Specifically, yes or no?

This post also appeared Sept. 23, 2012 on the blog of the Columbia Missourian public life beat, The Watchword.  

It’s hard to prepare for the artful dodge of politicians, I suppose, with anything other than practice. I’m hopeful that the experience of being a panelist at the Missouri Press Association’s gubernatorial forum last Friday, combined with my current studies of public policy, will prepare me to craft questions that require more specific responses than I got last week.

Not quite a debate, the forum was held for press only at the Holiday Inn Executive Center in Columbia. I was one of three panelists facing three candidates for governor: current Gov. Jay Nixon, his Republican challenger Dave Spence, and Libertarian candidate Jim Higgins. I joined Bill Miller from the Washington Missourian and Jeff Fox from the Independence Examiner at the panelist’s table. David Lieb from the Associated Press moderated.

I think the format presented part of the challenge to specificity. The forum was broadcast live on radio and television, requiring a strict timetable that David Lieb managed admirably. Each candidate had 90 seconds to respond to each question. At Lieb’s discretion, candidates were given 45 additional seconds for rebuttal. There was no opportunity for follow-up questions from panelists. In other words, nothing in the forum’s architecture held them accountable for providing actual answers.

At first, I confess, I was relieved that there would be no time for follow-up questions. That took a bit of pressure off, as I was nervous to “perform” so publicly. By the end, I decided I would have preferred the risk.

Of the three questions I had time to ask, the one most ignored was about racial disparities. I pointed out the persistent achievement gap among schoolchildren, and statewide economic indicators of inequality by race in employment, homeownership and business ownership, as well. “What do you make of that? And what, as governor, would you do to address it?” I asked.

Spence at least acknowledged the racial element of my question, but otherwise responded as if I had asked about education. His fellow candidates followed suit, answering a question about education when I had asked about racial inequities.

In retrospect, I wished I hadn’t set up the question by pointing out the educational achievement gap. Nonetheless, the fact that they didn’t answer the question may have been — at least in part — an answer in itself.

Ironically, my question that was answered most directly was the one that broke a cardinal rule of interviewing: yes or no. “Do you support the tobacco tax increase on the November ballot, and do you think the state’s colleges and universities need more money?” All three answered no to the tax question, and all for different reasons that they explained rather succinctly.

The more open-ended a question in most interview settings, the more complete a response you solicit. However, this is clearly a different setting that calls on different principles of the craft, I learned.

In the flow of the forum, it was hard to decide which question to close with. I had prioritized five questions, but had no way of knowing what my fellow panelists were going to ask until they posed theirs. Mine were not the only questions greeted by vagaries, and most of them revolved around jobs and the economy. Wanting to change the subject, I asked about guns.

Higgins is explicit about his position on the Second Amendment on his website: He opposes gun registration itself as a limit to the right to bear arms. Nixon and Spence both say they support the Second Amendment, so I simply asked them all to explain exactly what they mean by their support. The long and the short of their responses: they support it. No explaining exactly what that means, not even from Higgins.

Now, there’s only so much specificity anyone can deliver in 90 seconds, even if you want to get down to brass tacks. I’ll grant them that.

But specificity is anathema to the campaigning politician, and the skilled ones know how to avoid it. They rely on ambiguities, some would argue, as the only conceivable way to draw support from as many constituencies as they need to win.

Maybe a simple “yes or no” is about as much as you can hope to get from them in a forum like this. I won’t settle my sights on that close a range, but I certainly will be less afraid of asking such a simple question in a similar setting in the future.

And I’d jump at the chance to ask follow-up questions, too.

Don’t be boring! Crafting stories from data

The Pithy Award for this year’s Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference — wrapping up today in St. Louis — surely belongs to Tony DeBarros, Ron Nixon and Ben Welsh. Their presentations for Friday’s “Making Sure You Tell a Story” panel, in rapid succession, covered ground from story craft to news strategy to robotics, and still managed to present a cohesive message: elevate your reporting.

My favorite lines from each of them:

“I couldn’t have made that up if I was writing a screenplay.” — Tony DeBarros of USA TODAY

“If you kill the thing, eat every last piece.” — Ron Nixon of the New York Times

“There is an art to finding Mr. and Mrs. Central Tendency.” — Ben Welsh, Los Angeles Times

All of this really does relate to computer-assisted reporting. But let’s start at the story, which is where the panel started with Tony DeBarros.

His point is that journalists still should hold onto the tricks of the storytelling trade, even when — or especially when — we’re telling the stories of data.

“Snap out of the numbers coma,” he advised, because people can only comprehend and play along with your analysis of so many trends at a time. Find the people who represent the trends or outliers in the data, and tell their stories. Set scenes, use detail, develop characters.

Case in point: a census story about Loving County, Texas, where Judge Skeet Jones and Sheriff Billy Burt Hopper can sit down in the Boot Track Cafe and write down the names of nearly everyone in their county — and not because they command great memories.

“We can’t just put people to sleep with numbers. We have to dig and find the greater context and tell it with story,” he said.

Ron Nixon picked it up from here, pointing out places in our data reporting where we can sneak in the human voice.

“We waste a lot of our reporting,” he said, comparing a reporter’s cutting room floor to all that’s wasted when a hunter mounts the head of a [insert exotic wild game here] on her wall and throws away all the meat.

There are places for all the quotes and anecdotes you worked hard to collect, so find a place to put them in.

Take Obama’s Budget Focuses on Path to Rein in Deficit, born last year when a New York Times online producer thought of a new way to report the budget: by having reporters annotate the parts of it that pertained to the agencies they covered. Document Cloud, meet narration.

Truly effective reporting is “more than just putting something up online and letting people figure it out,” Nixon said. He compared habits of simply embedding documents to the idea of bringing a hungry person to a locked glass refrigerator full of food. Seeing does not equal transparency, he said. We have to help our audiences understand what documents mean.

And we can help computers do this in more ways than you might realize, said Ben Welsh of the Los Angeles Times. He calls it human-assisted reporting.

It boils down to this: If we can write programs to automatically scrape certain websites for specific data, we really should just go the extra mile and teach the computer how to write its own story from what it finds

Like earthquakes. Redefining the tagline “this just in,” Los Angeles Times developers came up with a way to report them within seconds. (Their newsroom protocol still requires “human review” before any news is published, hence the 15-20 minute delay between the time an earthquake strikes and the time stamp on the site’s initial report.)

With a fistful of code — and the developers who can write it — automated reporting like this helps your newsroom break news first, work around public information officers, analyze instantly, and generate copy quickly. Leaving you more time to get and tell the stories.

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.

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.