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July 28 2011

13:41

Memoir’s truthy obligations: a handy how-to guide

How true does a memoir have to be? That question has been the basis of an ongoing debate kicked off by the revelation, five years ago, that much of James Frey’s bestselling “A Million Little Pieces” was made up.

Unfortunately, it has never been adequately answered. Commentators have tended to gravitate to oversimplifications: one side asserting that every word in a book sold in the non-fiction section of the store must be fact-checked and airtight, the other that “memoir” implies memory, which implies a not-the-truth-but-my-truth subjectivity bordering on carte blanche.

A better, more nuanced answer would recognize the complexity of the issue. Here’s a try: Inaccuracy is a problem in a memoir based on the extent to which it gets details as well as larger truths demonstrably wrong, depicts identifiable people in a negative light, fails to recognize the limits of memory, is poorly written, is self-serving, or otherwise wears its agenda on its sleeve. The more of these things it does and the more egregiously it does them, the bigger the problem is.

A rating system for memoirs

We decided to devise a way to apply these standards to the truthy aspects of memoir. Here’s the (half-facetious, but also half-serious) scoring system we came up with:

The charts below, analyzing some recent and not-so-recent memoirs, attempt to quantify the process; selected annotations have been added. Obviously, the charts themselves have a strong element of subjectivity, both in some of their metrics (especially E) and in the interpretation of the final scores. For us, a memoir “passes” if it scores 65 or more (the “Yagoda Line”). For others the threshold may be 40, or 80. In fact, such a notion of personal judgment is part of the point.

Clear-cut cases exist only on the extremes, the completely discredited “Love and Consequences” (that’s the one in which an upper-middle-class white author fabricated a childhood in the L.A. ’hood) on one end, Rousseau’s “Confessions” on the other. In the large middle, an informed reader has to make the call.

Interested in making a pre-emptive strike for truthy writing? Memoirists can use our convenient printable one-page PDF worksheet to evaluate their own work alongside some of the most famous and infamous examples in history.

Ben Yagoda is an English professor at the University of Delaware and author of “Memoir: A History.” He blogs at britishisms.wordpress.com. Dan DeLorenzo is a journalist, cartographer, infographics artist, photographer, painter and ping-pong enthusiast living and working on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

March 02 2011

13:24

Signals of churnalism?

Journalism warning labels

Journalism warning labels by Tom Scott

On Friday I had quite a bit of fun with Churnalism.com, a new site from the Media Standards Trust which allows you to test how much of a particular press release has been reproduced verbatim by media outlets.

The site has an API, which got me thinking whether you might be able to ‘mash’ it with an RSS feed from Google News to check particular types of articles – and what ‘signals’ you might use to choose those articles.

I started with that classic PR trick: the survey. A search on Google News for “a survey * found” (the * is a wildcard, meaning it can be anything) brings some interesting results to start investigating.

Jon Bounds added a favourite of his: “hailed a success”.

And then it continued:

  • “Research commissioned by”
  • “A spokesperson said”
  • “Can increase your risk of” and “Can reduce your risk of”

On Twitter, Andy Williams added the use of taxonomies of consumers – although it was difficult to pin that down to a phrase. He also added “independent researchers

Contributors to the MySociety mailing list added:

  • “Proud to announce”
  • “Today launches”
  • “Revolutionary new”
  • “It was revealed today” (Andy Mabbett)
  • “According to research”, “research published today” and “according to a new report”

And of course there is “A press release said”.

Signal – or sign?

The idea kicked off a discussion on Twitter on whether certain phrases were signals of churnalism, or just journalistic cliches. The answer, of course, is both.

By brainstorming for ‘signals’ I wasn’t arguing that any material using these phrases would be guilty of churnalism – or even the majority – just that they might be represent one way of narrowing your sample. Once you have a feed of stories containing “Revolutionary new” you can then use the API to test what proportion of those articles are identical to the text in a press release – or another news outlet.

The signal determines the sample, the API calculates the results.

Indeed, there’s an interesting research project to be done – perhaps using the Churnalism API – on whether the phrases above are more likely to contain passages copied wholesale from press releases, than a general feed of stories from Google News.

(Another research project might involve looking at press releases to identify common phrases used by press officers that might be used by the API)

You may have another opinion of course – or other phrases you might suggest?

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