Approval vs. accuracy: a crucial distinction

The New York Times reported July 15 on a new trend in the cat-and-mouse game that is politics-press relations: quote approval. Want an interview with a high-powered political operative? Only if you run their quotes by them for approval before publication.

It’s absurd, of course. It’s offensive. It’s embarrassing that apparently so many reporters accept it. And as an eloquent essay that acknowledges the nuance of political reporting and still comes out strongly against this “quote approval” game, I appreciated Dan Rather’s July 19 opinion piece for CNN.

What I want to point out here, though, is not outrage, but a very important distinction. It’s between “quote approval” and the “accuracy check,” which we are taught at the Missouri School of Journalism. I’ve had occasion to explain the “AC,” as we call it, in recent conversations with a colleague and a friend, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.

It is not the same as quote approval. I bring this up because I fear that in the flurry of outrage about quote approval, one may be mistaken for the other.

The AC is part of fact-checking. Not every newsroom does it, but probably every newsroom should. Beyond making sure you’re spelling someone’s name right, or got all dates and other details correct in a story, the AC entails emailing or calling back your sources to double-check how you quoted them, paraphrased them, or otherwise referenced them in a story. (Keep in mind, this is not a luxury for sources who give interviews for broadcast, so it’s really more of an issue for print- and web-based reporting.)

“But what happens if they take a quote back?” I’ve been asked, along with a lot of other what-ifs. My response to all is: It depends.

It depends on you, the reporter, because you are in charge of what you write. And it depends on your editor, because she is in charge of what gets printed. These levers are not under the control of your source (unless you cede that control by bowing to power plays such as interviews based on “quote approval”). You are not seeking approval for a quote when you check its accuracy. You are checking its accuracy.

The accuracy check is both a courtesy and a method of thoroughness and verification. It’s also good source development, because it builds trust. And it’s good reporting, because it’s one more chance to talk to that source, kind of like a second interview.

More often than not, in my vast reporting experience (I’m kidding about the vast part, but serious about the frequency), the accuracy check yields better quotes and even more information, which you can either find time to fit into the story you’re about to publish, or keep on file for your next follow-up.

Occasionally, people want to tweak the wording of their quotes. Maybe they could have said something more eloquently. Maybe they got carried away when they talked to you the first time. Or maybe it suddenly dawns on them that going public about an issue could have serious repercussions for their personal or professional lives.

In most cases, the benefits of the accuracy check far outweigh the risks, which I see as: potential inconvenience, occasional awkwardness, and rarely a difficult ethical dilemma. This is journalism. And it’s life. It’s full of those risks, no matter what we do. I say we may as well do what we can to make sure we’re reporting about it accurately.

Far from “quote approval,” the accuracy check is a professional practice, not a trick in the old cat-and-mouse game. But, as far as that game goes, I think the press does its best work when we at least try to be the cat.

How scholars think and work

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Bennett and Lyengar, “New Era of Minimal Effects?
  • Singer, Jane, “Stepping back from the gate: Online newspaper editors….”
  • McCombs, Max, “The Agenda-setting function of the press”
  • Capella and Jamieson, “Framing the news”

Journalism apparently is not the only field in which debates about objectivity and framing flourish. We also read about them (by different names) this week in discussions of scholarly research methods and approaches. It’s no surprise to find this overlap. After all, the fields of both reporting and researching place high value on the goals of explanation and prediction.

In Chapters 2 and 3 of “How to build social science theories,” Shoemaker, Tankard and Lasorsa build an understanding of research by breaking theories down into their “building blocks.” It reminded me in a much more sophisticated way of learning how to diagram sentences as a child (which is great, because I loved that part of fifth grade). The authors clarify the differences and similarities among constructs, concepts and variables. We also get a lesson in the ways that pairing different types of variables — categorical/continual, dependent/independent — produce different results: namely, hypothesis or proposition.

A hypothesis, built from at least two continual variables, is preferable in research to a proposition, which “provide(s) information about only one variable at a time…” Assumptions are a third type of theoretical statement, and the authors acknowledge that they underlie all research. Their admonition is to define assumptions as clearly as possible, in order to keep them from undermining the work being done.

“What communication scientists do” by Chaffee and Berger also delineates many distinct phases of research. But the chapter may have been better titled “What communication scientists should do, and what you should look for when assessing their work.” In explaining the merits of good research and why they matter, the authors create a helpful rubric for assessing the quality of research we encounter. They also issue a call for studies that explore a “communication event” within and even between the four major “levels of analysis,” which they identify as intraindividual, interpersonal, organizational and societal.

I found this introduction to a new lexicon incredibly dense and equally helpful to orient me in this new world of scholarly research. The examples the authors providing were essential for following along, but it was especially illuminating to recognize some of this week’s research concepts in the work we have already discussed.

When I read Shoemaker, Tankard and Lasorsa saying “…it is helpful for scholars to clarify their own deeply held beliefs and to acknowledge these when directly pertinent to the study,” I was reminded of Duffy, Thorsen and Vultee’s call for values transparency in “The Pursuit of Objectivity.”

Likewise, Shoemaker, Tankard and Lasorsa’s discussion of the “indicators” of a concept seemed on parallel with the concept of framing. After all, word choice and detail selection are just as much a part of formulating research questions and choosing variables to measure as they are in “framing the news,” as written about by Capella and Jamieson.

Chaffee and Berger asked “Who should be the judge of communication effectiveness,” the critics or the audience? I wondered if they shared an office with Herbert Gans, who wrote in “Democracy and the News” (Chapter 3) that the dysfunction of journalistic institutions is, to quote myself from an earlier paper, “exacerbated by a disconnect between what journalists think the public should do with their reporting and how most people actually interact with democracy.”

But the most striking — and promising — correlation to our ongoing discussions that I found in this week’s reading was Chafee and Berger’s comments about “designing communication systems.”

“There has been some interest in redesigning certain institutions to optimize their performance. … But threat of extinction may be necessary before some institutions will initiate internal modification.”

Written in 1987, I don’t imagine they could have guessed that it’s journalism, the ultimate (in my opinion) communication system that is in need of — and undergoing — such radical transformation.

The Classic Theories

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Scheufele and Tewksbury, “Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models”
  • Singer, Jane, “Stepping back from the gate: Online newspaper editors….”
  • McCombs, Max, “The Agenda-setting function of the press”
  • Capella and Jamieson, “Framing the news”

Student’s note: While it’s been helpful to learn the terminology and application of agenda-setting, priming (which I still don’t completely understand) and framing, my most valuable lesson this week was to not wait so long to read the material and write the paper. The following essay is a lot more about turning in the assignment than reflection. 

In a somewhat ironic turn of rhetoric, the very meaning of the word “framing,” used by media scholars and critics such as Duffy to argue that journalism is an inherently subjective act, turns out to be a subjective term, itself. Its definition is infinitely broad or unrealistically narrow, part and parcel of agenda-setting or a distinct tool, empirically proven or merely a theory, depending on whom you ask.

In “The Agenda-Setting Function of the Press,” for example, after detailing agenda-setting theory and research that documents the correlation of topical press coverage with those topics’ prominence in public opinions, Maxwell McCombs summarily brushes framing under the agenda-setting umbrella. He equates framing to what he calls an “agenda of attributes” — in other words, a roster of characteristics the press assigns to the objects on which it reports. McCombs also calls out official sources as the originators of much of the press’s agenda. He connects the dots in a way that reveals how certain agenda attributes designed by the objects themselves will no doubt surface in reporting when the objects of the press are also the source of the press’s agenda. When it comes to influencing public policy, therefore, the press tends to have the greatest impact when it operates outside of the official agenda and instead creates its own.

In “Framing the News,” however, Capella and Jamieson make the case for framing as its own rhetorical device, distinct from agenda setting. They narrow the definition: “(N)ews frames are those rhetorical and stylistic choices, reliably identified in news, that alter the interpretations of the topics treated and are a consistent part of the news environment.” It is through framing, they argue, that context is lent to a news story in a way that can either be efficient or misleading for the reader. But framing, they are careful to say, is not all. Readers bring their own sets of values and their own perspectives to the news they consume, and some will be more susceptible than others to the values implied by any given frame.

Enter the Journal of Communication, which in its 2007 special issue attempted to wrangle such disparate interpretations of the words “framing, agenda-setting, and priming” in order to establish a common frame of reference in which all related scholarship could be conducted. The opening article, “Framing, Agenda-Setting and Priming,” defines the three models as distinct, but sometimes overlapping, devices with specific cognitive and impressionistic impacts. “The primary difference on the psychological level between agenda-setting and priming, on the one hand, and framing, on the other hand, is therefore the difference between whether we think about an issue and how we think about it.”

One critical consideration this article introduces to our reading this week is the distinction between how readers process information about people versus information about issues. The former tends to elicit social judgments based on traits (attributes), while the latter tends to retain facts geared more toward a paradigm of problems and solutions.

“Stepping Back from the Gate” takes a real bird’s eye view of the entire situation, framing its analysis, so to speak, around how the traditional gatekeeping role of journalism is being influenced by online technologies that trend toward reader interactivity. Singer concludes that such interactivity can complement the traditional role of journalism without requiring journalists to entirely cede their gatekeeping mission.

Whatever it’s called, the act of selecting topics to cover, choosing details to include in that coverage, and determining the perspectives from which to cover it is like any other tool. It can be useful when applied correctly and with the right intentions, and it can cause real damage when wielded inappropriately.

Objectivity and Persuasion

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Duffy, Page and Young, “Obama as Anti-American”
  • Duffy, Thorson and Vultee: “The Pursuit of Objectivity”

In “The Pursuit of Objectivity,” Duffy and Vultee frame journalism as an enterprise whose inherently persuasive nature should be embraced and acknowledged, rather than vainly denied.

Citing numerous sources in a broad field of communications scholarship, primarily journalism and rhetoric, they argue that journalism employs specific rhetorical techniques in pursuit of persuasion based on cultural values. Although these values are articulated in many professional codes of journalism, those codes urge “objectivity” that the authors find mutually exclusive with the values the same codes espouse. With a brief content analysis, they discuss the use of frames and content selection as persuasive techniques that journalists — and journalism institutions — apply in an oftentimes unwitting act of persuasion. By pointing out the inherently value-laden aspects of journalism, the authors seek to undermine arguments opposing public journalism. Finally, they urge what they call “radical curriculum reform” of journalism education.

The urgency of Duffy and Vultee’s message is heard most strongly in their observation that the current imperative for rebuilding the business of journalism presents a perfect occasion for fixing its problems — not just regarding financial structures but also, they argue, in terms of mission and craft. They acknowledge the “silo” trend in readership: “(C)itizens are able to contruct their own interpretations of reality including those recommended by their in-person or virtual networks. When those versions of reality conflict with the so-called authoritative sources, dissonance occurs.”

Duffy, Page and Young’s article “Obama as Anti-American” exemplifies this apparent inevitability. Not trusting many major media news sources about the validity of President Obama’s U.S. citizenship, for example, the underground “birther” movement was forged in no small part from the viral exchange of humorous and critical emails that often contained altered visual images that undermined the president’s identity.

Using detailed content analysis of such emails that contained visual images based on cultural allusions, Duffy, Page and Young explore the patterns of characterization of Obama that emerge and how specific cultural references communicate the ideology of the sender. They also make the case for viewing emails as modern folklore, and from a bird’s eye view ask “What worldviews emerge when the totality of the images are examined” and how social identity can be defined by the exchange of such images.

Read in concert, the two articles seem to be answering their own question: What will happen if we do not radically transform the way journalism presents itself to its public? We need only do nothing to find out, because the public is already using the media available to it through new technology to construct its own version of reality.

I’m certainly not going to argue that point, overall. And since I found myself frustrated with many points Duffy and Vultee made in their article, I was surprised at the end to find myself in complete and energetic agreement with their conclusions. The fact that I disagreed with many of their rhetorical stops along the way, I think, comes down to the fundamental definition of what we all mean by the word “objectivity.” That term itself has become so loaded that I wonder if, in this radical restructuring of journalism that Duffy and Vultee call for (and that I echo), we shouldn’t come up with a whole new word.

It would describe a baseline of shared cultural values from which most (no hedge deletion here) journalists operate, on top of which many layers of objectivity can be applied.

I reject the definition of “objectivity” as an absence of values.

I believe there is a least common denominator of social values that even our extremely heterogeneous society shares to a great extent. There are always exceptions and outliers and deviants. And yes, it is a judgment call as to when a fringe of society gains enough critical mass or embodies a valid enough point to be seen as holding a “legitimate” concern. This baseline of social norms is shifting ground. And yes, journalism can play a role in advocating for that shift.

The U.S. civil rights movement of mid-20th century is an example I think of often. Journalists, as members of society, reflected and reinforced a growing movement that changed our baseline values. Our ground is shifting under us even now, regarding climate change science, as Duffy and Vurtee mention, for example. And I wonder at what point our cultural values baseline will encompass gay rights as standard civil rights.

I have no doubt that journalism, even “objectively” practiced, will play a role.

Bias and Objectivity

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Schudson, “The objectivity norm in American journalism”
  • Alterman, Eric, “What liberal media?” Chapter 4
  • Lichter, S. Robert, “Consistently liberal: But does it matter?”
  • Duffy, Page and Young, “Obama as Anti-American”

It took more than telegrams, wire services, and a booming newspaper market to establish American journalists as the pioneers of objectivity, Schudson argues in “The objectivity norm in American journalism.” He identifies four specific social patterns at work that made journalism ripe for professionalization through explicit normative values and behaviors.

Going beyond the commonly accepted technological and economic factors behind journalism’s objectivity norm, Schudson also places it in the context of broader social and political movements leading up to the 1920s — the period in which an explicit objectivity norm first developed. It follows, I was fascinated to learn, the emergence of politics as “an administrative science.”

Given today’s culture of collaboration, Schudson’s second condition of “group egoism” seems especially important now as a factor that may help keep journalistic values normalized in a shifting media landscape. “Here the prescription that ‘the way we do’ things is ‘the way one should do’ things is a … way of defining the group in relation to other groups,” he writes. Establishing shared values and practices is an essential first step in working together, as for example NPR and ProPublica have done, and as more and more media outlets are finding a financial imperative to do.

Schudon’s drive to pinpoint an exact moment in journalistic history, a specific author responsible for the birth of the objectivity norm, seemed a bit obsessive to me. But I do wish that one of the authors on liberalism in the media would have been so driven. Neither of them discuss how or why or when it came to be that the media is (rightly or wrongly) accused of being liberal.

In “Consistently Liberal,” Lichter cites decades of journalist surveys proving that a majority of journalists are liberals (or Democrats). But, Lichter maintains, that doesn’t mean their journalism is biased. He points out, “The various conventions of journalistic ‘objectivity’ — separating fact from opinion, citing sources, checking allegations — represent practical efforts to deal with this philosophical problem.”

He also points out that, more recently, journalists have become more reluctant to identify their political affiliations. If it hasn’t already been done, this seems like an area ripe for further research: What is this journalist reticence a response to, and more importantly what does it accomplish? Anecdotally, I’m familiar with a sort of backlash against objectivity — one that rejects reticence — in which journalists feel it is more honest to acknowledge their biases to their audiences up front. I hope someone is measuring this trend so we can track its impact.

The trend that Alterman measures (or at least refers to) in “What Liberal Media?” that I found most useful is the “conservative colonization of the so-called ‘center.’” Conservative pundits, he argues, have successfully moved the metaphorical 50-yard-line so far back into their own territory that formerly moderate views have become liberal. Formerly liberal views are now regarded as so extreme that they can be marginalized as the belief of a radical, fringe, and possibly dangerous few. My question of how journalists are to respond to this in a constructive way is not one he answers in this chapter.

Lichter said in his article that “the news is less a mirror than a prism.” I couldn’t help but feel that, while interesting, Alterman’s prism was rather narrow. His critique of David Broder (Washington Post) ends with the assertion that “Broder’s embrace of a host of unproven conservative assumptions under the guise of anti-ideological, sensible centrism is hardly an isolated story. It is, in fact, the norm rather than the exception…”

But then Alterman goes on to detail the editorial struggles at “even the liberal New Republic.” And he stops there. For an author so critical of certain journalists’ embrace of unproven assumptions, he doesn’t do much measuring himself. We are presented with very detailed descriptions of two trees that, we are simply told, are highly representative of the forest as a whole.

While Alterman describes the politics of very high-level “punditocracy,” Duffy, Page and Young go the opposite direction in “Obama as Anti-American.” Pulling theories and techniques from many researchers before them, the group dissects the nature and content of “right-wing forwarded emails” as a digital folklore, pointing out the special impact of visual appropriation when used in political messaging.

This digital folklore is an example of what’s new as media (online publishing, photo editing software) becomes more accessible to the general public. In these social exchanges, not only are the group’s norms not explicitly stated, as has evolved among journalists, but they are also most certainly not about objectivity. The visual emails illustrate but a sliver of what journalists are up against in maintaining our objectivity and the public’s value of it.

What Is This Thing Called "News"

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Gans, Herbert, “Journalistic Practices and their Problems,” from “Democracy and the News,” Chap 3.
  • Entman, “Democracy without citizens”
  • Carey, James, “The dark continent of American journalism”

Reality check: Democracy doesn’t function according to the highest ideals for it, and neither does the journalism that seeks to inform the democratic process. That’s what all three readings this week seem to be saying — especially “Journalistic Practices and Their Problems” by Herbert Gans and “The Dark Continent of American Journalism” by James Carey.

The thesis of Robert Entman’s essay “How the Media Affect What People Think — and Think They Think” is that journalism does, indeed, influence public opinion. Perhaps if I were more familiar with the “autonomy models” he challenges, this would seem revelatory to me. Regardless, echoes of Entman’s “interdependence model” can also be found in Carey’s premise, especially in regard to the collaborative act of journalism’s more narrative forms.

Gans details the ways that the operating structure of modern, popular news media trip up journalists in pursuit of the profession’s democratic ideals. The convenience of top-down news, the pitfalls of reporting for mass-production, and the habit of reducing data to oversimplified terms that don’t illuminate real complexities all perpetuate widespread misunderstanding or confusion about how the business of the nation is conducted. This dysfunction is exacerbated, Gans asserts, by a disconnect between what journalists think the public should do with their reporting and how most people actually interact with democracy.

If journalism were to take off the blinders of this “democratic ideal,” he says, then perhaps they’d be able to see “the larger forces that drive politics” and how those forces can manipulate journalism itself. And if journalism broadened its definition of news to include more than politics — in particular, if it did a better job of reporting the economy as it plays out in the lives of the public — then perhaps the media would actually produce news that people could use.

Carey also shares Gans’s contention that most of the American public is woefully ill-informed, although he describes this more thoroughly by way of his analogy that journalism is like a curriculum in which most people stop at the introductory course (ie: the daily news). Carey explains, fittingly, the “how” and “why” of this truism by telling the stories that illustrate how and why the “how” and “why” are left out of the daily press — again, due to many of the operational systems detailed by Gans. Once the facts of a story are handled, he says, it’s the “how” and “why” that people need most in response to an inevitable, human urge to understand the world around us and our place in it. Yet it’s the “how” and “why” that the daily press simply doesn’t have the means to explain.

Suggestions for ways to improve this dysfunction are implicit in Carey’s essay. He details the different ways that journalists attempt to answer the “why” and the ways in which those methods are insufficient. Aside from the express admonition to not rely as much on motive as an explanation, a reader is mostly left to infer that she should do a better job of using cause and consequence as explanations. The technique of applying significance to even random events seems to get a pass from his judgmental eye, and a brief reference to a failed movement toward “precision journalism” is left surprisingly undeveloped.

To reevaluate journalism as it’s actually practiced and perceived, and to do that within a context of reevaluating how democracy actually plays out in modern society, as Gans and Carey do, is especially useful now as journalism is changing. In fact, the correlation that Carey draws between how journalistic standards and practices evolved in direct response to technological developments lends itself perfectly to today’s media landscape. He’s connected many dots in our past, and I am left with the sense that our current trajectory has departed the most recent but yet to land on the next. I wonder how our societal expectations of journalism — and how our values as practicing journalists — will take shape next. And I wonder what all that will mean for country and the world of countries we live among.

Assuming Entman’s assertion of the “interdependence model” of journalism is accurate, then Gans’s suggestions of how to report on democracy in a different way (by treating more than politics as newsworthy would be a start) would imply that the American public could actually interact with our democracy in a different way. Perhaps, then, media now more than ever has the opportunity to influence the direction of the nation.

What I’m left wondering — for myself and also on behalf of all three authors — is whether or not that’s a good thing.