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May 22 2013

15:00

Objectivity and the decades-long shift from “just the facts” to “what does it mean?”

1960S ART

If I had only one short sentence to describe it, I’d say that journalism is factual reports of current events. At least, that’s what I used to say, and I think it’s what most people imagine journalism is. But reports of events have been a shrinking part of American journalism for more than 100 years, as stories have shifted from facts to interpretation.

Interpretation: analysis, explanation, context, or “in-depth” reporting. Journalists are increasingly in the business of supplying meaning and narrative. It no longer makes sense to say that the press only publishes facts.

New research shows this change very clearly. In 1955, stories about events outnumbered other types of front page stories nearly 9 to 1. Now, about half of all stories are something else: a report that tries to explain why, not just what.

rise-of-context-over-events-chart

This chart is from a paper by Katharine Fink and Michael Schudson of Columbia University, which calls these types of stories “contextual journalism.” (The paper includes an extensive and readable history of all sorts of changes in journalism in the 20th century; recommended for news nerds.) The authors sampled front-page articles from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in five different years from 1955 to 2003, and handcoded each of 1,891 stories into one of four categories:

  • conventional: a simple report of an event which happened in the last 24 hours
  • contextual: a story containing significant analysis, interpretation, or explanation
  • investigative: extensive accountability or “watchdog” reporting
  • social empathy: a story about the lives of people unfamiliar to the reader

Investigative journalism picks up after the 1960s but is still only a small percentage of all front-page stories. Meanwhile, contextual journalism increases from under 10 percent to nearly half of all articles. The loser is classic “straight” news: event-centered, inverted-pyramid, who-what-when-how-but-not-so-much-why stories, which have become steadily less popular. All this in the decades before the modern Internet. In fact, previous work showed that the transition away from events began at the dawn of the 20th century.

Investigative journalism may have pride of place within the mythology of American news, but that’s not really what journalists have been up to, by and large. Instead, newspaper journalists have been producing ever more of a kind a work that is so little discussed it doesn’t really have a name. Fink and Schudson write:

…there is no standard terminology for this kind of journalism. It has been called interpretative reporting, depth reporting, long-form journalism, explanatory reporting, and analytical reporting. In his extensive interviewing of Washington journalists in the late 1970s, Stephen Hess called it ‘social science journalism’, a mode of reporting with ‘the accent on greater interpretation’ and a clear intention of focusing on causes, not on events as such. Although this category is, in quantitative terms, easily the most important change in reporting in the past half century, it is a form of journalism with no settled name and no hallowed, or even standardized, place in journalism’s understanding of its own recent past.

From this historical look, fast forward to the web era. The last several years have seen a broad conversation about “context” in news. From Matt Thompson’s key observation that a series of chronological updates don’t really inform, to Studio 20′s Explainer project, to a whole series of experiments and speculations around story form, context has been a hot topic for those trying to rethink Internet-era journalism.

I believe this type of contextual journalism is important, and I hope we will get better at understanding and teaching it. The Internet has solved the basic distribution of event-based facts in a variety of ways; no one needs a news organization to know what the White House is saying when all press briefings are posted on YouTube. What we do need is someone to tell us what it means. In other words, journalism must move up the information food chain — as, in fact, it has steadily been doing for five decades!

Why does this type of journalism not even have a name?

I have a suspicion. I think part of the problem is the professional code of “objectivity.” This a value system for journalism that has many parts: truth seeking, neutrality, ethics, credibility. But all of these things are different when the journalist’s job moves from describing events to creating interpretations.

There are usually multiple plausible ways to interpret any event, so what are our standards for saying which interpretations are right? Journalism has a long, sorry history of professional pundits whose analyses of politics and economics turn out to be no better than guessing. In concrete fields such as election forecasting, it may later be obvious who was right. In other cases, there may not be a “right” answer in the traditional, positivist sense of science. These are the classic problems of framing: Is a 0.3 percent drop in unemployment “small” or is it “better than expected”? True neutrality becomes impossible in such cases, because if something has been politicized, you’re going to piss someone off no matter how you interpret it. (See also: hostile media effect.) There may not be an objectively correct or currently knowable meaning for any particular set of factual events, but that won’t stop the fighting over the narrative.

This seems to be a tricky place for truth in journalism. Much easier to say that there are objective facts, knowably correct facts, and that that is all journalism reports. The messy complexity of providing real narratives in a real world is much less authoritative ground. Nonetheless, we all crave interpretation along with our facts. Explanation and analysis and storytelling have become prevalent in practice. We as audiences continue to demand certain types of experts, even when we can’t tell if what they’re saying is any good. We demand reasons why, even if there can be no singular truth. We demand narrative.

What this latest research says to me is that journalism has added interpretation to its core practice, but we’re not really talking about it. The profession still operates with a “just the facts, ma’am” disclaimer that no longer describes what it actually does. Perhaps this is part of why media credibility has been falling for decades.

Photo of Sol LeWitt’s “Objectivity” (1962) via AP/National Gallery of Art.

June 27 2011

06:36

Frédéric Filloux - a debate about the management of facts at “digital speed”

Monday Note :: "Compared to Anglo-Saxon journalism standards, French practices are regrettably lax," Frédéric Filloux writes. "It doesn’t mean that France doesn’t have remarkable writers, editors or medias; but, too often, their practices are just sloppy. Here (France), journalists abuse anonymous quotes and are too cozy with their sources. Papers are insufficiently edited, reporters routinely go after a story with a pre-defined agenda – they know what they want to write and will twist facts, quotes and background accordingly."

How to manage facts at "digital speed" (in France or elsewhere in the world)?

Continue to read Frédéric Filloux, www.mondaynote.com

May 30 2011

11:56

“Article” or traditional news story still necessary? - Jeff Jarvis: it's a byproduct of the process.

Buzzmachine | Jeff Jarvis :: The accepted wisdom of journalism and its schools was that storytelling was our real job, our high calling, our real art. Ain’t necessarily so. The accepted wisdom of blogging has been that now any of us can do everything: report and write, producing text and audio and video and graphics and packaging and distributing it all. But Jeff Jarvis can also see specialization returning with some people reporting, others packaging. He asks: "Can we agree to a new accepted wisdom: that the most precious resource in news is reporting and so maximizing the acquisition of facts and answers is what we need?"

[Jeff Jarvis:] So what is an article? An article can be a byproduct of the process.

Continue to read Jeff Jarvis, www.buzzmachine.com

May 09 2011

12:37

AN INTERNATIONAL STATEMENT ON INFOGRAPHICS AND VISUAL JOURNALISM

Last week, we saw how some of the “worst offenders” explained the Osama bin Laden story with fictional graphics.

As soon as I started to post some tuitts in my Twitter account @GINER, I saw that many colleagues from many countries reacted in the same way, among them ny friend Alberto Cairo, the infographics editor of EPOCA magazine in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

With Alberto, we wrote “six basic rules” that must be observed to deliver real news with graphics.

Then I contacted Barry Sussman, an INNOVATION Senior Consultant that now serves as editor of the Harvard University Nieman Watchdog Project and he offered that website to post the “check-list” with a short article, and a first list with 58 colleagues from 22 countries immediately endorsed the statement.

Claude Erbsen in New York edited the “six rules” and Barry Sussman in Washington DC edited the full article.

A few minutes ago all this was posted at the Nieman Watchdog website with the same illustration that leads this post, as it fits the purpose and sense of this statement: the front page of the William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal “explaining” the news from Cuba.

And we included a few examples from some of the “worst offenders.”

Like this one from UOL in Brazil:

This from the Daily Mail in the UK:

This one from CBS News:

This one from ABC in Madrid:

This one from the Hindustan Times in India:

This one from NMA News in Taiwan:

Or this from JT France:

You can find an extensive selection with wise comments of Gert K Nielsen about some of the best and worst infographics in his blog VisualJournalism.

But, more important, we just wanted to stress five ideas:

  • Facts ,not fiction, is what drives Journalism.
  • Visual Journalism is not Show Business.
  • Editors must lead this battle against fake information.
  • Visual journalists must resist any pressure to deliver graphics “at any cost.”
  • And infographics are not a substitute when we don’t have real information.

This what I learned from Alejandro Malofiej, Miguel Urabayen, Peter Sullivan, Mario Tascón, John Grimwade, Chiqui Esteban, Nigel Holmes or Javier Zarracina, and many of the best visual journalists of the world.

And we cannot accept less.

• If you agree with these convictions, please add your signature in the comments section of the Nieman Watchdog, spread the word between your newsrooms, and we will include your names in the next editions of this first wave of endorsements.

January 13 2011

20:13

SERIOUS JOURNALISM AND POPULAR NEWSPAPERS

EXTRA (Globo Group) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is a great example of how a popular newspaper can be a good newspaper and do serious journalism.

Like this almost “show, don’t tell” front page.

Just the facts, just the pictures and a compelling headline.

Well done!

September 23 2010

18:04

Opinions are supported by facts…

…not just another opinion.

What brought this on? A query for help with Final Cut Express and media management from a sports videographer who was ALREADY doing it right. He just needed help with a couple of tweaks in color correction, but for some reason thought he was doing it wrong.

Folks searching for the perfect camera for whatever mission in life they have – looking for a recommendation, rather than doing some thinking and research.

I’m finding more and more that folks don’t need advice as much as reassurance or direction. I WILL NOT make recommendations for gear for others. It’s easier to explain my logic, how to think through the requirements needed for the job, and how to research. So whatever you see on this site is what works for ME. Not you. That’s like saying, “I like your shirt.” and buying the identical shirt in the same size and color – no matter that you’re smaller and the color makes you look like an aging corpse.

When I have an opinion I also try to support it with FACTS. Such as, I like “such and such a camera” because (add facts in here). The facts might be a long lens for wildlife work, low light ability for shooting inside, a combination of cost and functions that make it a good deal despite it not having everything I want or need.

Reminds me a a freshman I once tried to teach how to write an editorial for the school newspaper. First she had to come up with a topic – and she chose abortion. Then state her opinion: abortion is wrong. The support with facts: because it is bad. Uh…let’s try again. Facts: my parents and church tell me its wrong. This went on for quite a while, with me trying and trying to explain that a fact is solid and does not change.

As in: abortion is wrong because it is murder. Murder is defined as the taking of human life.
Or: abortion should be a personal choice because women are not slaves (slavery is illegal) and should not be told how to manage their own bodies. (only with more details and force)

So if you want help, first follow these simple steps:
1. Define what you want or need to know
2. Make a list of the essentials of what you want/need to know (these are not extras/this list should only include the absolutes of what you need to get the job done or make a decision)
3. Research and choose the top two or four or whatever
4. Make a decision

Good luck.


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