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Jay Rosen on Political Journalism, Blogs and Truth-telling

Jay Rosen offers a preview of the chapter he’s writing for our book… which I suspect is, in part, a preview of the book he’s working on. He explains that, historically, much of the literature about journalism focuses on “the sociology of the newsroom”, looking at how news actually gets made by journalists. Something that becomes abundantly clear from these works is that “mainstream journalists work under vastly imperfect conditions” – under tight deadlines, often with little background knowledge of a story, frequently with difficult editorial constraints.

Jay believes that the overwhelming emotion most journalists feel is “the fear of getting it wrong.” As a response to the perpetual fear of being wrong, journalists have stopped taking responsibility for the truth claims of their reports, just that they’ve followed the rituals correctly: “We called you for your reaction on the story. We followed our rules.” These rituals – many of which focus on reporting what a person said without an analysis of whether it’s factually correct – are designed to prove “the political innocence of the press”.

Jay contends that all political journalists work basically the same way. This results in “he said, she said” coverage, and “horserace coverage” of political races. It also leads to an “inside baseball” mentality , which doesn’t claim to tell people what’s true, what’s important or what they care about… but what the inside players are saying and doing.

Jay believes that mainstream journalists have their own ideology. It’s not left or right, but “savvy”. The “savvy ideology” includes the beliefs that surfaces are always misleading, that one needs to dig to find the actual stories, that the public is manipulable, and therefore polling and campaigning are important and worth explaining. Savviness allows journalists to be knowledgable but politically innocent, staying within their rituals of objectivity.

Jay feels that several factors have recently make the constraints on mainstream political journalism untenable. One is the fact that some journalists became pundits, making it clear that they were not, in fact, politically neutral. Another is the fact that political operatives understand the rituals of journalism and manipulate them, releasing bad news on Fridays, for instance – this has made political journalism even less effective in communicating realities, and more a tool of communicating manufactured perceptions.

Jay believes that blogs became such a powerful force in political discourse because because political journalism is so constrained. Journalists can’t evaluate truth claims – bloggers can. Journalists aren’t permitted (or don’t permit themselves) to go beyond the usual suspects – bloggers can and do. Journalists have to represent themselves as free of political bias – bloggers don’t and are transparent about their biases.

Jay believes that by 2000, political journalists were incapable of truth telling. Bloggers could tell the truth, and therefore become powerful. It’s not that journalists don’t know the truth, Jay believes – they simply can’t deal with the implications of speaking that truth.

Another reason Jay thinks political bloggers are powerful is that they serve as a “court of appeals” regarding media attention. If a story doesn’t make it big within 24 hours, it traditionally dies in mainstream media. Blogs can overturn the judgement of the lower court of mainstream media and give new life to a spiked story.

(I like this analogy a great deal, in no small part because it implies that there are other stories that never get a hearing in lower court. We can’t blame bloggers for failing to amplify news from some parts of Africa if those stories are never reported in the first place.)

Daniel Drezner observes that blogs are only one of several responses to the sclerosis of political journalism Jay is describing, including talk radio and opinion journalism. Are blogs unusually successful as compared to these other reactions?

Jay suggests that bloggers are skilled in the new medium of writing on the web. Writing on the web requires writing with hyperlinks, which is a surprisingly difficult art – bloggers are more skilled at this new technique than offline writers, wich implies they’ll be more effective communicators in this new medium.

The question that I’d love Jay to answer, but I don’t think I can ask in this setting: is there an optimistic vision for political journalism that involves truth-telling, in the way that blogs tell the truth? Can journalism survive this revolution, or does the rise of the blog signify the death of political journalism?

13 thoughts on “Jay Rosen on Political Journalism, Blogs and Truth-telling”

  1. Thoughts…
    Truth, in journalism, is rarely a verifiable number. Clearly, media can be misused, in many ways, and the sublest may be the most terrifying. But using it correctly is a less a question of “getting it right” than of balance.

    As I learned it, telling the truth in journalism meant getting as large a perspective on the question as possible. In political reporting, the question was usually a variation on ‘X wants Y to happen’, and Y was rarely as simple as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (if I thought it was, I knew I had to be careful of myself.) Y had costs and benefits, and it was my job to give as accurate an accounting of them as I could.

    That isn’t a question of “getting it right,” and in my small circle, I never met a reporter who would have called it that. It’s a weighing that can be as complex as you have time for. Few costs and benefits measure easily, and most opinions have evidence of some kind to back them. Occasionally someone gets stupid and lies on record, and the reporter can prove that the cement plant really did own the backhoe that illegally dug up the wetland. Far more often, it’s a question of priorities: increase taxes and your elderly neighbor has to move; level fund them and the school loses a phys ed teacher.

    It was my job to balance other people’s opinions, and often diametrically opposite opinions both have facts on their sides. A reporter who digs to find a story is in fact doing the work of getting past poses and platitudes for an accurate assessment of costs and benefits. Digging means looking for facts to back up or disprove conflicting claims. (They don’t need to dig to report false facts or parade a story with false drama. I’m lousy at digging, by the way. I hated pressing people to talk. I always hoped if I listened well enough, I wouldn’t have to.)

    Aside from the difficulty of giving this kind of balanced account… unbalanced accounts catch the attention. Any Harry Potter fan can tell you that injustice is compelling. So yes, reporters look for ‘questions’ or ‘issues’. A reporter gets hammered with the need to tell you, right off, why you should bother reading the story. Not (in theory) why the writer finds the plan to renovate the school building or the election reform or the tax bill relevant, but why whoever picks up the paper, regardless of their position or politics, finds it important. Of course writers have biases and newspapers have target audiences. I’m not arguing that the news is clean, only that it’s (in theory) written in the third person.

    I’m thinking that one of the many reasons blogs have power is that they have a first person. Bloggers make no bones about telling you who they are and why they care. They don’t claim to give all sides of an argument (or they don’t have to; there’s no reason why a blogger can’t write as a reporter, but I’m following the distinction above). They give whatever sides they find compelling. That sense of first person can give perspective on their opinions. They do also present readers with the challenge of evaluating the writer as well as the writing.

    Political Journalism is not (worse luck) both “dead” and immensely powerful. I think challenges to it and the persuasive expression of many opinions are all to the good. New voices that reveal assumpptions we don’t know we make are crucial. I’m not convinced that our current journalism is moribund, but blogs are already changing it — as you argue. Sources like the BBC may get perspective from blogs and give blogs greater range. I think until people read blogs the way they read the paper, casually, daily, all of us, newspapers aren’t going anywhere. I’m comforted that independent thought is so blessedly hard to crush.

  2. This is a good analysis. It explains why I really don’t rely on the US mainstream media much anymore. It’s like journalism and more like a transcription service. “The president said this, but Democrats countered that. The end.”

  3. I have not yet read Jay’s chapter, but I’ve been dropping into Pressthink (Jay’s blog) for a year or so. I think you’ve distilled the essence of Jay Rosen.

    You ask, “. . . is there an optimistic vision for political journalism that involves truth-telling, in the way that blogs tell the truth?” I think we’ve seen it in the news blogs at nola.com and, to a lesser extent, in the other Katrina coverage. Katrina reporters were the opposite of embedded. (Imagine what we’d have heard and seen if reporters were required to ride in police cars and bunk with the troopers.) They had to survive in the same environment they were reporting on. Sure, Katrina is a different event than the daily sausage mill of politics . . . but you were asking for an optimistic *vision*, right?

  4. I take Kate’s point that working conditions are difficult for most mainstream media journalists. You have to be a dabbler in everything but master of nothing. If you make a mistake, then you get slammed. Even if you don’t make a mistake, you may get slammed by people embarassed by what THEY actually said or did. But I just don’t find the transcription service model to be of any value to me as a consumer/citizen.

  5. And I take your point, Brian, that a story that does nothing but furnish opposite opinions doesn’t give a smart reader much to work with. If a reporter weighted one side of a story heavily, readers would accuse her of bias — and they’d be right. At best, I think, “neutral” reporting can try to report whatever hard facts exist along with a range of opinions and can try to put both in context. I think any attempt at truth in writing needs range and context. Too much of them can make a story as meaningless as too little.

    Done well, if it can be done well, reporting’s more translation than transcription: not just mimicking what they said, but showing what they mean. Interpreting one speaker’s words in the light of numbers, or of another speaker’s words, or in the light of context — and not based on your own opinions — gets shaky, even in the abstract. It’s one thing, I think, to deny that you have biases, and another to try to account for them, as it’s oen thing to claim I ‘know’ anyone else’s story and another to claim I have no right or responsibility to try to understand or to tell it. I’m thinking about htese distinctions, not trying to pass judgment on them.

    I worked at it (clearly I have my share of biases) and I liked some of the work and disliked some of it. Also, while a story may not be able to get it right, I’m not disputing that a story can absolutely get it wrong. I think mainstream journalism deserves as close an examination as critical intelligence can give it; it its worth anything, it’ll stand up to it, and if not, then let it change.

  6. “Bloggers could tell the truth, and therefore become powerful.”

    I assume this is an inaccurate gloss, because it’s stark raving nonsense. A glimpse at the top, “powerful” blogs, does bring to mind “most truthful”.

    But note, who would say such a thing? A political partisan (of any stripe). Thus:

    Bloggers could be more PARTISAN, and therefore become powerful.

    Very different implications!

  7. It was certainly a summary, Seth, but I hope not an inaccurate gloss – I’d encourage you to ask Jay whether or not I got it right. Jay appeared to be making the argument that political reporters understood when a political speaker was saying nonsense, but were bound by the rituals of the journalistic trade from saying that a statement was untrue. Jay feels that one of the reasons (not the only reason – you’re right, that’s a gloss) bloggers became increasingly compelling is that they were unafraid of saying that they thought something a politician siad was inaccurate, untrue or unsupportable.

    David, I’m largely with you on the Katrina analogy. I think a number of readers were impressed the extent to which reporters challenged the statements of politicians around Katrina. A form of political journalism that had the resources and access that news networks have, plus the willingness to challenge statements made by politicians and others would be, I think, the foundation for a very optimistic picture of a future of journalism.

    Kate, it’s always wonderful to see how long-time journalists react to Jay’s critiques. He will happily admit that he’s spent far more time as a critic of journalism than as a practicing journalist. I think Jay’s in agreement with you that journalism, ideally, is about truth telling, and that it needs to be translation, not transcription – I think Jay’s critique of political journalism is that it’s far too often uncritical transcription. Furthermore, Jay (I think) believes that political journalists have lost some credibility by transcribing statements that are demonstrably untrue without challenging them – he’d argue that the rituals of political journalism neccesitate this, even if they damage journalism’s truth-telling function.

  8. One answer to the question

    “Can journalism survive this revolution, or does the rise of the blog signify the death of political journalism?”

    seems rather obvious: as long as blogging remains derivative of actual reporting, in a relationship analogous to that between criticism and art, journalism can’t die. To break free of that dependency, bloggers would need to start producing their own news regularly, but that takes money, resources, and time–in other words, it takes a salary. So unless large numbers of news consumers are willing to pay to see bloggers permanently depose the MSM, I think we’ll continue to see variations on the symbiotic relationship we’ve grown to know and love. Either way, it looks like the American media landscape has already started moving toward something like Northern Europe with its partisan papers–unabashedly biased, with most people exclusively consuming their own ideologically homogeneous media.

  9. Ethan: Ah, thanks. I’d say the problem is that “willingness to take sides” is not equivalent to “tell the truth” – in fact, that’s a very important distinction.

    Anyway, I wrote there:

    “Jay, after pondering certain minor mysteries at length, I’ve come to think your difficulty (not problem, but, as we see above, difficultly) is a recursive instance of the problem you outline yourself.

    That is, you talk of “the proceduralism in the “he said, she said” style of reporting … that mainstream journalists must try to persuade us of their political innocence …”. I suggest you have a very similar difficulty, roughly “the proceduralism in the academic style of humanities discourse … that mainstream professors must try to persuade us of their political innocence …”

    I would summarize the point I see you trying to make as:

    “Bloggers could be PARTISAN HACKS, and therefore become powerful.”

    Short, simple, very clear. But harsh.

    No criticism intended. I’m describing what I hope is an insight.”

  10. So were the (very profitable) muckrackers partisan hacks because they didn’t give equal time to Boss Tweed? The difficulty modern journalism has (as well elucidated in this post) is its starting assumption of a relativistic worldview and a consequent need to fit the facts to the view.

    The result is a blindness to the actual evil readers confront in their everyday lives and a disconnect from readers’ needs. The market spurs the journalist to grope toward what the reader wants, contorting themselves to maintain their worldview while at the same time ginning up controversy, but the most pressing evils are avoided as they present too much of a threat to the worldview itself.

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