Likelihood of Success

Ron Coleman’s pretty good blog

Journalism: More than ever, not what you think

Posted by Ron Coleman on August 19, 2007

Oh, we’ve said for a long time that journalism is something you do, not something you are. But now the returns are in, and something else that bloggers have been saying all along is also true: Journalism, at least at newspapers (that’s the “mainstream press,” folks), is mostly something you do wrong:

The average newspaper should expand by a factor of 50 the amount of space given to corrections if Scott R. Maier’s research is any guide.

Maier, an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, describes in a forthcoming research paper his findings that fewer than 2 percent of factually flawed articles are corrected at dailies.

Everyone — all people, bar none — who has ever been interviewed or quoted in a newspaper has been misquoted, and not just once. (That certainly includes me.) Even assuming good faith, papers and magazines are just not particularly reliable. Neither are most sources of second- and third-hand information. This includes blogs, of course; and especially anonymous blogs.

This is not the same as asserting, however, that everything you know is wrong, i.e., in preposterous conspiracy theories are the “real truth.” These are always a lot wronger than even the accepted truth, and even when they do stumble on a legitimate truth being ignored by the mainstream, it has made some very smelly friends in the meantime.

Rather it is a formula for mature skepticism and a commitment to form one’s opinions about facts (for objectivity is subjective, after all) from a variety of fundamentally trustworthy sources, and then to align one’s views squarely, and accurately, with mine.

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4 Responses to “Journalism: More than ever, not what you think”

  1. Jack. said

    “Rather it is a formula for mature skepticism and a commitment to form one’s opinions about facts (for objectivity is subjective, after all) from a variety of fundamentally trustworthy sources, and then to align one’s views squarely, and accurately, with mine.”

    Well, nobody’s perfect.
    But if it comes right down to it, I’m with you: : “Journalism, at least at newspapers (that’s the “mainstream press,” folks), is mostly something you do wrong”

    That’s a funny line too, by the way.

  2. Bob Miller said

    When I was a kid (1950’s and 60’s), my parents bought three dailies, the NY Herald Tribune (Republican orientation), the NY Post (Democratic), and the Staten Island Advance. The idea behind buying the first two was to get opposing perspectives; the third was for local news. Few cities now even have a Republican paper.

    In high school, I took an elective English course in journalism. One fun assignment was writing two news articles on the same topic, one in the NY Times style and one in the NY Daily News style. While there was not nearly as much overt editorializing in news articles as now, each paper had its own way of handling news. During that time, I also began buying occasional copies of the National Review, New Republic, and The Reporter (Max Ascoli) to get different slants on things.

    Another interesting class exercise was to attempt an interview by mail with a famous person. Not all of our subjects wanted to play ball. One kid got a response from Jules Feiffer. One of his questions to Feiffer was something like “What benefit, if any, did you derive from the NYC school system?” Feiffer wrote a big zero next to the question.

  3. Hi Ron,
    This is a valuable piece of research. I offer these observations:
    1. Much of the information about journalistic wrongdoing is revealed by journalists. I submit that means that as flawed as the practice of journalism is, there are many who do care about getting it right.

    2. Your observation about the nature of journalism has, as I’m sure you know, been endorsed by the Society or Professional Journalists.

    3. According to the book, The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and What the Public Should Expect, it’s understood that journalists are people with human biases. The goal, insofar as it’s possible, is to employ objective methods. Newsroom cutbacks limit the ability to do that well, but that’s the ideal.

    4. If you haven’t read it, David Mindich’s “Just the Facts” is a great read on the way in which the concept of journalistic objectivity came about in the 19th century. It has some critics — most notably for me, Michael Robertson, who writes about fact-fiction discourse in the early 20th century in his book on stephen Crane, but I think it makes a strong argument.

  4. Great to hear from you, Kim, after all these years!

    I do think we all benefit from the removal of mythic verity once (and probably only in the last 50-75 years) imputed to journalists. I wish I could agree with what I think is your thesis that journalists themselves know they’re only human, too. I think what comes across among mainstream press reporters is that they ascribe mythic quality to the institutions with which they are affiliated (you and I both know a little about that!), which in turn reflects, they believe, on them and their work.

    Dan Rather’s typewriter adventures are almost too easy as proof, but they are what they are: No reality could disabuse him from the notion that his story, notwithstanding objective (yes!) truth, was “accurate,” and to this day he believes that. Such cognitive dissonance can only be the result, I think, of a sort of journalistic delusion of grandeur which, perhaps, the next generation will not share.

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