. I'm not a stupid lemming and neither are my fellow beings. I am capable of making up my own mind. Meanwhile, thanks for all of the links you provides to reports etc. They are very helpful and informative.

Anonymous said...

Objectivity is a lie. It's easier to hide bias inside an article of pure facts than it is if you actually have to explain the links between them and why you put them there.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

You nailed it, 10:22, couldn't have said it better myself.

g.h.g.mitte said...

Old School ethics and New Media lessons learned...Right on...

Mara Leveritt said...

Thanks, Grits. Wish schools would build Journalism 101 around these. I'd add:
11. Actively oppose attempts by government to limit freedom of information. And oppose undue restraints that already exist.
12. Step outside your own bailiwick now and then to see how others deal with similar issues. Familiarity can be blinding.
13. Read Grits.

P.S. Ruckman, Jr. said...

I would add: Dry wit / sarcasm are acceptable, indeed, sometimes, down right enjoyable.

Lee said...

Truth is relative, pick one that works.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Lee, "truth is relative" is decidedly NOT what I'm saying here. If a journalist hears some pol say "X" but based on my reporting I believe "X" is false and "Y" is true, IMO it's a problem to simply say, "Pol says 'X'" without rebuttal on the grounds that "that's just their 'truth,' which is relative."

Some things are true, some things are false, and the grey areas involve varying interpretations, values, assignments of meaning, or gaps in knowledge, which themselves can at least be accurately articulated. I don't think the existence of grey areas undermines the need to openly acknowledge the other two categories.

Anonymous said...

When you start with a left wing bias, what follows is distorted. If you are surrounded by a clique that denies they have a left wing bias, you start to believe that. The New York Times (put out by the snobs on the upper east side) becomes your standard of objectivity.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:55, see 10:22 above re: "objectivity."

Texas Maverick said...

10 reasons why I start with reading Grits each morning. You tell the story, give your opinion, give the link, let me decide if I agree. Please don't ever stop or die, I'd be lost without you. Would be good guidelines for Pols as well, but "I dream."