Aesthetics as a Guide to the Applied Epistemology of Ideology

There is an essential piece of philosophy that seems to be missing from the broader public debate about ideology that, if properly understood, may improve the amount of intellectual charity in circulation amongst the chattering classes, and thereby decrease (even if slightly) the amount of ugliness in the naked public square.

A small but growing number of bloggers and columnists has recently made references to ideology in ways that, I think, are unfortunate. The thesis they advance is that the various bases of the electorate (the progressives, the cultural conservatives, the centrists) hold within their ideology essentially the same positions on most major issues, and the bases resort to increasingly self-referential sources of information locused primarily from within their ideology. This phenomenon — whether you call it the “echo chamber” or “epistemic closure” or simply “closed-mindedness” — is uniformly ascribed as a negative. The idea that certain people prefer, on the whole, to engage ideas with which they are already in agreement, and to avoid information sources that originate from outside their received orthodoxy, is widely condemned by political and cultural elites.

The argument that these thought leaders seem to make is thus: It is dangerous for large swathes of the electorate to seek, as their primary information sources, news or opinion content that already fundamentally agrees with their worldview. The elites argue (not unpersuasively) that engagement with “external” ideas will provide for a more nuanced understanding of one’s own opinions while cultivating a deeper and more respectful appreciation for those with whom we disagree. In short, a diversity of opinion will tend to lead to a more respectful public discourse, with more enlightened discussants.  This argument is why some criticize sources like Fox News as being an “echo chamber” of essentially the same self-reinforcing opinions.

Of course, this bare-bones argument is open to myriad attacks:

  • NPR and MSNBC are no different, in terms of having a categorical ideological perspective, from Fox!
  • Why should conservatives have to “engage” with liberal ideas but liberals are under no similar obligation?
  • Progressives have their own echo chamber (have you browsed HuffPo lately?), so why aren’t they being criticized?
  • Et cetera, ad nauseam.

But the point really isn’t to attempt to rebut or refute the underlying argument, for truthfully, I happen to agree with it.  I think it’s a wise idea to seek new ideas and explore radically different perspectives.  I sometimes read Tom Friedmann or David Corn or Eric Alterman even though I am almost always not persuaded by them.  In addition to being an occasional subscriber to National Review and First Things and The Weekly Standard, I have been a paying subscriber to The Nation and Mother Jones.  A prudent commentator knows not only the substance of his own positions, but also the substances of the positions with which he disagrees.  And while I still actively read the RSS feeds for NRO’s The Corner and RedState, inter alia, I also subscribe by RSS to FireDogLake, Reason Magazine, Salon, Slate, The Atlantic’s politics feed, The Economist and The Note from ABC News.

This is not a “hooray for Jason” moment, for I believe that any educated person needs to make a similar effort to understand the rationale behind another’s perspective. Rather, it’s a concession, from the beginning, that I am uncomfortable with people who refuse to leave their “echo chamber” of self-referential political truisms.

However.

I do not believe that the prevailing orthodoxy is appropriately sensitive to the interplay between ideology and epistemology.

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the sources and methods of human knowledge. The questions of how we can know something, and the content of the information we believe we know, all rolls under this philosophical discipline. Within philosophy, the Queen of the Sciences herself, there is a very specific taxonomy that often surprises some people:

(a visio chart of a high-level breakdown of philosophy as an intellectual enterprise)
Simple Taxonomy of Philosophy, (c) 2010 Jason E. Gillikin.

Epistemology, that intellectual bugaboo invoked by some commentators to criticize those who are disinclined to look outside their own ideology for much of their political information, is a theory of fact. Epistemology tells us what, and how, we know things. Applied epistemology, in a political context, can quite helpfully offer a coherent theory of the impact of self-reinforcing theoretical systems to accommodate new information, for example. (N.B. — For an excellent, brief example of applied epistemology, see Michael Novak’s Another Islam in the January 2007 edition of First Things.)

That said, there is an important distinction to be drawn. For a system of knowledge to be considered properly “closed,” it must not admit to any truth that isn’t implicit from the assumptions already contained within the system. This criterion, for today’s commentators, is only partially useful, for its implications are dangerous: Reduced to first principles, there is not, nor can there be, any genuinely open system of knowledge. Even relativism — the idea that there is no universal truth — is epistemically closed, for relativism must accept the absolute premise that there is no absolute truth (i.e., relativism’s core thesis is a logical contradiction), and relativism’s first premise is merely an assertion and not an objective fact that has independent meaning in the real world. How, therefore, can there be any intellectual coherence in arguing that people should be more relativistic in their search for sources of truth?

So from a purely philosophical perspective, the idea of epistemic closure is ridiculous when referring to popular ideology. But in the world of political discourse, the idea has currency, and it is from this context that the question must be analyzed; applied epistemology is a valuable tool, but in the service of armchair theoreticians with no formal training in the breadth and depth of Western philosophy, it can be the metaphorical equivalent of Dick Cheney’s shotgun.

I believe there is a piece of the puzzle missing from these attempts at amateur applied epistemology: A coherent introduction of aesthetics into the working theory of how ideology actually functions.

A quick Bing search of “ideology and aesthetics” comes up with … well, not much.  And this is tragic, for I feel a solid dissertation subject forming.

Consider the following premises:

  1. Epistemology, as a branch of philosophy dealing with the facts about how people can know things, contains valuable resources for criticizing the processes and assumptions of knowledge bases, but not terribly much for analyzing the content of those ideas.
  2. Aesthetics, being (with ethics) a theory of value, is chiefly concerned with the question, “What is beautiful?” (Ethics, by contrast, is concerned with the question, “What is justice?”)
  3. Aesthetics contains useful tools for analyzing the content of a subject, to tease out various indicators of beauty and to provide a useful linguistic framework for discussing beauty as a concept.
  4. Many schools of thought, both philosophical and psychological, assert that most humans have an innate desire for justice and for beauty.
  5. The human pursuit for beauty and justice is often pre-rational and expresses itself in an appreciation for fairness and harmony that is a distinctive moral idea (q.v. Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments) but is often difficult to articulate in concrete language.

With me so far?

Here’s the basic deficiency in political discourse, then, that troubles me: Most commentators seem ignorant of, or at least indifferent to, the possibility that the “echo chamber” is an expression of aesthetics rather than an act of willful ignorance.

By this I mean:  The human desire for beauty and harmony and justice is often implicit in how we think. Some of the ideas and assumptions that govern the sorts of ideas we possess are, to some degree, pre-rational; we don’t think about why we are liberal or conservative, it’s just that those ideologies feel right.  We find the premises in those ideologies to be persuasive in ways that often reduce to “because I just do.”  This is why some people have a visceral, emotional reaction to injustice even if they have a hard time explaining why they’re so upset — it’s not their sociopolitical norms, but their value system, that is offended.

Different conceptions of justice undergird the progressive/conservative divide. Progressives see equality of outcome as an intrinsic good, whereas conservatives tend to favor an equality of opportunity.  Neither is “right;” each approach represents a pre-rational determination of what justice properly entails. Although we can profitably discuss these assumptions, in the end, all we really do is attempt a retroactive rationalization of an innate sensibility.

Likewise, aesthetic ideals strongly influence our shopping habits in the wide marketplace of ideas. Our inherent ideas of beauty don’t just govern our appreciation of works of art, they also govern our respect for (and acceptance of) different forms of argumentation. This is a major, if too often overlooked, reason why appeals to patriotism and individualism resonate with conservative audiences while appeals to rights and communitarianism work well with liberals. These big-picture ideological concepts are back-loaded with ideas that we accept or reject not only on the basis of their content, but with how “beautiful” they strike us in the abstract, even if we don’t consciously think in those terms.

This why the warfare between the left-base and right-base can get so ugly: We’re not just opposing each other’s ideas, but we’re reacting in a primal way to people who hold radically opposed aesthetic ideals.  Is it any wonder, then, that so few are willing to engage openly with the perspectives of their ideological inverses?  Despite the alleged superstructure of rationality, a lot of the left/right divide reduces to questions of justice and beauty that are more a matter of sentiment than reason. Much of the contemporary abortion debate, for example, features people shouting over each other’s heads, for precisely this reason: The conversation long ago turned away from the logic of statutory law, into a clash of principles that effectively defy translation into rational conclusions marked by a genuine meeting of minds.

The phenomenon of Fox News, and its alleged bias towards conservative positions, can be explained partially because its mode of coverage — even its non-ideological news sources, unrelated to opinion content — is more harmonious with certain right-of-center aesthetic norms.  It’s the little things — anchors wearing American flag pins, for example — that sets the tone. There is nothing intrinsically ideological about wearing the U.S. flag as a lapel pin, or using it as part of a network graphic, but when Fox News does it and CNN doesn’t, then there is an aesthetic connection with the audience that gains a more sympathetic following among conservatives than with liberals.  You could have the same shows with the same guests and the same topics, but if one network employs the accouterments that are more “beautiful” to one side of the political spectrum, then that side of the spectrum will pre-rationally be more attracted to that network than to its competitor, and the other side will be less attracted and could even descend (as many do) to the equivalent of yelling “Boo!” simply because it jars their aesthetic sense.

And then we must face the real question: Is there anything wrong, per se, in choosing to consume sources of news and opinion that conforms to one’s aesthetic norms? If I disdain cubism, for example, does anyone really claim I have an affirmative duty to seek out cubist art as “balance” to the neoclassicism that I currently prefer? Of course not — the idea is laughable on its face. Yet to some degree, today’s polemicists are arguing we do exactly that: We must actively and thoroughly seek out news and information originating in sources that we find aesthetically displeasing in order to be “well informed.”

It’s not clear that there is a vice in sticking with what you think is beautiful, or in avoiding that which you think is ugly, or that we are qualitiatively better informed by seeking out the ugly as a balance to the beautiful. Yes, there is a prudence in engaging the opinions of people from outside of our ideology. But one can do this from within the ideology.  I can look to The Wall Street Journal or National Review to provide in-depth analysis of the health-reform initiative without having to read Nancy Pelosi’s blog or the latest on Huffington Post. There is nothing intrinsically privileged about the origin of news analysis provided the content is thorough and fair and intellectually honest. Unless one wishes to argue that rationality itself is conditioned upon ideology, it is not immediately obvious that the source of news is as important of a consideration as the way that the source relates a broad spectrum of information on a topic in a way that sheds light on multiple perspectives on any given controversial issue.

Admittedly, there is a tendency for analysts to emphasize those factors that comport with their ideological assumption, which is why conservative publications (despite the quality of their analysis) find, for example, that Obamacare is A Very Bad Thing, and why center-left sources think it Completes a Century-Old Promise for America. But mere tendency does not imply necessity; there is no solid reason to hold that the media sources from within one ideology are by definition incapable of accurately relating a fair analysis of the opinions of a different ideology. Although it may be rare to find this in-depth honesty, its rarity is somewhat beside the point, which is that fairness (absent a compelling argument to the contrary) is certainly possible.

So those alleged rubes in Middle America who watch Fox and listen to Rush and Sean and stood in line for Sarah Palin’s book — what to make of them?  A few thoughts:

  • Red-meat polemics isn’t really news or opinion, in a journalistic sense, but rather popular entertainment with a hook in contemporary sociopoliticial debate. Hence the book tours on the left and the right are really less about news and more about social solidarity with people who share similar value systems.  Political book-publishing feels more like an American Idol tour than a genuine exercise in high-minded civic discourse.
  • If we accept the premise that news facts are independent of ideology, then there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason why objective news sources from outside of one’s ideological predispositions should be privileged against sources from within.  Does a statement of fact gain or lose meaning based on which talking head uttered it?  If it does, then the whole concept of news objectivity has been irretrievably damaged.
  • Opinion commentary is, to some degree, a function of the base serving the base. Apart from hardcore news junkies, most conservatives don’t read liberal commentators, and vice versa.  There is not, to my knowledge, a solid reason why this is a bad thing, except in terms of those commentators bitching about having a smaller audience than they’d prefer. Purely opinion work is akin to the cheer-leading squad at a football game: We all like our own cheerleaders, and they can contribute marginally to the team’s enthusiasm, but they don’t actually score the points that matter on the political playing field.
  • With regard to news analysis — absolutely, a well-informed citizen needs to be aware of the rationale behind the policy prescriptions of all the ideological players, but it seems to be more often asserted than demonstrated, that there is a definite benefit to obtaining this analysis from different ideologies, than on relying on analysis from within.

Is there a problem with the “echo chamber?”  Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t.  But without an analysis properly informed by theories of justice and beauty, and a strong affirmative argument explaining why Source A from outside of one’s ideological spectrum is intrinsically superior to Source B from within, then it remains unclear to this writer how the hoopla about how “the base” gets its news and commentary is worth the electronic ink spilt in the lamentation over an alleged epistemic closure of the conservative mind.

People are more likely to accept as true, that which they find beautiful — which is why so many different newspapers invest so much time and energy in redesigns, color harmony and typographical development. We engage with what we find beautiful, and reject what we find ugly, just like we rejoice in justice and lament obvious injustice. But this value judgement doesn’t inhere merely in artistic analysis — even in the realm of opinion, aesthetics informs our consumption of ideas.

Maybe it’s a bad thing that some conservatives (or liberals, or centrists) get the bulk of their news and commentary from sources originating from within their value system. Then again, maybe it’s not.  The prosecution has made its case but so far has failed to persuade.

News Roundup II: “Grab the Thorazine” Edition

Da hits, dey keep on comen, mon.  Grab a white jacket and your favorite tranq and let’s explore today’s more delicious news items ….

  • From the “denial of the patently obvious” department comes an astonishing, full-throated defense of the Associated Press by Paul Keep, editor of The Grand Rapids Press. In today’s opinion column, Keep expresses his shock and disbelief that people who comment on news stories on MLive.com believe the AP is guilty of bias by virtue of omission or accent:  “My experience is that AP works hard to tell the whole story and insists on verifiable facts, not opinion or spin. It doesn’t have a dog in the fight, so to speak. That allows it to be truly objective and informative. Not as splashy as trying to whip up partisans on the right or on the left as the prime-time TV opinion shows do, but a real public service.” That may be true in terms of intent, Mr. Keep.  But the AP is also guilty, in practice, of selection bias.  Most newspapers in the U.S. turn, in whole or in part, to the AP as a leading source of wire copy to augment their sparse and declining local content. The AP, by burying certain stories (look at the different coverage paradigms between the AP and the British media over Climategate, for example) or emphasizing others (like the frequent mentions of racism or wackiness alleged to permeate the Tea Party movement), performs no less ideologically in the aggregate than if the Democratic National Committee were assigning the daily news budget.  As the former editor in chief of a community daily, I had access to the raw AP feed, and from my own experience, a part of the hard news crossing the wire was not as immune to bias as Keep suggests.  I am genuinely astonished to see a newspaper editor make the sweeping comments Keep made in his column; his apparent lack of institutional self-awareness would be comical were it not conveyed by the person whose thumb is closest to the flow of public information in my community.
  • Speaking of the Chartreuse Lady, the Press’s editorial today takes a turn for the absurd. Having decided that it’s not enough that political ads must disclose their funders, the editorial board has challenged Terri Lynn Land, Michigan’s secretary of state, to facilitate disclosure of those who fund the funders. Apparently chagrined that groups like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce can fund political advertising under their own names, the Press seems to be demanding that Land force the Chamber and any other political advertiser to publicly disclose contributors to their organization. The poker face known as “defending the public interest” was betrayed by the pettiest of tells: “But the public should know which people specifically pay for the television commercials and other advertisements that shape public opinion for good and ill. Allowing these communications to continue incognito encourages the worst in human nature and diminishes accountability.” Translation: We want a live human person to embarrass when his dollars fund an ad with which we disagree. The argument that there is a public interest in disclosing a trail of dollars from their origination in some private citizen’s wallet, to state-wide advertising campaign, is hard to defend; it is not inconceivable that a citizen may contribute to, or be a member of, an organization with which we agree 80 percent of the time but not necessarily 100 percent of the time. I would be outraged if, as a theoretical donor to the Chamber, I was listed as a “donor” for a political ad I didn’t support when in fact my donation went to enhance local businesses. Don’t be fooled — the editorial has nothing to do with exposure and accountability and everything to do with increasing the leverage to “name and shame” donors to causes with which the mainstream media may collectively disagree.  Don’t believe me?  Just look at the shenanigans surrounding the disclosure of petition signers for California’s Prop 8.
  • For reasons that defy immediate comprehension, people seem to be nodding approvingly at the notion, popularized by blogger Julian Sanchez, that conservatives are suffering from some sort of “epistemic closure.” Sanchez’s argument is the ultimate straw man: He ascribes to conservatives, uniformly, the attributes of tribalism and unreflective groupthink, then he bandies about quasi-philosophical language to explain, like Jane Goodall commenting upon ape behavior, just why conservatives are so closed-minded and incapable of rational discourse. Oh, and of course, liberals suffer from none of these traits; they are open and enjoy dialogue and revel in encountering fresh, bold new ideas irrespective of their ideological provenance.  Sanchez: ” One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)  This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile.”  The rejoinder is almost too obvious — although it is certainly true that some conservatives find solace in right-leaning sources of news and commentary, it is a grave error in reasoning to ascribe this sociopolitical introversion to all conservatives, or even to a majority of them.  Just as some liberals will only read HuffPo and FireDogLake and are incapable of thinking outside of a progressive-left box, so also do some conservatives read only The Corner or The Weekly Standard. So what? Each side has its fringe, but the bulk of thinkers on the Right (and, in fairness, on the Left) routinely engage with the substance of the other side’s opinion. To the extent that the “epistemic closure” trope has any weight, I suspect it’s in the unwillingness of the national media to present as spokespeople anyone who isn’t a tribal chieftain in their own ideological territory. Sanchez can do better than this sort of rank pseudo intellectual demonization of right-wing straw men.

Ciao.

News Roundup II: "Grab the Thorazine" Edition

Da hits, dey keep on comen, mon.  Grab a white jacket and your favorite tranq and let’s explore today’s more delicious news items ….

  • From the “denial of the patently obvious” department comes an astonishing, full-throated defense of the Associated Press by Paul Keep, editor of The Grand Rapids Press. In today’s opinion column, Keep expresses his shock and disbelief that people who comment on news stories on MLive.com believe the AP is guilty of bias by virtue of omission or accent:  “My experience is that AP works hard to tell the whole story and insists on verifiable facts, not opinion or spin. It doesn’t have a dog in the fight, so to speak. That allows it to be truly objective and informative. Not as splashy as trying to whip up partisans on the right or on the left as the prime-time TV opinion shows do, but a real public service.” That may be true in terms of intent, Mr. Keep.  But the AP is also guilty, in practice, of selection bias.  Most newspapers in the U.S. turn, in whole or in part, to the AP as a leading source of wire copy to augment their sparse and declining local content. The AP, by burying certain stories (look at the different coverage paradigms between the AP and the British media over Climategate, for example) or emphasizing others (like the frequent mentions of racism or wackiness alleged to permeate the Tea Party movement), performs no less ideologically in the aggregate than if the Democratic National Committee were assigning the daily news budget.  As the former editor in chief of a community daily, I had access to the raw AP feed, and from my own experience, a part of the hard news crossing the wire was not as immune to bias as Keep suggests.  I am genuinely astonished to see a newspaper editor make the sweeping comments Keep made in his column; his apparent lack of institutional self-awareness would be comical were it not conveyed by the person whose thumb is closest to the flow of public information in my community.
  • Speaking of the Chartreuse Lady, the Press’s editorial today takes a turn for the absurd. Having decided that it’s not enough that political ads must disclose their funders, the editorial board has challenged Terri Lynn Land, Michigan’s secretary of state, to facilitate disclosure of those who fund the funders. Apparently chagrined that groups like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce can fund political advertising under their own names, the Press seems to be demanding that Land force the Chamber and any other political advertiser to publicly disclose contributors to their organization. The poker face known as “defending the public interest” was betrayed by the pettiest of tells: “But the public should know which people specifically pay for the television commercials and other advertisements that shape public opinion for good and ill. Allowing these communications to continue incognito encourages the worst in human nature and diminishes accountability.” Translation: We want a live human person to embarrass when his dollars fund an ad with which we disagree. The argument that there is a public interest in disclosing a trail of dollars from their origination in some private citizen’s wallet, to state-wide advertising campaign, is hard to defend; it is not inconceivable that a citizen may contribute to, or be a member of, an organization with which we agree 80 percent of the time but not necessarily 100 percent of the time. I would be outraged if, as a theoretical donor to the Chamber, I was listed as a “donor” for a political ad I didn’t support when in fact my donation went to enhance local businesses. Don’t be fooled — the editorial has nothing to do with exposure and accountability and everything to do with increasing the leverage to “name and shame” donors to causes with which the mainstream media may collectively disagree.  Don’t believe me?  Just look at the shenanigans surrounding the disclosure of petition signers for California’s Prop 8.
  • For reasons that defy immediate comprehension, people seem to be nodding approvingly at the notion, popularized by blogger Julian Sanchez, that conservatives are suffering from some sort of “epistemic closure.” Sanchez’s argument is the ultimate straw man: He ascribes to conservatives, uniformly, the attributes of tribalism and unreflective groupthink, then he bandies about quasi-philosophical language to explain, like Jane Goodall commenting upon ape behavior, just why conservatives are so closed-minded and incapable of rational discourse. Oh, and of course, liberals suffer from none of these traits; they are open and enjoy dialogue and revel in encountering fresh, bold new ideas irrespective of their ideological provenance.  Sanchez: ” One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)  This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile.”  The rejoinder is almost too obvious — although it is certainly true that some conservatives find solace in right-leaning sources of news and commentary, it is a grave error in reasoning to ascribe this sociopolitical introversion to all conservatives, or even to a majority of them.  Just as some liberals will only read HuffPo and FireDogLake and are incapable of thinking outside of a progressive-left box, so also do some conservatives read only The Corner or The Weekly Standard. So what? Each side has its fringe, but the bulk of thinkers on the Right (and, in fairness, on the Left) routinely engage with the substance of the other side’s opinion. To the extent that the “epistemic closure” trope has any weight, I suspect it’s in the unwillingness of the national media to present as spokespeople anyone who isn’t a tribal chieftain in their own ideological territory. Sanchez can do better than this sort of rank pseudo intellectual demonization of right-wing straw men.

Ciao.

News Roundup

Several interesting news items —

  • Apparently, the human brain is hardwired to multitask two items, but only two items, simultaneously.  Anything more, and we lose the ability to track the risk/reward matrix for all tasks concurrently — or we reduce choices until a binary pair remains.  Perhaps one day, the business world will internalize the wisdom of this and will create systems that reduce multitasking stress among employees.
  • David Sirota, in a media-criticism piece in Salon published April 16, suggests that the state of journalism as a profession is on the downswing. He suggests that journalists who are struggling for access, either to their sources for lucrative book rights, or to subjects for potential subsequent employment, are causing significant damage to the industry: “Are many of today’s opportunity maximizers destroying journalism? Clearly, yes — and unless the media sachems institute some basic ethics rules, the parasites within their ranks could end up making sure there’s no journalism industry left to save.”
  • On the “power of the purse” front:  President Obama has ordered HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebilius to direct hospitals that receive reimbursement from Medicaid and Medicare to implement policies that allow same-sex partners to visit patients or to make decisions on their behalf. This seems like a gross overreach of federal authority, and one that Congress should consider revisiting. Legislating via executive directive may be convenient but it hardly comports with the principle of representative democracy.
  • Former Michigan governor John Engler, who was term-limited out of office in 2003 after three four-year terms, has purchased property in Michigan; after leaving office, he moved to Virginia to take over the National Manufacturers Association. Although confidants doubt he will seek further elective office, the 61-year-old could be an interesting candidate to take on Debbie Stabenow in 2012.
  • A Kalamazoo-based wrecker service, T&J Towing, is suing a Western Michigan University student for starting a “Kalamazoo Residents Against T&J Towing” group on Facebook. The company is suing for $750,000 and requesting a cease-and-desist order, and the suit apparently includes Facebook. Reaction in the community was swift; there are more than 8,000 members of the Facebook group.  T&J is accused of towing cars inappropriately. Commentators in the social-media space are sharing T&J horror stories. As a former WMU student, this humble blogger is acquainted with T&J and has little grounds to doubt the horror stories.
  • For the first time in 101 years, General Motors has dropped out of the top 10 of the Fortune 500 list. A tragedy, entirely avoidable. A few weeks ago, I was part of an interview process for a project manager who hailed from GM; he recounts how frequent and even normal it was for manager to scream at subordinates, throw things in the office and make vulgar threats. A change of culture at that venerable automaker is an absolute prerequisite to future success.
  • Kent County, citing financial constraints, is refusing to enforce a new state-wide ban on smoking; the county’s health department will not enforce the ban at any establishment that does not serve food or drinks, including Laundromats and hair salons. The state will have to manage enforcement in those facilities. Of course, perhaps instead of limited enforcement, it makes sense to move to no enforcement.
  • Paul Keep, the editor of The Grand Rapids Press, has seen fit to write a column praising his newspaper for making a difference. Claiming that the printed newspaper and MLive.com (a state-wide aggregation of local newspapers) reach 81 percent of adults in any given week, Keep believes his paper is performing a valuable public service.  And perhaps it is.  Yet I cannot help but notice that as senior, seasoned writers are disappearing from the staff roster, the quality of writing has declined substantially.  Circulating more of a second-tier product may not be the best thing to crow about; it works for Wal-Mart but is less effective, perhaps, for a newspaper.
  • Speaking of local media, behold the power of self-selection. A new opinion column at The Rapidian (by its publisher, no less) amounts to a plea for engagement. Suggested story topics: Road delays, opinions on healthcare, eating organically, top parks for kite-flying.  Yes, really.  As a “new reporter” who receives weekly story  ideas, I can say that the arts and “sustainability” are frequent subjects.  All of which prompts the question: Is The Rapidian attempting to be a hyperlocal source of community news, or a hyperlocal source of progressive-left news?  The first page includes stories on organic farming and a positive review of the anti-corporate manifesto Food Inc.  I don’t see much by way of hard news or center-right commentary. This prompts the question of whether the experiment in local journalism will merely become an echo chamber.
  • I feel her pain, but this is ridiculous: Juanita Westaby, a self-appointed flagellant of the Catholic Church, “apologizes” for the Church’s sins even as she confesses that she is considering abandoning the Church. Her column contains the admonition, “Remember the mission.” If only she would, and if only the The Grand Rapids Press had the good grace to avoid elevating holier-than-thou laity to speak on behalf of the Church Universal.
  • An upbeat note … a prominent Pakistani cleric has declared a jihad on terrorism.  Yes.  It seems that some Islamic religious authorities are beginning to struggle against radical Islamism. This is a good thing, and we can all pray to the God of Abraham that their work meets with success.

All for now.

Citizen Journalism: A Primer

N.B. — This was originally posted to my business site on 21 February.

The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s “2009 State of News Media” report contains an interesting section on citizen journalism. The report concedes that there has been a growing number of citizen-media sites, but that “citizen news sites provided much less reporting (57%), as well as opinion and special content like calendar items” on the day Pew conducted a comprehensive study, relative to sites maintained by traditional media outlets.

Indeed, in the Grand Rapids market, the typical options for online media are MLive.com (a statewide aggregation of print newspapers) or The Rapidian, a citizen-journalism project. Launched to great fanfare in late 2009, the Rapidian site today is infrequently refreshed and features content that seems geared more toward “press release” stories — that is, stories about non-profit events or minor cultural activities, and almost nothing in the way of genuine investigative reporting or traditional hard news.

The Rapidian’s content is not to be disparaged; the group’s stable of writers clearly is filling a need that they believe exists relative to The Grand Rapids Press, and more power to them for their dedication to their task.

Yet the Pew Project’s observations lead to an undoubtedly salient conclusion: As traditional newspapers decline in quality as their financial resources dry up, downstream media will correspondingly suffer. How many TV or radio reporters get their cues from the daily broadsheets? How many citizen journalists get their bearings from the print world? Exactly.

So we seem to be in a curious climate where emasculated daily newspapers compete with bloggers (who are often aspiring members of the commentariat instead of objective reporters), and citizen-media sites spring up with the goal of being an alternative source of hard news but end up being a catalog of periodically refreshed soft news.

One can indict the state of the infrastructure that has led to this outcome, but the challenge may not be with the media outlets as much as with the citizen journalists themselves.

A prominent J-School question: Is journalism a profession? The traditional professions — law, medicine, clergy — are largely self-regulated and adhere to a rigid internal code of ethics and practices. Unlike electricians or plumbers or even accountants, our doctors, lawyers and priests have a mission of substance to the community and it is the practitioners themselves and not government bureaucrats who determine the profession’s character and processes, including its judicial protocols.

Many capital-J journalists want journalism to be an accepted profession. The arguments pro et contra are myriad, but one conclusion seems inescapable. Unlike the traditional professions, with education and licensing barriers, anyone can be a journalist. Journalism isn’t about a mission — although many practitioners have a strong sense of one — but about work product.

I think the is-it-a-profession-or-not tension is what undercuts practical training in citizen media. Instead of providing aspiring public writers with a well-stocked toolkit of ideas and practices, many professional journalist-mentors focus on the softer side, of what it means to be a capital-J journalist with all its romance and mystery. So we train writers to think of themselves as part of a noble tradition of truth-tellers while conspicuously failing to impart the essential skills that make their efforts worth telling.

For that reason, a short primer on citizen journalism may be helpful. I developed a PowerPoint presentation in 2004, during the early days of my tenure as editor-in-chief of the Western Herald, to train off-the-street applicants the basics of being a staff writer. In those days, the Herald was a daily newspaper with an average daily circulation of 12,500, serving the Kalamazoo community. It was affiliated with Western Michigan University and it predominantly employed students, but the paper was published and governed by an independent board of directors that included a few faculty, administrators, students and community journalists. We were a non-lab, entirely self-funded paper,  printed under independent contract with the Battle Creek Enquirer (and not the university), with a mission to publish the news while training the next generation of beat reporters and columnists.

A Pulitzer-winning tenure at the Grey Lady, it was not. But serving as a Herald editor was a full-time job, with full-time responsibilities, and the lessons learned there (including from our competition with the Kalamazoo Gazette) provided a solid boots-on-the-ground instruction on the craft of public writing.

With that experience in mind, and in light of my own eyeballs-only content review of local media, I think there are some thoughts from that old PowerPoint that are worth carrying forward to a larger audience.

Jason’s Journalism Primer

  1. The media industry is generally profit driven. These profits are typically sourced from advertising, and in most commercial outlets, the content and quality of writing is an inducement for readers to buy the paper. The more people read the paper, the greater the circulation and hence the more that can be charged per column inch of advertising. For this reason, the “suits” push for sensational stories or gimmicks that will sell newspapers. It is not bad for profit to be a motive among media companies, and the push for “non-corporate media” is quaint but irrational. Without corporate advertising dollars, the independent media will cease to exist.
  2. Newspapers are hierarchical. Writers report to section editors who report to a series of managing, executive and chief editors. Small newsrooms may be collaborative and horizontal, but most larger, established bureaus are not. The media world has its bureaucracy like any other, and decisions about content are sometimes reflective of management-by-committee approaches that favor safety over innovation. New writers with the stars still in their eyes need to get over the romance and realize that journalism is a job — and even independent citizen-journalists have to deal with the administrative part of being a media figure.
  3. A writer’s best chance at distinguishing himself and making a genuine difference is to become a beat reporter. Beat writers are true content experts: They know the laws, the people, the histories, the processes of the subjects they cover. A crime-beat writer, for example, knows the desk sergeants at the police station, understands the basics of the criminal-prosecution process, grasps the issues around modern forensics, has the local prosecuting attorney on speed-dial, and maintains a solid personal file on high-profile cases and crime statistics. The idea of beat specialization is especially useful for citizen journalists; by becoming an acknowledged public expert on a subject (e.g., the city commission), a writer will gain in credibility and improve her access to the people and processes related to that subject. In media, being a master of one trade is preferable to being a jack of all others.
  4. Journalism is about access — to people, to data, to authority. Journalists should be skilled at cultivating relationships with people who have access, so that they themselves can use that access on behalf of the public good. Don’t be a fire-and-forget writer, who talks to a source once for one story and then erases that source from memory. Journalism is the ultimate industry where interpersonal networking is the chief criterion of success, and no reliance on Web portals or search engines can provide the critical access that is inherent in direct, person-to-person relationships over time with well-placed human sources. Not a social person? Then brush up on the professional networking literature. Journalism is the wrong pursuit for the anti-social.
  5. Track your beat. For this, RSS is your friend. There are enough blogs and news aggregators out there that even esoteric beats like creole cooking admit to dozens of potential daily feeds. Keep abreast of what’s going on. Contribute your own materials, through your own RSS feeds or by active participation in discussion groups or professional organizations.  Never stop gaining expertise.
  6. Archive, archive, archive. Keep everything. File every clipping, every interview note, every email, every audio recording, every image file. If, two years hence, a person mentioned in a story sues for libel, you must have all the materials that went into your work product. And never fork over your materials to police officers, either. Make them get a court order, every time. A source — especially a well-placed one — will have little confidence in a journalist who is seen to collaborate with authorities, and in some (rare) cases, its preferable to sit in jail on a contempt charge than to supply incriminating evidence to law-enforcement officials. And personal archives make research easier over time.
  7. Be completely honest. Attribute everything, be open to conflicting points of view, don’t advocate a “party line,” purge your writing of logical fallacies, and neverlie to an editor. Keep your quotes pure and unaltered, do not accept questionable assertions as fact, and do not provide a false sense of conflict (or lack thereof) by selectively emphasizing or de-emphasizing different perspectives on a story. Follow the basic principles of journalistic integrity advocated by The Associated Press.  If you want to be an advocate, be a community organizer, not a reporter.
  8. Remember the traditional news values:  Timeliness, currency, weirdness, conflict, proximity, personality, and relevance. Use these values to shape how a story is structured.  For example, a story with a high weirdness quotient can have fun and off-beat ledes, whereas a proximity story (e.g., the death of a local soldier overseas) could emphasize his community connections.
  9. Know and honor the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists.  Period.  End of discussion.  And check out Poynter for some interesting commentary on journalism ethics.
  10. Never accept money, gifts or preferential treatment in a capacity related to your experience as a journalist. Do not solicit benefits in exchange for favorable (or not unfavorable) treatment. If you have an unavoidable conflict of interest, disclose it unambiguously to your editors and reference it in the text of a story.  The perception of impropriety is often more damaging than the impropriety itself.
  11. Understand the state of media law with regard to libel, public access and fair reportage. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Lawis an excellent introductory reference to the subject. No one should presume to be a journalist without having read at least the AP’s treatment on media law and its discussion of the Open Meetings Act, the Freedom of Information Act and laws about defamation.
  12. Conduct interviews properly. Be punctual, courteous, appropriately dressed and prepared. Document the conversation effectively and accurately — tape recorders are often helpful, but get the subject’s active consent before audio recording. Consent is required under many state wiretap laws; it is illegal in Michigan to make an audio recording of a phone call without disclosing the recording (which disclosure should, ideally, be recorded on the tape).
  13. Scrupulously honor “off the record” comments, but be wary of going OTR in general. If a source provides solid info OTR, ask if it can be used as unattributed source material, which is eligible for publication without a source identified if it can be independently corroborated. Grants of anonymity should be a last-resort option, undertaken with an editor’s advice and consent.
  14. Never give a source prior review over printed stories – feel free to offer to read back direct quotes, but never give a source the right to review the rest of the story before it goes to print.
  15. A good journalist will go to jail before giving up a source.
  16. Never use deception to get information. Although deceit is a valid method for gaining information, it is a very-last-resort tactic that should be considered with an editor and perhaps even a media lawyer present.
  17. Use good quotes. A good quote is easy to comprehend, provides fresh information, explains something directly that would be difficult to express indirectly, and enhances the news value of a story. Attribute every quote and every fact (except for “common knowledge” types of facts), and don’t get creative with language: the verb said is almost always sufficient and does not need to be replaced with litanies of explained and exclaimed and suggested and any other verbal tag that conveys, however slightly, an editorial slant. In general, more quotes equals better stories, and direct quotes are preferable to indirect quotes.
  18. The cardinal rule of facts: If it’s not documented, then it didn’t happen.
  19. The cardinal rule of fact-checking: If in doubt, leave it out.
  20. Consider the trustworthiness of sources and the origination of facts and statistics. Work done by advocacy groups, for example, may be useful but should never be considered as objectively authoritative. If Planned Parenthood sends a press release attesting that 200 abortions were performed in the city last year, don’t accept Planned Parenthood’s statistics as being true. A good journalist always understands the originalsource of a fact, and not merely who regurgitates (and often, interprets) it. So, demand that PP share its original data source. Was it a survey? Public-health documentation? Someone else’s press release? Much truth has been uncovered by journalists who looked past a fact or statistic to learn its original source. Don’t take the lazy way out by writing, “According to Planned Parenthood, ….”
  21. Triple-check statistics. It pays to have at least a basic understanding of mathematics, finance, statistics and related computational skills. Don’t just look at the source of information, check to see that math performed on those statistics makes sense. Many the journalist has been fooled because he didn’t understand concepts like margin of error or sample size.
  22. Put recalcitrant sources on the spot if they refuse to disclose information. Make them admit, on the record, that they are refusing to provide useful information, and challenge this refusal under relevant open-access laws. Don’t just take “no” as an answer.
  23. Craft solid stories. A news story should be as long as it needs to be, submitted in a timely manner, free of factual and syntactical error. A good story of any type will answer six core questions: Who, what, when, where, why, how, and why should I give a damn?
  24. Use the right story template.  There are several ways to structure a story. Hard news often uses an inverted pyramid — the story has a lede (first paragraph) that provides a quick synopsis in 35 words or so, followed by a nut graf that compliments the lede. Facts and information are shared in descending order of importance. A re-tread of a story may use a second-day lede, which fills in the reader on the major content of prior stories before adding new content. Many softer stories like personality profiles and news features follow some sort of logical sequencing of events within the story.  Bill Parks has a nice short summary of basic newswriting style worth looking at.
  25. Get the angle right. Most stories except hard-news briefs have an angle, or a focus point for defining the context of a story. For example, a story about a house fire might have a lede that focuses on the fact that the homeowner lost a collection of her deceased grandmother’s hand-made quilts — this fact humanizes and dramatizes the story, engaging the reader in a different way. There is a world of difference between a story that begins, “The fire department responded to a house fire in the 500 block of Main Street at 3:45 yesterday morning, according to Lt. Smith,” versus, “Although her house was totally destroyed in yesterday’s early-morning fire on the 500 block of Main Street, Susie Jones wept only for the loss of the antique quilt collection she inherited from her late grandmother.” Which lede catches you most strongly and pulls you into to the story? And make sure that the tone persists through the story; avoid leading with an anecdote like the quilt collection and then transitioning into straight news. Make sure the ending paragraph comes full circle: “But for Jones, rebuilding her house is the least of her worries. ‘I lost my last link to my grandmother, after that, everything else is just wood and iron and cloth,’ she said.”
  26. Craft solid ledes. Keep them short, concise, active and engaging. This is the hook to get readers interested — don’t belabor a trivial (and in context, obvious) point like, “Congressman Johnson conducted a town-hall meeting yesterday at the high-school gym.” Instead, write, “Citizens angry over a proposed tax hike grilled Congressman Johnson at a town-hall meeting yesterday.” Don’t lead with things like time or place or inflammatory adjectives or cliches. The passive voice should be avoided like the plague.
  27. Write with competence. Write at a sixth-grade level. Avoid complex sentences, stilted vocabulary, arcane cultural references, redundancies, one-source stories, spelling errors, passive constructions, and overt grammatical error. Short sentences with simple language are preferable to complex sentences with mellifluous phrases, because the goal is to present facts to the reader and not to show off the writer’s penchant for pedantry. Don’t let the medium of writing obscure the message of the story. This goes double-time for sports writers who use cliche like crack addicts use glass pipes.
  28. Opinion belongs in by-lined columns. It does not belong in a news story. News writers should strive to be neutral and fair at all times.
  29. Write solid reviews. When reviewing, don’t tell the staff that you’re a reviewer. Avoid turning a review into a mirror whereby the writer’s personal preferences are reflected upon the review’s subject, so that the review is little more than an exercise in ego. Never accept free admission or free products, and be moderate with both praise and criticism. Most reviews by subject type usually have a fairly well-defined internal structure — follow it. Don’t write a food review with a random sequencing of meal courses, for example, and don’t file a film review without mentioning the cinematography and soundtrack.
  30. News analysis is not opinion, but rather an attempt to explain the history or complexity of a subject to answer the question of “what does this mean” on behalf of the readers. A news analysis has more latitude to project impacts or trends than a straight news story might.
  31. Not everyone can be a good opinion columnist. Columns are about advancing an idea or opinion, not about axe-grinding. A good columnist never uses the word “I.” She finds recourse in logic and fact to advance an opinion into the public space; she does not play fast-and-loose with facts to make a point, or demean or belittle others in print. Respectable opinion writing is very difficult for those writers who strongly associate with the poles of political thought, because they tend to hammer a small subset of subjects with a winner-take-all mentality that does little, in the long run, to advance reasoned public discourse.
  32. Respect human differences. There is generally no reason to refer to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, partisan identification, or other identifiers unless they are germane to the story.
  33. Know thyAP Stylebook and keep it holy. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law is a central resource for writers; it contains points of usage and punctuation that a word processor will never flag. A writer lacking a dog-eared copy of the AP Stylebook is, umm ….
  34. Social media is not journalism.

Thirty-four suggestions to help guide aspiring citizen journalists better understand the craft and practices of a the media world. Anyone have any other observations to add?